• Andzia Stout

The Boy with the Amber Necklace

The "Boy with the Amber Necklace," as he is known to archaeologists, was found in 2005, about 5km south-east of Stonehenge, England on Boscombe Down. The remains of the teenager were discovered next to a Bronze Age burial mound, during roadworks for military housing.

"He's around 14 or 15 years old and he's buried with this beautiful necklace," said Professor Jane Evans, head of archaeological science for the British Geological Survey. "The position of his burial, the fact he's near Stonehenge, and the necklace all suggest he's of significant status." Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, of Wessex Archaeology, backed this interpretation: "Amber necklaces are not common finds," he told BBC News in remarks made to the news organization. "Most archaeologists would say that when you find burials like this... people who have these rare and exotic materials are people of some importance."

"The position of his burial, the fact he's near Stonehenge, and the necklace all suggest he's of significant status."

Chemical record

Tooth enamel forms in a child's first few years, so it stores a chemical record of the environment in which the individual grew up. Chemical tests on teeth from an ancient burial near Stonehenge indicate that the boy with the amber necklace grew up around the Mediterranean Sea. The bones belong to the teenager who died 3,550 years ago, who visited Stonehenge. At the time of the young boy's visit Stonehenge was already at least 1500 years old. The boy's virtually intact skeleton was discovered at Boscombe Down, a mile from Stonehenge, by Wessex Archaeology during a housing development. The remains were radiocarbon dated to around 1550BC – a time when the monument was already more than 1500 years old.

The conclusions come from analysis of different forms of the elements oxygen and strontium in his tooth enamel. Two chemical elements found in enamel - oxygen and strontium - exist in different forms, or isotopes. The ratios of these isotopes found in enamel are particularly informative to archaeologists.

Most oxygen in teeth and bone comes from drinking water - which is itself derived from rain or snow.

In warm climates, drinking water contains a higher ratio of heavy oxygen (O-18) to light oxygen (O-16) than in cold climates. Comparing the oxygen isotope ratio in teeth with that of drinking water from different regions can provide information about the climate in which a person was raised.

Most rocks carry a small amount of the element strontium (Sr), and the ratio of strontium 87 and strontium 86 isotopes varies according to local geology. The isotope ratio of strontium in a person's teeth can provide information on the geological setting where that individual lived in childhood. In this case the isotope tests concluded that the boy was from the Mediterranean.

"At the time when the boy with the amber necklace was buried, there were really no new technologies coming into Britain... We need to turn to look at why groups of people - because this is a youngster - made these long journeys. Dr. Fitzpatrick speculated: "They may have been travelling within family groups... they may be coming to visit Stonehenge because it was an incredibly famous and important place, as it is today. But we don't know the answer."

The teenager is believed to have been part of a wealthy group that travelled 1,600 miles from southern Europe to Britain, taking in the stone circle along the way. His find is thought to be important because it is likely he was too young to travel on his own and was probably part of a large family group. He is the third ancient foreigner to be found near the World Heritage Site in the last few years, but the other two were grown men thought to be tradesman or warriors.

His discovery further suggests that the stone circle would have been a place of pilgrimage or sightseeing akin to a medieval cathedral as long as 4,000 years ago. "They may have come to Britain for different reasons, but Stonehenge would have been well known across Europe – rather like a medieval cathedral," said Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, part of Wessex Archaeology who made the find. "They may have come to trade but visited Stonehenge along the way. It would have been one of the greatest temples of its time."

The boy – aged 14 or 15 – had travelled to Britain from Spain, Italy, Greece or France, crossing the English Channel in a primitive wooden boat or canoe around 1550BC. Unfortunately, he died – from illness or accident - and was buried in a primitive grave around two miles away from Stonehenge wearing an expensive and rare amber necklace. Dubbed the Boy with the Amber Necklace he is the third long distance traveler to be found near the monument since digging started at nearby Boscombe Down Airbase

Archaeologists have previously shown that the Amesbury Archer – a man buried with a treasure trove of copper and gold and discovered in 2002 – was born in the German Alps. They also believe that the Boscombe Bowmen – a group of seven men, women and children found the following year – originated from Wales or Brittany. All three – found buried along with dozens of locals – are thought to have been members of an elite of society as they all had valuable possessions. The origins of the three travelers were discovered thanks to chemical analysis of their teeth which can pinpoint the climate and terrain of where they lived when they were growing up.

Professor Jane Evans, of the British Geological Survey, who carried out the research, said that she believed that the monument would have been as awe-inspiring as Westminster Abbey or the launch of a Space Shuttle. "It must have been an incredible structure when it was built," she said. "They would have come to stare in amazement." Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology, said that families and tradesmen travelling to Britain would have taken time to see Stonehenge. "They would have made a detour to see what would have been a wonder of its time."

Professor Jane Evans used a slither of tooth enamel – the size of a nail clipping – to trace his origins. By analyzing the ratio of two different forms or 'isotopes' of oxygen, Prof Evans found that the boy came from a warmer climate. And an isotopic comparison of the mineral strontium, which is absorbed by the body from plants, revealed that he came from the Mediterranean

Professor Evans, of the British Geological Survey, who carried out the research, said that she believed that the monument would have been as awe-inspiring as Westminster Abbey or the launch of a Space Shuttle. "It must have been an incredible structure when it was built," she said. "They would have come to stare in amazement."

The amber to make the beads almost certainly came from the Baltic Sea. I'd like to add my point of view here, for what it is worth. Were the beads part of a trade or purchase made in the Mediterranean or perhaps, picked up along the way to Stonehenge? All told there were 90 large beads in the necklace. It was not something that everyday people wore when they were out and about. Could they have been a gift to a prestigious family, or an heirloom passed on to the next in line? Was the status of the Boy so elevated that the amber necklace remained his in death as well as life? Perhaps the necklace was given to him in death by a grieving elder, heartbroken over the loss of the one who would have been a future Lord or King.

Could the family group the Boy was part of, brought him expressly to Stonehenge for a healing or a special rite of passage? Could the Boy have been a sacrificial lamb for the family's higher purpose? Was the Boy possibly a promised groom to a daughter of a prominent family hoping to create an alliance? They do not quite fit in as wanderers; they seem to have had a distinct destination in mind. And the means to make that destination a reality.

And what of the poor mother, leaving her son behind in a faraway land with only the comfort and protection of his amber necklace. Undoubtedly, he was the light of her life. Did the family leave England after the lad's passing or continue on to other glorious sites? Did they make the 1600-mile journey back to their roots in the Mediterranean? How did they come to possess the precious necklace? So many questions and so many stories intertwine around the Boy with the Amber Necklace. At the moment, it sparks our imagination with thoughts of travel, ancient history, mystery and myth.

It's been said many times, and I honestly believe it is true - amber has powers that are for our own good but has yet to give up all her secrets.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope it lit up your imagination as much as it did mine.

--Andzia Chmil Stout

February 2022

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All