Oral storytelling is a funny thing it shifts and changes as time goes on, slowly transforming into myth with each telling. Some of the oldest stories such as King Arthur are examples of this process. Sure, King Arthur and his knights of the round table are fictional. What is debated though is weather the characters in these classic and well-known tales were amalgams of real people known in history. The one exception might be Merlin. Surely there was no known magicians in history – or were there? In this episode, I introduce you to some of my ancestors, I believe were some of the many magicians who helped to build Stonehenge, acting as a real-life Merlin straight out of Medieval legends about Stonehenge.
Welcome to the Maple Family Treehouse, I am Kael, your host. I am in search of the migration stories in my family tree, which have been surprisingly diverse and varied. The story I will share with you today will certainly add to that diversity. The story, of the Boscombe Bowmen. A group of men credited with helping to build Stonehenge will reveal some of the purposes and functions the megalithic structure had in the lives of people 1000s of years ago as they transition from a life of hunting and gathering to a more agrarian lifestyle.
Ancient sacred sites have always fascinated me. One of the oldest relics of the past around my town are burial mounds in and around Detroit Michigan. Growing up it was difficult for me to comprehend that an artifact could be so old we collectively have no understanding of its meaning, or significance. What I know now, is that the wonder and imagination the mounds conjured was itself a gift. A gift that instills an appreciation that precious memories we want to preserve require a conscious effort to encode and share. For a long time, I was content to keep a slowly growing digital family tree with its respective names and dates attached to documentary evidence. What really changed my understanding of my family though was putting together stories with the intention of sharing them and passing them on – keeping them in my family’s memory.
So, what is it about story that transforms information into something with cultural and personal meaning, something we are drawn to intuitively, something we more easily attend to, and remember? I think it is thousands of years of oral cultures that have hardwired our brains to attend and remember stories.
Like the sacred burial mounds across the river in my hometown here in Canada, Stonehenge is a call from the past, spoken to me through the Boscombe Bowmen, a group of men in my ancient family tree.
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I mentioned a few episodes ago that I used an online service to compare my genome data with the genome data and DNA from archeological sites around the world. One of the strongest genetic connections was to some of the burials found around Stonehenge. One of those burials contained seven men referred to as the Boscombe Bowmen[i].
In this unusual mass grave, there were three adult males, a teenage male and three children. The burial rites were unusual to say the least. In the bronze age, beaker period people were buried individually or sometimes in pairs. Another factor that sets the grave apart is the arrangement of the bodies. Yes, they were arranged because it was not their original resting place. One of the children was placed there after most of their remains were cremated. Others were placed around the remains of the oldest male, their bones loosely clustered together with their skulls at the foot of the grave. They all had similar features and similar skeletal variants, such as Wormian bones in their skulls.
The grave seems to be a mash-up of stone age and metal age rites and rituals. The mass grave is something you might see in the stone age, and the size of the grave is like metal age burials for a single person.
An analysis of their teeth indicates that the men were from the Lake District and north Wales and south-west Wales. It is not only possible to show that the Bowmen were in one of these places in Wales when they were very young, it can be shown that they migrated at specific times in their lives. The chemical fingerprints of each Bowman are identical, their premolars and their 3rd molar indicate migration at a particular stage of growth, and hence age.
The men were in one place up to the age of 6 and in another up to the age of 13. The second place may also have been in Wales. It was not in Wessex. The chemical fingerprint of both places is different to that of the chalk geology of Wessex.[ii]
Either the Bowmen all moved at the same time over many years, or their society regularly moved children between the age of 6 and 13 to live in a different place. They moved nearer to Stonehenge later in their life.
But why Stonehenge? To answer that question, we could consider some of the proposed theories about how Stonehenge was used by the people who lived at the time. You might be familiar with some of these theories such as, rites and rituals associated to natural cycles such as seasons or even deaths. I personally like a recent theory proposed by Lynne Kelly.[iii] According to Kelly, the gradual shift from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the more settled agricultural one, was the main reason we see these monolithic structures emerge across the world. In a hunter-gather society, travelling across a familiar landscape during celestial and seasonal cycles lent itself to encoding essential information and stories from ancestors who travelled along paths in the very landscape they walked through year after year for generations.
What a revelation Kelly’s explanation was to me, and maybe it is to you as well. I mean, think about it, think about a town you have lived in for many years, maybe it is the town you grew up in, if you were to walk, bike ride, or drive around that town, you might see the house you grew up in, the elementary school you attended, the park where you and your friends played, the movie theatre where you went on your first date. And as you pass by these physical markers of not only the physical landscape you live in but the markers of your own history as it was lived by you, and as you looked at these markers, you could easily recall the stories associated with those locations. Now imagine, you are a hunter-gatherer and your travel routes that follow the herds were the same year after year, and the places along the route marked essential knowledge like, medicinal plants, or plants you should avoid, trees that can serve as good materials for building shelter or fires. Where animals like to shelter, feed, and stop along their own migration routes. These are not just happy memories; they are essential to survival. And you might think to yourself well if they are growing crops now, they do not need that information. But they did, the transition from hunting and gathering was slow. As knowledge and understanding of agriculture grew, a community could gradually rely on hunting and gathering in the traditional sense, less and less, but it took generations to make the complete transition, and even then, hunting and gathering was still needed, just on a smaller, more local scale. And because of your limited range of resources, you might rely on trade with other communities you no longer see as much. You would need a point of contact for that trade. And when those meetings occur, there is sharing of not only goods, but sharing of stories from the past, how things are changing, how other communities are coping with the changes, what is working, what is not working, and why.
A structure like Stonehenge as a memory device and meeting place becomes an essential element in the ability to transition to a completely new way of life, an agrarian life.
Stonehenge was the answer to the growing problem of cultural continuity and the knowledge for survival it brings with it. Stonehenge was a memory space that would act as a physical marker and connection to the past. Physical markers that would act in much the same way as landmarks on seasonal pathways of the hunter-gathers. Markers that would not only mark the life journey of people, but the natural cycles as well. In short, Lynne Kelly, Author of the book, Memory Code, suggests that Stonehenge was constructed, maintained, and adjusted over time, to keep vital information alive to the surrounding communities whose way of life was changing. Stonehenge was a new technology, a memory strategy, that had to be shared with other communities, and it was for 50 – 60 generations while a new way of life was taking hold.
Other evidence pushes this theory even further to suggest that the chosen location of Stonehenge might also be an ancient gathering spot. The open range landscape at Stonehenge attracted herd animals. Archeologist Michael Parker Pearson, who has studied 3 postholes close to Stonehenge. I know, postholes but wait here is what makes these finds interesting; the postholes are about one meter in diameter, and they were constructed 5000 years before Stonehenge – during the Mesolithic era of hunter-gatherers. This is completely unheard of. We are talking the time of Cheddar Man. And it is thought that these giant pillars were erected to mark the place where herds of oryx and deer gathered.[iv] It makes sense then that this location may have been chosen for Stonehenge if it was a common meeting point for hunter-gatherer communities for thousands of years prior to Stonehenge. And the archeological evidence has survived, not in the same way as the stone monuments but the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.
After the last ice age, much of Briton became a woodland. Open areas like Salisbury plain would act as a natural gathering spot for herds. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers migrated with herds to Salisbury plains. It became an important landmark in their own lives, but also culturally since it drew people together as well as animals. The natural landmarks became more sacred as shifts took place to more settled living. But again, it was not an instantaneous shift, it spanned over 50-60 generations. And if Kelly’s theory of a memory place is correct, and perhaps the migration itself also took on sacred meaning.
Dr. Christie Willis, an Osteologist who has studied most of the human remains found at Stonehenge, states that there plenty of evidence that people who travelled to Stonehenge from Wales, did so frequently. There were strong connections between Stonehenge and the people who lived in Wales at the time.[v] The evidence from the burial the Boscombe Bowmen illustrate this too.
What about the stones though? How do they fit in? Maybe the myth and folklore surrounding Stonehenge has evidence to offer too.
Up until the 1800’s one popular origin story for Stonehenge was that Merlin the magician (yes, the character from Arthurian legends), used his magical powers to move and arrange the large Sarsen Stones to Amesbury.[vi]
The Sarsen stones do in fact come from Marlborough to the North, and the bluestones come from Wales, West of Stonehenge.[vii]
According to WESSEX Archaeology, research to date on the Boscombe Bowmen suggest that the families of the Boscombe Bowmen brought the bluestones with their own hands.
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It seems more and more likely that the builders of Stonehenge transformed a timber monument to one in stone by bringing the stones back from the route of their voyages to an island of metals. An island that lay where the sun set in a blaze of copper gold.[viii]
So, like the Merlin in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the Boscombe Bowmen came from Wales and transformed a sacred place bringing stone to a land of metal. Given the tools and implements that were found with the Boscombe Bowmen, they likely transformed metals into tools and possibly other wares. One possible meaning of the word magic is the ability to transform something into a completely different object. At the beginning of the bronze age, the Boscombe Bowmen would have been magical indeed. So, is Merlin in my family tree? I like to think so.
[i]mytrueancestry.com results as of January 2, 2022: Boscombe Bowmen Amesbury I2416-BB (2300 BC) mtDNA Haplogroup: K1b1a1 and Y-DNA Haplogroup: R1b1a1b1a1 (P310/PF6546/S129) Deep Dive Match! 93% closer than others who share this deep dive sample [ii] The Boscombe Bowmen, retrieved on January 2, 2022, https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/our-work/boscombe-bowmen [iii] Kelly, Lynne (2017) The Memory Code. Pegasus Books. https://www.amazon.ca/Memory-Code-Secrets-Stonehenge-Monuments/dp/1681773252 [iv] Mystic Briton. Season 1 Episode 9: Secrets of Stonehenge. Interview with Mike Parker Pearson (Interview begins at 14 minutes and 56 seconds into the episode) [v] Mystic Briton. Season 1, Episode 9: Secrets of Stonehenge. Interview with Christie Willis (Interview begins at 11 minutes, 30 seconds into the episode) [vi] Stonehenge. Retrieved on January 3, 2022. https://voicesfromthedawn.com/stonehenge/ [vii] The Boscombe Bowmen, retrieved on January 3, 2022, https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/our-work/boscombe-bowmen [viii] The Boscombe Bowmen, Retrieved on January 2, 2022, https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/our-work/boscombe-bowmen