Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Crawling Geek

Adding a bit to the overall mystery of Stonehenge comes the fact that in ancient times it may have been a tourist destination - at least it was a place people from quite some distance came to see.
Studies of the skeleton of an adolescent boy from some 3,500 years ago found near the site suggest that he traveled all the way from the Mediterranean - potentially Italy, Spain or southern France - to the southwest of England. ...

Another body found near the famous stone complex has been identified as coming from the German Alpine foothills some 800 years earlier.
So over 4,000 years ago, not only was Stonehenge being put to some actual use but knowedge of it was spread wide enough that people traveled halfway across Europe to be there.

Knowledge of the skeletons themselves was not new - the boy was found five years ago and the German before that - but determining where they came from, is.
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. ...

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. So 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.

By combining the techniques, archaeologists can gather data pointing to regions where a person may have been raised.
One interesting thing is that both skeletons seem to indicate the presence of some sort of illness or injury. The boy died at 14 or 15 and since the article makes no mention of the skeleton bearing marks of violence, he apparently died young of some sickness.
The German seems to have suffered from a painful leg condition.

It may be that Stonehenge was a center of healing, drawing people from across Europe in search of cures....

Nobody is quite sure what the site was used for. It could have been a religious site built by sun worshipers, since the axis that runs through the center of the stone circle aligns with the midsummer sunrise.
Actually, it doesn't anymore due to Earth's precession of the equinoxes, but it did a few thousand years ago. Personally and in what is hardly an unshared opinion, I think part of the problem of "what was Stonehenge used for" is that is was used for different things by different people over the 1500 or so years in which the site was in use.
Whatever drew these ancient travelers to the location, they certainly weren't budget travelers. The boy was found with a 90-piece amber necklace, while the German had copper daggers and gold hair clasps.

"People who can get these rare and exotic materials are people of some importance," Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archeology told BBC News.
So were they seeking some sort of medical miracle? Was this a Bronze Age Lourdes? Or were they each on some (very) early version of The Grand Tour who just happened to die while they were there?

Questions are cool.

Footnote: Major props to the first one who can identify the source, the theme if you will, that provides the titles of a number of the science posts, marked by use of the word "geek" somewhere in the title.

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