Stonehenge Man: not just a pretty face ~ Sandrine Ceurstemont, NEW SCIENTIST.
Forensic analysis of a prehistoric skull gives the UK’s most iconic monument a human face!
TOURISTS entering English Heritage’s new £27 million visitor centre at Stonehenge will quickly confront its most spectacular exhibit – a man who was born 500 years before the earliest stone monument appeared at the site.
He may have a touch of Hollywood about him, but this “Stonehenge Man” was once real. His face has been reconstructed from a 5500-year-old skeleton found in the area. Local protest groups continue to press for him to be reburied, but forensic analysis has allowed scientists to create the most lifelike model yet of an individual from British prehistory. Their work reveals how he lived and ate, and may even shed light on the origins of Stonehenge itself.
The well-preserved skeleton was discovered in an elaborate tomb in the 1860s, providing a rare example of the anatomy of Neolithic people. His face has been brought to life by Swedish sculptor Oscar Nilsson, using information from bone and tooth analyses. The length of the man’s bones, the skeleton’s weight and his age – estimated at between 25 and 40 years old – were used to determine the thickness of the skin on his face and muscle definition.
Nilsson used a vinyl copy of the skull, made by Andrew Wilson at the University of Bradford, UK, as a base for his clay reconstruction of muscles, guided by markers denoting the fleshiness of the face. He created moulded silicon skin and added pigment before punching in the hair.
Ridges on the skull reveal that this man was muscular – which is not surprising given the Neolithic lifestyle. He had highly masculine features, such as a well-defined chin and jawbone. “I had to give him a beard – there were no razors then,” says Nilsson.
Human skeletal biologist Simon Mays from the University of Southampton, UK, was unable to deduce the cause of death from the skeleton and he speculates that Stonehenge Man died of an infectious disease that killed too quickly to leave a trace on bones. Mays did, however, find two leg wounds: a deep muscle injury and a bony projection.
Tooth analysis by Alistair Pike, also at the University of Southampton, was particularly revealing. Pike extracted a section of enamel, then removed particles from different stages of the tooth’s growth. A mass spectrometer revealed the ratio of two forms, or isotopes, of strontium at the different stages, which can indicate where his drinking water came from when matched to an area’s geology.
Stonehenge Man would have fitted in very well on a film set (Image: English Heritage)
Teeth take about four years to form, so it is possible to track the movements of an individual during that time. Stonehenge Man seems to have travelled as a child. He was born in an area of old geology, thought to be somewhere in Wales, and moved to an area matching Stonehenge when about 3 years old. If he came from Wales, says Pike, there could be a connection to the movement of bluestones, the oldest stones at Stonehenge. “The two communities may have been connected for centuries,” he says.
The man’s teeth show little wear for his age, suggesting a soft diet by prehistoric standards. The carbon isotopes in the teeth vary according to the types of plants eaten, and with the amount of nitrogen, which comes from meat in the diet. His carbon pattern shows he ate more meat than his contemporaries, possibly in stews. This and the elaborate burial suggest he was an important man in the community.
Unfortunately, the man’s teeth were unusually clean. “If we had been able to analyse his tartar, we could have identified species he was eating by sequencing proteins in trapped fragments, while bacteria could have revealed the health of his gut,” says Pike.
The team did not have enough time before the visitor centre opened to do DNA analysis of Stonehenge Man’s colouring, but this would have been difficult anyway because handling over the years has contaminated the skeleton’s DNA. They guessed at hazel eyes and dark brown hair, with a hint of ginger, to reflect probable Celtic origins.
If this model of the handsome Stonehenge Man is true to life, then he would not look out of place today. “He could be sitting next to you on the subway,” says Nilsson.