The Amesbury Archer
Designed and made by Lucy Quinnell and Adam Boydell, with the help of the children of the Amesbury Archer Primary School
May 2012 saw the tenth anniversary of the discovery of Britain’s richest ever early Bronze Age burial site, at Boscombe Down (just east of Stonehenge).
Archaeological excavations carried out prior to the building of a new primary school revealed the grave of a
man who died c. 2300BC. Archery-related objects within the grave, such as arrowheads, led immediately to
his nickname of “The Amesbury Archer”.
Isotopic dental analysis shows that the man grew up in the Alps region of Europe, and died when he was about 35-45 years old. He suffered in life from a serious left knee injury or congenital knee condition, leaving him severely lame, with a wasted left leg and a bone infection. He also had a jaw abscess.
In the grave were metalworking tools, an anvil stone and copper knives, as well as five beakers, and gold
earrings or hair tresses that to date are the earliest gold objects ever found in Britain. He was clearly a man
of status, hence a second nickname – “The King of Stonehenge”. He may have had a connection to the phase of Stonehenge where the large stones were erected (thought to be contemporary with his dates), but this has not been proved. Nearby, a second, younger man was buried. A congenital foot bone anomaly shows that the two men were related, but their precise relationship is not known. This second man had grown up further north, in northern England or Scotland.
My husband Adam Boydell and I were commissioned to make a public sculpture inspired by this real-life
character, as a small part of a Section 106 agreement between Wiltshire Council and the company that was
building the school as part of a sizeable residential development (other artworks had been commissioned,
too – mosaics, gates and stone sculptures). We researched the story of the Archer with help from Wessex
Archaeology and the children of the school, named “The Amesbury Archer School” in the spirit of the Archer fervour that had gripped the community! We talked about the history of metal use in this country, looked at different metals, weighed and valued them, considered the use of recycled materials and decided together what form a sculpture inspired by the Archer should take. The children felt strongly that the sculpture should depict an interpretation of the Archer himself, holding a bow, whilst other local people we consulted expressed a wish to have some abstraction and symbolism incorporated into the piece. The children drew ideas for the sculpture, and produced small scrap art using a treasure box of metal items such as coins, buttons, beads, wire and clock parts; in a final workshop session we used larger scrap objects to depict the Archer in his burial position at the request of the children – this was extraordinarily moving, each child taking time in silence to select a piece of scrap metal and put it thoughtfully into place.
Themes emerged of heritage, continuation, parallels, family, disability, metals, ancient symbols, modern
cures and the interpretation of fragmented clues. The children felt sad that the Archer must have
experienced pain while he was alive, and suggested that their gifts to him from the future might be a
titanium alloy knee joint to cure his injured leg, and a gold tooth to replace any bad tooth that may have
caused his jaw abscess!
Based on advice from osteoarchaeologist Jacqueline McKinley of Wessex Archaeology, and study of the
Archer’s skeleton and grave goods at Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, I built up a picture of what the
real man may have looked like. Life models with certain similarities of height, build and type were selected,
and blacksmith Neil Lossock from Hereford was chosen (as a match for the skull and a suitably “kingly” type!) to model for the head. A longbowman of the same height as the Archer, and with an injured left knee, was enlisted to confirm the unusual stance of the Archer; all weight is on the right leg, making the stance quite different from that expected of an able-bodied bowman. I came up with a sketched proposal, reserving the right to “sculpt” and make changes as we progressed.
The figure is deliberately created from diverse fragments, and unfilled gaps contrast with areas of high detail. This symbolises an incomplete picture, the fleshing out of the bones, and the attempt to piece together a character from a handful of clues. The wrist guard is based on the actual slate wrist guard found with the Archer, so it is fact, but whilst the Archer is thought to have had a bag, the sculpted bag is imagined, based on early leatherwork and a beautiful bag ornament featuring the ancient “circled dot”
symbol of the sun, seen in Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.
The sculpture is, appropriately, made entirely of metal – predominantly steel and iron - but with small
amounts of other metals – gold, aluminium, stainless steel, copper, bronze, zinc. Iron had not yet been
smelted and worked by man when the Archer was alive, so for this project it could be considered a relatively modern medium! We deliberately used a broad range of metalworking techniques within the sculpture to reflect the long history of man’s use of metal. The head is a metal casting of a real head (Neil’s), and many other elements were traditionally forged. Welding, cutting, grinding, drilling, weaving, stamping, folding, burning, repoussé and wrapping were other techniques we used. We built a “dummy” first, to get the stance right (“Archie”), and then worked from this to build the final version (“Sturmey”[Archer]). The whole structure was galvanised and painted to protect it from corrosion (my preference used to be to hot zinc spray, but we have done a few recent projects where the zinc had to get to the inside surfaces of the work, and hot dip galvanising has been the solution). The non-ferrous elements were designed to attach to the main structure after galvanising. There is some argument as to whether the gold items found in the Archer’s grave were earrings or hair ornaments, so I just gilded a “smear” of gold leaf across the area of the head where they were found, rather than commit either way.
Installation went smoothly - an elaborate fixing system was pre-cast into the plinth, and a long length of
stainless steel box section runs right from a deep socket in the plinth, up through the Archer’s leg and spine and into his head; no “shoogle” allowed in the windy location described by one of the locals as “Hell’s landscape”.
Both Adam and I have arthritis and have had surgery on our left knees; archaeologists have referred more
recently to the Archer by a third nickname – “The Lame Metalworker” – so the parallels were noted; we felt
a strong bond with and a sense of empathy towards this man, who must have lived his life in constant pain. I
was very struck by another parallel, between the Archer and the ancient gods Hephaistos (Greek), Vulcan
(Roman) and Wayland (Norse), the lame gods of blacksmithing and metals. As we neared completion, my
intrigue intensified, and I found myself wondering more and more about possible connections between this
real-life man of high status, buried near Stonehenge, who must have been quite a striking figure with his
distinctive, chronic and crippling disability, and the legends of Hephaistos / Vulcan / Weyland. The Archer,
from the Alps, a lame metalworker of high standing; Hephaistos, thrown down from the mountains by his
mother to make his way in the world, the lame god of metalworking. At the risk of sounding like the
historian who firmly places the Trojan wars in Cambridgeshire, I did find myself investigating the real-life
figures deified in the Greek legends and wondering whether right here in England we have the man who
inspired the later myth of Hephaistos. Poppycock or viable, who knows, but it’s a compelling thought. I’ll
save the Wayland’s Smithy connection for another day…
We loved working with the school, and spending time in this distinctive part of the country. We have both
always been captivated by the enigmatic Salisbury Plain, and learning in such depth about the Amesbury
Archer was fascinating. We thought that we would know him better by the end of the project, but if anything
we are left with more questions. Our imaginations have invented all kinds of lives for him, and we are aware
that the truth will almost certainly never be known. Perhaps that’s what makes him so appealing as a
character - that each and every one of us can wonder, and come up with our own version of the man and his story.
We saw Neil Lossock at the RHS Chelsea and Hampton Court Palace Flower Shows recently – talking to him these days is very strange; I just can’t help thinking he looks very familiar!
GALVANIZING THE AMESBURY ARCHER
We are artist blacksmiths, using mainly mild steel to create a broad variety of public artworks and sculpture for private clients.
To protect our work against corrosion, we either hot zinc spray or hot dip galvanize each piece.
Our work has become more detailed in recent years, and hot dip galvanizing is frequently proving to be the best option, as the zinc reaches parts of the sculptures that hot zinc spraying would miss, and also certain aesthetic effects are possible.
Examples of major projects we have galvanized include the Allen Court Arch (Dorking, Surrey), the Dorking Cockerel (Dorking, Surrey) and the Bulrush Sculpture(Frome, Somerset) – images of all of these are available.
The life-size Amesbury Archer sculpture was all about detail. The details that remain of the real man’s life are definite – his gold jewellery, copper knives, arrow heads, deformed skeleton; the gaps are huge, to be filled only by probability and imagination. We therefore wanted to include strong points of detail and texture, with other abstracted areas to suggest a fragmented story; a ‘pieced together’ character.
Galvanizing these details – the bag, the leg bandage, the cape, the shoe, etc. – was definitely the right choice, and the only way of effectively rustproofing areas of the sculpture with hollow parts, intricate parts and concealed surfaces. We also used the galvanizing process as part of our sculpting for the first time – i.e. we knew that the mesh leg bandage would clog with zinc, and we wanted this to happen, to make it look more ancient and more rustic.
The whole sculpture was hot dip galvanized apart from the head, which was cast in aluminium and attached to the body afterwards. The galvanizers admitted that they found the headless figure rather unnerving while it was in their care!We built a frame around the whole sculpture, to protect vulnerable parts of it during
the dipping process.
Once back in our workshop, the usual series of treatments including final graphite painting and gilding were carried out. It was interesting watching the changing “feel” of the sculpture with each new colour and finish – shiny silver, lead grey, lime green, battleship grey, black, graphite, highlighted.