A million visitors from around the world flock to Stonehenge every year. But the monument’s status as an international attraction is nothing new.
Yesterday scientists said the stones were attracting overseas tourists thousands of years ago – after discovering that a Bronze Age teenage boy buried there around 1550BC grew up in the Mediterranean.
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, they said.
He was placed in a simple grave alongside an amber necklace just a mile from the stone circle.
Known as the Boy in the Amber Necklace, his is the third burial site of a foreigner discovered at the World Heritage site in the past few years.
The finds raise the intriguing possibility that Stonehenge was attracting tourists and pilgrims from across the globe thousands of years ago.
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 Alps.
They also believe that the Boscombe Bowmen – a group of seven men, women and children found the following year – originated from Wales, the Lake District or Brittany.
Professor Jane Evans, who traces the birthplace of Bronze Age skeletons using a chemical analysis of teeth, believes the visitors were travelling to Britain specifically to see Stonehenge.
‘If you went to Westminster Abbey today and looked at the people buried there, how many are Londoners?
‘I don’t think many because the great, the good and famous are buried at Westminster Abbey,’ said Prof Evans of the British Geological Survey.
The boy’s skeleton was discovered in 2002 at Stonehenge. Today scientists revealed that he must have been born and brought up in the Mediterranean
‘Stonehenge in a similar way is obviously a very important place and people from all sorts of origins came to Stonehenge and were buried there.’
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 1,500 years old.
Prof Evans said: ‘He’s about 14 to 15 years old and he’s buried with this beautiful necklace. From the position of his burial, his age, and this necklace, it suggests he’s a person of significant status and importance.’
She used a slither of tooth enamel the size of a nail clipping to trace his origins.
The amber beads that were found buried by his side more than 3,500 years ago
By analysing the ratio of two different forms – or isotopes – of oxygen, the professor 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 was born and grew up in the Mediterranean.
The boy’s grave was alongside dozens of other graves at the site but it was the only one that was not from Britain
In contrast, the Amesbury Archer, who was buried 1,000 years earlier, was most likely to have been raised in the Alpine foothills of Germany, Prof Evans said.
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology, said: ‘Archaeologists for a long time have been fighting the idea that there was any migration going on at this time.
‘But, clearly, there were individuals moving across huge distances.’
The Boy with the Amber Necklace was found alongside dozens of other graves.
However, all other skeletons studied so far at the site were raised in Britain. Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, of Wessex Archaeology, said: ‘We don’t know why these people made these long journeys.
‘It’s possible they were coming to visit Stonehenge but we know people had been travelling great distances for thousands of years for trade and exploration.’
Stonehenge was built by early Bronze Age farmers – who lived in homes made of wooden stakes, twigs, chalk and clay – in stages between 3000BC and 2400BC.
It was actively used for at least another 1,000 years.