Stonehenge 'a long-term cemetery'
Thursday, 29 May 2008
Stonehenge served as a burial ground for much longer than had previously been believed, new research suggests.
The site was used as a cemetery for 500 years, from the point of its inception.
Archaeologists have said the cremation burials found at the site might represent a single elite family and its descendents - perhaps a ruling dynasty.
One clue to this idea is that there are few burials in the earliest phase, but that the number grows larger in later centuries, as offspring multiplied.
Under the traditional view, cremation burials were dug at the site between 2,700 BC and 2,600 BC, about a century before the large stones - known as sarsens - were put in place.
Professor Mike Parker Pearson, from the department of archaeology at the University of Sheffield, and his colleagues have now carried out radiocarbon dating of burials excavated in the 1950s that were kept at the nearby Salisbury Museum.
Their results suggest burials took place at the site from the initiation of Stonehenge, just after 3,000 BC, until the time the large stones appear at about 2,500 BC.
The earliest cremation burial dated - a small pile of burned bones and teeth - came from one of the pits around the edge of Stonehenge known as the Aubrey Holes and dates to between 3,030 BC and 2,880 BC - roughly the time when the Stonehenge monument was cut into Salisbury Plain.
The second burial, from the ditch surrounding Stonehenge, is that of an adult and dates to between 2,930 BC and 2,870 BC.
The most recent cremation comes from the ditch's northern side and was of a 25-year-old woman; it dates to between 2,570 BC and 2,340 BC, around the time the first arrangements of sarsen stones appeared at Stonehenge.
The latest findings are the result of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, a collaboration between five UK universities. Details of the research are to be featured in National Geographic magazine.
Professor Parker-Pearson, who leads the project, said: "I don't think it was the common people getting buried at Stonehenge - it was clearly a special place at that time."
He added: "Archaeologists have long speculated about whether Stonehenge was put up by prehistoric chiefs - perhaps even ancient royalty - and the new results suggest that not only is this likely to have been the case, but it also was the resting place of their mortal remains."
Two other Stonehenge experts, Professor Tim Darvill, from the University of Bournemouth, and Professor Geoff Wainwright, from the Society of Antiquaries, have a different theory about the monument.
They are convinced that the dominating feature on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire was akin to a "Neolithic Lourdes" - a place where people went on a pilgrimage to get cured.
They recently carried out a two-week excavation at the site to search for clues to why the 4,500-year-old landmark was erected.