|28 June 2008
Burnt bones hint at Stonehenge story
Stonehenge may have been a burial ground for an ancient elite family, British researchers said. New radiocarbon dates of human remains excavated from the ancient stone monument in southwest England suggest it was used as a cemetery from its inception just after 3000 BCE until well after the larger circle of stones went up around 2500 BCE. Previously, archaeologists had believed people were buried at Stonehenge between 2700 and 2600 BCE.
"The hypothesis we are working on is that Stonehenge represents a place of the dead," said Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield, who is leading an excavation of the site. "A further twist is that the people buried at Stonehenge may have been the elite of their society, an ancient royal British dynasty, perhaps." Professor Parker Pearson added: "Fifty-two cremation burials were actually excavated in the 20th century, when excavations took place on a big scale. Although most of them got thrown away, three of them were kept in a museum. With new developments in radio-carbon dating, we can actually date burnt bone now, and we've been able to find out that people were buried at Stonehenge right from its kick-off, right from the beginning, all the way through until after the really big stones were put up. We estimate that there's still over a 100 more burials left, so it's not just like a few burials just here and there, the place was stuffed full of them."
Last year the same researchers found evidence of a large settlement of houses nearby. They said the latest findings reinforced their belief that the settlement and Stonehenge form part of a larger ancient ceremonial complex along the nearby River Avon. "What we suspect is that the river is the conduit between the two realms of the living and the dead," Parker Pearson said. "It was the prehistoric version of the river Styx."
The team estimates that between 150 to 240 men, women and children were buried at Stonehenge over a 600-year period, making it likely that the relatively low figure over such a long points to a single elite family. A clue is the few burials in Stonehenge's earliest phase, a number that grows larger in following centuries as offspring would have multiplied, said Andrew Chamberlain, a specialist in ancient demography at the University of Sheffield.
Placement of the graves and artifacts such as a small stone mace are evidence the site was reserved as a "domain of the dead" for the elite, Parker Pearson added. "I don't think it was the common people getting buried at Stonehenge -- it was clearly a special place at the time," he said. "One has to assume anyone buried there had some good credentials."
Sources: Reuters (29 May 2008), ABC News, Daily Telegraph (31 May 2008)
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