11 October 2009
Additional details on 'Bluestonehenge'
As we reported last week, 33-foot-wide (10-meter-wide) 'Bluestonehenge' was discovered just over a mile (1.6 km) from the original Stonehenge near Salisbury (England). The 5,000-year-old ceremonial site is thought to have been a key stop along an ancient route between a land of the living, several miles away, and a domain of the dead-Stonehenge. At least one archaeologist thinks Bluestonehenge may have been a sort of crematorium.
Bluestonehenge was found in August along the banks of the River Avon during excavations led by Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield in the U.K. The circle of an estimated 25 bluestones was surrounded by a henge-an earthwork with a ditch and bank. The henge has been tentatively dated to 2400 BCE. But flint arrowheads found at the stone-circle site are of a type that suggests the rocks were erected as early as 3000 BCE. More precise dates will have to wait until prehistoric deer antlers-used as pickaxes at Bluestonehenge-have been radiocarbon dated, the team said.
Unlike Stonehenge, which aligns with the sun at the summer and winter solstices, Bluestonehenge shows no sign of a particular orientation, or even an entrance, the team reported. Nor is there any evidence that people lived at the site. There's no pottery, animal bones, ornaments, or relics such as those unearthed at the nearby Stone Age village of Durrington Walls, found near Stonehenge in 2007. However Bluestonehenge's empty stone holes were filled with charcoal, indicating that large amounts of wood were burned there-signifying, perhaps, a prehistoric crematorium. Perhaps not coincidentally, ashes have been found in holes at Stonehenge. "Maybe the bluestone circle is where people were cremated before their ashes were buried at Stonehenge itself," Parker Pearson said in a statement.
Parker Pearson proposes that Stonehenge represented a "domain of the dead" to ancestor-worshiping ancient Britons. "It could be that Bluestonehenge was where the dead began their final journey to Stonehenge," he added. "Not many people know that Stonehenge was Britain's largest burial ground at that time." Stonehenge expert Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, said, "Up to now we've really thought of Stonehenge as this [one] stone circle. ... Maybe we need to actually start thinking about Stonehenge as a series of stone structures that are not necessarily all contained within that circular ditch [at Stonehenge proper]," added Pitts, who was not involved in the project.
The excavation team now believes Stonehenge incorporates the 25 bluestones that originally stood at Bluestonehenge. Only a few bluestone pieces were found at the new site, and "that is telling you that the stones are being taken out whole," said dig co-director Julian Thomas of the University of Manchester. Bluestonehenge's stones were dragged along the avenue to Stonehenge during a major rebuilding phase around 2500 BCE, the archaeologists speculated (time line of the stages of Stonehenge). If Bluestonehenge had been demolished much later-in Roman times, when reverence for the stones would have been diminished, for example-"they'd be breaking them up and turning them into building stone," Thomas said. "I think it's very likely that the new stone circle is contemporary with the very earliest stages of Stonehenge," the archaeologist added.
Previous excavations have drawn a picture of seasonal festivities at Durrington Walls, which some see as part of the "domain of the living" in the spiritual geography of the people of Stonehenge. The dead would be celebrated at Durrington, then carried along a short avenue to the River Avon, archaeologists speculate. The procession would continue down the river, then 'dock' at the foot of the avenue leading to Stonehenge - stopping, it's now thought, at Bluestonehenge, perhaps for cremation, before continuing to Stonehenge for burial. Given the Bluestonehenge discovery, British Archaeology's Pitts said, "I'm sure there are very significant discoveries still to be made in this landscape."
Sources: National Geographic News (5 October 2009), Discovery News (7 October 2009)