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New discoveries shed light on the original purpose of the Stonehenge monument, shown here in a photo

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New discoveries shed light on the original purpose of the Stonehenge monument, shown here in a photo from the June 2008 issue of National Geographic. 

Ken Geiger/National Geographic

May 30, 2008

Stonehenge Used as Cemetery From the Beginning

At least part of the mystery of Stonehenge may have now been solved: It was from the beginning a monument to the dead.

New radiocarbon dates from human cremation burials among and around the brooding stones on Salisbury Plain in England indicate that the site was used as a cemetery from 3000 B.C. until after the monuments were erected around 2500 B.C., British archaeologists reported Thursday.

What appeared to be the head of a stone mace, a symbol of authority, was found in one grave, the archaeologists said, indicating that this was probably a cemetery for the ruling dynasty responsible for erecting Stonehenge.

“It’s now clear that burials were a major component of Stonehenge in all its main stages,” said Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield in England.

Some scholars have contended that the enigmatic stones, surrounded by a ditch and earthen banks in concentric circles, more than likely marked a sacred place of healing. The idea is at least as old as medieval literature, which also includes stories of Stonehenge as a memorial to the dead. So there could be an element of truth to both hypotheses, experts say.

In a teleconference with reporters, arranged by the National Geographic Society, Dr. Parker Pearson described three burials of burned bones and teeth that were dated in recent weeks. Researchers estimated that up to 240 people were buried there, all as cremation deposits. Other evidence from the British Isles shows that skeletal burials were rare at this time and that cremation was the custom for the elite.

Another Sheffield archaeologist, Andrew Chamberlain, noted one reason to think that the Stonehenge burials were for generations of a single elite family. The clue, he said, is the small number of burials in the earliest period and the larger numbers in later centuries, as offspring would have multiplied.

Given the monumental surroundings, Dr. Parker Pearson said, “one has to assume anyone buried there had some good credentials.”

The earliest burial to be tested came from a pit at the edge of the stone monuments; it dates to more or less 3000 B.C. The second burial dates to around 2900 B.C. The most recent one is from around the time the first arrangements of stones appeared on the plain, about 2500 B.C. It was previously believed that the site was a burial ground for only a century after 2700 B.C., well before the distinctive large stones were put in place.

Dr. Parker Pearson said finding other datable burials was “a huge priority” of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, which has been excavating the site since 2003. The National Geographic Society is a supporter of the research, and some of the results, but not the latest burial dates, are reported in the June issue of its magazine. The findings, including those dates, are also reported on nationalgeographic.com.

Although most of the cremated remains were uncovered decades ago, Dr. Parker Pearson said, it is only in recent years that improved methods of radiocarbon dating have made it possible to analyze burned bones.

In other recent findings at Stonehenge and adjacent sites, archaeologists uncovered a piece of a red-deer antler that was apparently used as a pick for digging. It was found in what is known as the Stonehenge Greater Cursus, a cigar-shaped ditched enclosure nearly two miles long that is thought to have a sacred significance.

Julian Thomas, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester, who led this investigation, said the antler was dated at 3630 to 3375 B.C. That puts the cursus about 1,000 years before the large stones were erected, meaning, he said, that “this landscape maintains its significance over a long period of time.”