By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 30, 2008
The secret of Stonehenge has apparently been solved: The mysterious circle of large stones in southern England was primarily a burial ground for almost five centuries, and the site probably holds the remains of a family that long ruled the area, new research concludes.
Based on radiocarbon dating of cremated bones up to 5,000 years old, researchers with the Stonehenge Riverside Project said they are convinced the area was built and then grew as a "domain of the ancestors."
"It's now clear that burials were a major component of Stonehenge in all its main stages," said Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeology professor at the University of Sheffield in England and head of the project. "Stonehenge was a place of burial from its beginning to its zenith in the mid-third millennium B.C."
The finding marks a significant rethinking of Stonehenge. In the past it was believed that some burials took place there for a century but that the site's significance lay in its ceremonial and religious functions, including serving as a center for healing.
A combination of the radiocarbon dating, excavations nearby that have revealed a once-thriving village and the fact that the number of cremated remains appeared to grow over a 500-year period convinced researchers that the site was used for a long time and most likely was a burial ground for one ruling family.
Parker Pearson said the discovery of a mace head -- the enlarged end of a clubbing weapon -- supports the theory that it was the province of a ruling family since it was long a symbol of authority in England and still serves that function in the House of Commons.
He said family members for as many as 30 to 40 generations were buried there, with the number of individuals increasing with each generation.
The team also excavated homes nearby at Durrington Walls, which they said were especially well preserved and appeared to be seasonal dwellings related to Stonehenge.
"It's a quite extraordinary settlement. We've never seen anything like it before," Parker Pearson said. The village had at least 300 and as many as 1,000 homes, which apparently were occupied in the midwinter and midsummer. Broad avenues leading from Stonehenge to the River Avon, as well as another leading to the river from a circle of wooden pillars close to the village, were oriented to the winter and summer solstices.
"All in all, we're finding that Stonehenge was a sophisticated society with great achievements," he said. The site fell into disuse around 1500 B.C., and over the centuries some of its stones were hauled off and broken.
The research was supported by the National Geographic Society, which features Stonehenge in the June edition of its magazine and will air a television special called "Stonehenge Decoded" on Sunday.
The latest Stonehenge research marked the first radiocarbon dating of cremation remains at the site. The burials dated by the group were excavated in the 1950s and have been kept at the nearby Salisbury Museum. In the 1920s, an additional 49 cremation burials were dug up at Stonehenge, but all were reburied because they were thought to be of no scientific value, the researchers said.
As many as 240 people were buried within Stonehenge, the researchers said.
The stone pillars have long fascinated archaeologists and the public. The smaller bluestones (they become bluish when it rains) were transported 250 miles from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, while the larger stones are from closer sources.
Most of the larger "sarsen" stones made up the 16-foot-high circle, with connecting lintel stones on top. But others inside the circle reach 25 feet tall. Sarsens are blocks of hard stone, formed and left behind by glaciers, found in many parts of southern England. They were used to build other, smaller megaliths.
The stones are located at the center of a horseshoe-shaped ditch enclosed by a series of small man-made berms that is 375 feet across -- the "henge" of Stonehenge.
While the findings appear to solve the mystery of how Stonehenge was used, other questions remain. Archaeologists, for instance, recently found a piece of an ancient red deer antler that was apparently used for digging in the Stonehenge Greater Cursus, a two-mile-long ditch. The cursus, flanked by berms and located a few miles from the stones, is thought to have been used for sacred purposes, also. The antler was dated to between 3630 and 3375 B.C., 1,000 years before the erection of the sarsen stones.
In addition, three 10,000-year old pits for wooden pillars -- now covered by the parking lot at Stonehenge -- have been found by the recent excavations.
"Why are they there? That's a really big mystery," Parker Pearson said. "They are among the earliest monuments on the planet."
The researchers who reported their results yesterday are convinced that Stonehenge is primarily a burial site, but some others are less certain.
In its Stonehenge story, National Geographic magazine describes Mike Pitts, editor of the journal British Archaeology and a former excavator at the site, as being skeptical of some conclusions. He said there is still no agreement about some important details of the theory -- such as when the sarsen stones arrived and why the surrounding area was used for general farming and grazing if Stonehenge was such an important burial and ritual site.
Nonetheless, Pitts is quoted as saying: "The value of this interpretation is not just the idea of linking stones and ancestors, but that it works with the entire landscape. Previous interpretations have taken the independent sites separately."