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Analysis of human remains rewrites the story of Stonehenge

Posted on 9 March 2013

For centuries scientists and historians have argued over the meaning and purpose of Stonehenge. Now a research team, which included Dr Oliver Craig, of the University of York, believes it has finally solved many of the mysteries surrounding our greatest prehistoric monument, overturning the accepted view on what happened when Stonehenge was built, and why it was constructed.

The team, led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson, of University College London was granted exclusive permission to analyse - for the first time - the ancient remains of 63 bodies buried at Stonehenge. 


credit: flickr/garethwiscombe
The results of the investigation:

  • reveal that the first stones at Stonehenge were put up 500 years earlier than previously thought at around 3000 BC. The monument we see today was not the original Stonehenge;
  • explain the choice of the site on Salisbury Plain;
  • prove that Stonehenge was once the site of vast communal feasts attended by some 4,000 people, a substantial proportion of the British population, with people coming from as far afield as highland Scotland to celebrate the solstice.

Professor Parker Pearson believes the findings provide compelling evidence that Stonehenge once united the people of Britain. The analysis of the bodies and grave goods found on and around the site also offers an answer to the mystery of Stonehenge’s decline.

These new findings, revealed for the first time in a special Channel 4 documentary screened on 10 March, rewrite the story of Stonehenge.

The team has now confirmed:

  • There were two Stonehenges. The original was a large circular structure built 500 years before the Stonehenge we know today which was built 4500 years ago. The research team believes that the first Stonehenge was originally a graveyard for a community of elite families, whose remains were brought to Stonehenge and buried over a period of 200 years.
  • Feasting on a grand scale at the Stonehenge complex occurred around the Mid-Winter solstice. The researchers have tested cattle and pig teeth found among 80,000 animal bones from the huge henge of Durrington Walls near Stonehenge and the film reveals that the animals were slaughtered in winter, nine months after their spring birth. This evidence points to the Mid-Winter Solstice gatherings at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls being a time for feasting on an unprecedented scale.
  • Stonehenge was a monument that brought Britain together. The team proves, through further isotope testing of the teeth of animals, that people came with their animals to feast at Stonehenge from all corners of Britain.
  • Why our ancestors chose Salisbury Plain. Professor Parker Pearson’s team believes that the site in the misddle of Salisbury Plain was chosen because of a pair of naturally-occurring parallel ridges in the landscape – the result of Ice Age meltwater - which coincidentally point directly at the Mid-Winter Sunset in one direction and the Mid-Summer sunrise in the other. 
  • An answer to the mystery of Stonehenge’s decline. Once completed, Stonehenge flourished for just a few centuries.  For years, this decline has been a mystery.  The researchers believe that it is explained by the culture of the ‘Beaker People’, known to have arrived in these isles around the same time.  He believes that their greater individualism and new material goods (including the first metal goods seen in Britain) put an end to the communal culture for which the monument had originally been created. 

Dr Craig, of the Department of Archaeology at York, says: “Our role was to undertake chemical analysis of the pottery vessels scattered across the site of Durrington Walls to determine their contents. It was the largest study of its kind performed at a single site and was principally carried out by Dr Lisa Marie Shillito at the BioArCh facility in York but also involved members of the Department of Chemistry.

“We were able to reconcile different uses of pottery across the site to investigate culianry and consumption activities associated with the use of the public (monumental) and domestic  (household) spaces. The results support the broader picture of widespread possible seasonal feasting - largely meat based- at this site.”

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, of UCL Institute of Archaeology, says:

“Although we finished digging at Stonehenge in 2009, the most surprising results have come out only now because of the detailed and painstaking laboratory work that has taken years to complete. Even now, more still remains to be done and there will no doubt be future surprises in store. It’s a very exciting time for scientific developments in archaeology.”

Notes to editors:

  • Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons is an Oxford Scientific Films/Terra Mater Factual Studios Co Production for Channel 4. Watch the programme at www.channel4.com/programmes/secrets-of-the-stonehenge-skeletons/4od#3493817
  • The research team included Dr Josh Pollard (University of Southampton), Professor Colin Richards (University of Manchester, Professor Julian Thomas (University of Manchester) , Dr Kate Welham (University of Bournemouth), Umberto Albarella (University of Sheffield), Professor Jane Evans (British Geological Survey), Christie Willis (University College London), Sarah Viner (University of Sheffield), Dr Oliver Craig (University of York) and  Dr Janet Montgomery (Durham University) .
  • More information on the Department of Archaeology at the University of York at www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/

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