May 30, 2008 Archaeologists at the University of Sheffield have revealed new radiocarbon dates of human cremation burials at Stonehenge, which indicate that the monument was used as a cemetery from its inception just after 3000 B.C. until well after the large stones went up around 2500 B.C.
The Sheffield archaeologists, Professor Mike Parker-Pearson and Professor Andrew Chamberlain, believe that the cremation burials could represent the natural deaths of a single elite family and its descendants, perhaps a ruling dynasty. One clue to this is the small number of burials in Stonehenge´s earliest phase, a number that grows larger in subsequent centuries, as offspring would have multiplied.
Many archaeologists previously believed that people had been buried at Stonehenge only between 2700 and 2600 B.C., before the large stones, known as sarsens, were put in place. The new dates provide strong clues about the original purpose of the monument and show that its use as a cemetery extended for more than 500 years.
The earliest cremation burial dated — a small pile of burned bones and teeth — came from one of the pits around Stonehenge´s edge known as the Aubrey Holes and dates to 3030-2880 B.C., roughly the time when Stonehenge's ditch-and-bank monument was cut into Salisbury Plain.
The second burial, from the ditch surrounding Stonehenge, is that of an adult and dates to 2930-2870 B.C. The most recent cremation comes from the ditch´s northern side and was of a 25-year-old woman; it dates to 2570-2340 B.C., around the time the first arrangements of sarsen stones appeared at Stonehenge.
This is the first time any of the cremation burials from Stonehenge have been radiocarbon dated. The burials dated were excavated in the 1950s and have been kept at the nearby Salisbury Museum.
Another 49 cremation burials were dug up at Stonehenge during the 1920s, but all were put back in the ground because they were thought to be of no scientific value. Archaeologists estimate that up to 240 people were buried within Stonehenge, all as cremation deposits.
The latest findings are the result of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, a collaboration between five UK universities, which is funded by the National Geographic Society and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), with support from English Heritage. The project´s last digging season near Stonehenge saw excavation of houses at nearby Durrington Walls, the precise dating of Stonehenge's cursus — the ditched enclosure nearly two miles long that has long puzzled archaeologists — and new discoveries about the "Cuckoo Stone" and the timber monuments south of Woodhenge.
Professor Mike Parker-Pearson, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, who leads the Stonehenge Riverside Archaeological Project, said: "I don´t think it was the common people getting buried at Stonehenge — it was clearly a special place at that time. One has to assume anyone buried there had some good credentials.
"The people buried here must have been drawn from a very small and select living population. Archaeologists have long speculated about whether Stonehenge was put up by prehistoric chiefs — perhaps even ancient royalty — and the new results suggest that not only is this likely to have been the case but it also was the resting place of their mortal remains."
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