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Stonehenge may have served as a cremation cemetery

Towering above the grassy Salisbury Plain, its eerie rock monoliths are steeped in myth and magical stories, yet despite decades of research, the original purpose of Stonehenge remains a mystery.

Stonehenge may have served as a cremation cemetery
Archaeologists excavated the burned bones that had been previously dug up from around the site of Stonehenge 
during the 1920s. They say analysis suggests the site was used as a cemetery 
[Credit: Adam Stanford/Aerial-Cam Ltd]
A new study by archaeologists, however, has suggested the imposing stone circle may have initially been used as a cremation cemetery for the dead.

Charred remains discovered on the site were unearthed in holes - known as the Aubrey Holes - that have been found have to once held a circle of small standing stones.

Fresh analysis of the burned bones has revealed they were buried in the holes over a period of 500 years between 3,100BC and 2,600BC.

During this time the enormous sarsen trilithons, many of which still stand today, were erected.

But after 2,500BC, the people who used Stonehenge appear to have stopped cremating and burying human remains in the stone circle itself, instead burying them in a ditch around the periphery.

Stonehenge may have served as a cremation cemetery
Between 100 and 200 people are said to have been buried across the Stonehenge site during the late Neolithic and 
copper age. A recent separate study, of Aubrey Hole seven, found the remains of 14 females and nine males, 
with the help of CT scans and osteological analysis [Credit: Adam Stanford/Aerial-Cam Ltd]
This, according to Professor Mike Parker-Pearson, an archaeologist at University College London, and his colleagues, suggests there was a shift in the cultural significance of Stonehenge around this time.

They argue that it later became a place to revere long-dead ancestors who had been buried on the site.

Writing in the journal Antiquity, they said: 'Stonehenge changed from being a stone circle for specific dead individuals linked to particular stones, to one more diffusely associated with the collectivity of increasingly long-dead ancestors buried there.

'This is consistent with the interpretation of Stonehenge's stage two as a domain of the eternal ancestors, metaphorically embodied in stone.'

Stonehenge was built in five stages between around 3000BC to 1500BC and had initially consisted of a small circle of standing stones known as bluestones, imported from Wales.

Stonehenge may have served as a cremation cemetery
Stonehenge has gone through several phases of development, the first of which is thought to have been a circle of bluestones 
from Wales sited on a ring of 56 Aubrey Holes (marked 13 in the plan). Bones found in these holes date to around 
the period when these stones were placed and the inner stone circles was built
[Credit: Adamsan/WikiCommons]
Later the larger inner circle of stones were erected with the giant monoliths and sarsen stones seen today.

In the 1920s archaeologist William Hawley discovered the remains of cremated bone in several Aubrey Holes around the Stonehenge site, which he estimated to belong to 59 individuals.

He noted many of the burials had been circular, indicating they had been placed in bags before being buried.

He also found just one policed gneiss mace-head with one of the burials but no other grave goods.

Sadly, at the time the remains were not considered to be important and were reburied all together in a single Aubrey hole.

But in the new study, researchers described how they re-excavated these remains and subjected them to modern analysis using radiocarbon dating.

Stonehenge may have served as a cremation cemetery
Burials at Stonehenge were likely for people of higher status. The latest analysis of the burned bones revealed 
they were buried in the holes over a period of 500 years between 3,100BC and 2,600BC 
[Credit: Adam Stanford/Aerial-Cam Ltd]
They found the remains of at least 27 adults and young adults and were able to identify nine of these as male and five as female.

The dating of the remains showed the remains found in the Aubrey Holes had been buried between 3,100BC and 2,600BC.

During the dig the archaeologists discovered a previously unexcavated burial of the cremated remains of an adult woman.

This suggested her bones remained where they had been buried around 5,000 years ago in the hole dug for the bluestone.

It suggests the bluestones had originally been used to identify individuals who had been buried beneath them.

Stonehenge may have served as a cremation cemetery
Researchers believe the site may have taken on a new significance around 2,500 years ago when 
it became more loosely associated with the dead as a place where ancestors were embodied 
metaphorically within the stones [Credit: PA]
The researchers said the use of Stonehenge and its surrounding land as a cemetery probably ended with the Beaker period after 2140BC, by which time Stonehenge stages 2 and 3 were completed.

Professor Parker Pearson and his colleagues said: 'Our research shows that Stonehenge was used as a cremation cemetery for mostly adult men and women for around five centuries, during and between its first two main stages of construction.

'In its first stage, many burials were placed within and beside the Aubrey Holes. As these are believed to have contained bluestones, there seems to have been a direct relationship between particular deceased individuals and standing stones.

'Human remains continued to be buried during and after Stonehenge's second stage, demonstrating its continuing association with the dead.

'Most of these later burials appear, however, to have been placed in the ditch around the monument's periphery, leaving the stones, now grouped in the centre of the site, distant from the human remains.'

Author: Richard Gray | Source: Daily Mail [April 22, 2016]

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