Stonehenge may have
been cemetery for rulers
By Bruce Bower
Stonehenge, a set of earth, timber and
stone structures perched provocatively
on England’s Salisbury Plain, has long
invited lively speculation about its origin
There was nothing lively about Stonehenge in its heyday, though. Ancient bigwigs used Stonehenge as a cemetery from
its inception nearly 5,000 years ago until
well after its large stones were put in place
500 years later, according to a new investigation of the ancient site.
The findings challenge a long-standing
assumption that the deceased were buried
at Stonehenge for only a 100-year window,
from 4,700 to 4,600 years ago, before the
large stones — known as sarsens — were
hauled in and assembled into a circle. But
the new study indicates that Stonehenge
was a cemetery for at least 500 years.
“Stonehenge was the biggest graveyard of the third millennium B.C.,” says
archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson of the
University of Sheffield in England. “From
“ Stonehenge was the biggest graveyard of the third
millennium b.c. ” —MIKE PARKER PEARSON
New radiocarbon measurements of burned human bones (right) excavated from the famous
Stonehenge site (left) in southern England indicate that it served as a cemetery for half a millennium, from around 5,000 to 4,500 years ago.
its beginning, it was used as a cemetery for
a large number of people.” Parker Pearson
directs the Stonehenge Riverside Project,
which began in 2003 and runs through
2010. He and archaeologist Julian Thomas
of the University of Manchester in England
described their latest findings May 29 at a
teleconference held by one of their funding organizations, the National Geographic
Society in Washington, D.C.
The researchers obtained the first
radiocarbon age estimates for cremated
human remains excavated earlier at
Stonehenge. These burned bones were
unearthed more than 50 years ago.
The earliest cremation, a small pile of
burned bones and teeth, dates from 5,030
to 4,880 years ago, about the time when
a circular ditch and a series of pits were
cut into the Salisbury Plain. The human
remains originally lay in one of those pits.
An adult’s burned bones, originally found
in a ditch that encircles Stonehenge, date
from 4,930 to 4,870 years ago. Remnants of
a third cremation date from 4,570 to 4,340
years ago. An estimated 150 to 240 cremated bodies were buried at Stonehenge
over a span of 500 to 600 years.
Andrew Chamberlain, a biological
anthropologist at the University of Sheffield who did not participate in the dig,
suspects that Stonehenge functioned as
a cemetery for 30 to 40 generations of a
single family, perhaps a ruling dynasty.
The head of a stone mace buried with one
set of cremated remains supports that
hypothesis. Maces symbolized authority
in British prehistory.
Decisions to quit smoking are often made
by groups of people connected to each
other at up to three degrees of separation,
say nicholas christakis of harvard medical
School and James Fowler of the university
of california, San Diego, in the may 22
New England Journal of Medicine. images
show social connections of smokers and
nonsmokers in 1971 (left) and 2001 (right).
yellow nodes represent smokers and green
represent nonsmokers. orange arrows
denote friendship or marital ties and purple
arrows denote family ties. — Bruce Bower