May 29, 2008

Stonehenge: Ancient Royal Burial Ground?

Researchers in Britain are discussing the possibility that Stonehenge may have been erected as an ancient burial ground for the royal family.

Although archaeologists previously thought people were buried at the site between 2700 and 2600 B.C., Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield, says radiocarbon dating of human remains at the site shows it was used as a cemetery just after 3000 B.C. until after the larger circle of stones were placed.

"The hypothesis we are working on is that Stonehenge represents a place of the dead," said Parker Pearson, who is leading an excavation of the site. "That seems to be very clear."

"A further twist is that the people buried at Stonehenge may have been the elite of their society, an ancient royal British dynasty, perhaps."

Built between 3000 and 1600 B.C., Stonehenge has become the site of many theories throughout history. It is sometimes referred to as "Britain's pyramids."

The site has also been a longstanding arena for tourism"”up to 30,000 revelers and druids converge on the stones for a night of celebration on the summer solstice.

Last year, Parker Pearson and his colleagues discovered evidence that hints at the existence of a large settlement nearby. They said this combined with the recent data makes a convincing argument that Stonehenge serving as an ancient burial ground.

"What we suspect is that the river is the conduit between the two realms of the living and the dead," Parker Pearson said. "It was the prehistoric version of the river Styx."

The researchers excavated homes near the site at Durrington Walls, noting that they appeared to be seasonal homes linked to Stonehenge.

"It's a quite extraordinary settlement, we've never seen anything like it before," Parker Pearson said. The village appeared to be a land of the living and Stonehenge a land of the ancestors, he said.

There were at least 300 and perhaps as many as 1,000 homes in the village, he said. The small homes were occupied in midwinter and midsummer.

In the 1920s, 49 cremation burials were excavated at Stonehenge, but were later reburied because scientists believed they were of no real value.

An estimated 150 to 240 men, women and children were buried at Stonehenge over a 600-year period all as cremation deposits, making it likely that the relatively low figure over such a long points to a single elite family, they said.

Placement of the graves and artifacts such as a small stone mace are evidence the site was reserved as a "domain of the dead" for the elite, Parker Pearson added.

"I don't think it was the common people getting buried at Stonehenge -- it was clearly a special place at the time," he said. "One has to assume anyone buried there had some good credentials."

The research was supported by the National Geographic Society, which discusses Stonehenge in its June magazine and will feature the new burial data on National Geographic Channel on Sunday.


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