Stonehenge a Burial Ground, Archaeologists Say

Archaeologists have long puzzled over the origins of Stonehenge. Now, scientists based at the University of Sheffield say they have evidence that the massive stone structure was a burial ground and a monument to the dead. Archaeologist Mike Pearson discusses the findings.

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For centuries, people have traveled to Stonehenge in Southern England. Inevitably, they have questions. Who built it? How the heck did they move those giant stones into concentric circles? And why? All kinds of theories abound, including celestial calendar, sacred place of healing and now several archaeologists based at the University of Sheffield may have an answer, or at least part of an answer. They believe Stonehenge was a monument to the dead, a cemetery of sorts.

In just a minute, we'll be joined by the archaeologist who lead the study. If you have questions about Stonehenge, give us a call. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Mike Parker Pearson joins us by phone from his home in Soldrup(ph) in England. He's a professor of archeology at the University of Sheffield and there's a story about the findings in this month's issue of National Geographic Magazine. And it's good to have you with us.

Dr. PEARSON (Archeology, University of Sheffield): Thanks very much. Nice to be able to talk to you.

CONAN: And what led you to this new conclusion?

Dr. PEARSON: Well, one of the things about Stonehenge is that a lot of digging was done in the previous century and we're still only assimilating the results from that. So what we've actually been doing is digging in the archives and finding out not only from what's buried underground, but also getting hold of some of the records and some of the finds. It's a little known fact that Stonehenge is actually the biggest cemetery of its time, which is the third millennium BC. So that's basically from just after 3000 BC for the next thousand years.

CONAN: And that's 5000 years ago. That's a long time.

Dr. PEARSON: It's quite a while back. If you look at it in terms of human generations, it's about 180 generations ago, which isn't that much. It's a better way, perhaps, of thinking about it.

CONAN: And what new technology are you using to look at this evidence in the archives?

Dr. PEARSON: Well, we were able to pull out some of the cremation burials, and although radiocarbon dating has been around for at least 50 years, it's only in the last couple of years or so that scientists have developed the ability to date burnt bone. And it's that we've been able to play and it's shown us that Stonehenge was a cemetery really from beginning right through into the time when all the really big stones were put up. So it seems that it was in regular use as a burial ground, and we're suspecting that the people who were buried there might have been rather special.

CONAN: Oh, why do you think that?

Dr. PEARSON: Well, not only is Stonehenge clearly a very outstanding monument for the time - it's unique, there's nothing like it. But there are one or two little clues amongst some of the few grave goods that were found. There's a very special one. It's a stone artifact and it's a head of what we call a mace. And these maces, we think, were symbols of authority. It's a kind of thing that even today, you know, you open the British Parliament with a mace. They're quite special things even now.

CONAN: And so this may have been a royal family, a ruling family of some sort?

Dr. PEARSON: That's our guess, and it is a guess, really, at the moment. Obviously, what we'd really like to do is look at more of these remains. Over 50 bodies in the form of cremation deposits were dug up in the 20th century, but unfortunately, only three have actually been kept in the museum. The remainder got buried back in one of the holes in Stonehenge in 1935 because no museums were at all interested or prepared to take the finds. But of course, now we have all these new scientific techniques from which we can learn so much about who these people were.

CONAN: Were they mixed up together and just poured back into a hole?

Dr. PEARSON: That's what we don't know. All we know is that the remains were put into four sandbags and put in this hole. So whether they were subdivided within the sandbags is anybody's guess. If we get the chance to go and recover them, then we'll find out just how they were prepared.

CONAN: And cremation? Was that the general means which bodies were disposed of in those days?

Dr. PEARSON: That's right, yes. Between about 3000 BC and 2400, the burials that we find, most of them are cremations. They do something else, as well, to do with probably exposing bodies and just letting them break up, letting the birds feed on them and that sort of thing. So it's whether all of these cremation burials - Stonehenge has also got a lot of just odd pieces of human bone lying around in its various features. So we think that these are two separate rites.

Whether it's to do with status to define the differences, we're not sure. One possibility it that it's the rite of excarnation, as we call it, when you expose bodies to let them rot down to bones. That's a much older practice, which was going on at least a thousand years before.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Mike Parker Pearson, an archeologist at the University of Sheffield about his discoveries, about what's going on at Stonehenge 5,000 years ago. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Phil, and Phil is with us from Wilson in Wyoming.

PHIL (Caller): Hi. I'm just curious why these things couldn't be the results of sacrifices, like Mayan-type things. Why is it necessarily an honorable kind of burial situation?

Dr. PEARSON: We've got one really interesting burial. He's the only skeleton, and he's right at the end of the sequence. And he was actually shot from three or four different directions with bows and arrows. We've wondered about whether he was a sacrifice, and I think the only thing is that it's quite a lot of effort to go cremate a sacrificial victim after you killed him. I have to say, I can't think of any examples around the world where that has been done. You normally just take the sacrificial victim and dump him, rather than actually carrying out really rather elaborate funerary rites. So to the very end.

CONAN: But this theory that it was a cemetery for perhaps a ruling family, a royal family, something like that, does that exclude any of these other theories we've heard about Stonehenge over the years?

Dr. PEARSON: Well, I think one of the things about Stonehenge is that it must have embodied lots of different purposes. I mean, my favorite view is that this is built as a place of the ancestors, and the reason for thinking that is that we've got a wooden version of Stonehenge just a couple of miles upstream. We know it's the same date as the stone version and they've both got very similar features, avenues linking them to the river.

And the stone version, we've now recovered the - sorry, the wooden version, we've recovered the entire plan and it's so very similar that these are almost - this is the same architect, I would say, designing the two.

So we have to explain Stonehenge as one half of a complex. It has not sat there on its own, and it's realizing that the wooden version is surrounded by the remains of the living. It's got all of their houses, that sort of thing. There were no cremations anywhere in it. So these are two very different sites with different purposes, and to understand Stonehenge, we've got to understand that relationship between the wooden and the stone. And so that's why we think that they are actually separating its purpose out, if you like, to specifically be to do with the ancestors.

CONAN: Of course, a recent visitor to the area might think hat the wooden version was set up by the ancient parks authority so tourists wouldn't be able to get to the stone one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. PEARSON: Yes, yes. I'm not sure that was a problem back in prehistory. But yes,there are lots of other theories. One theory some colleagues of mine at a different university have been working with is that of healing. But of course, what I'd say is that's more of a secondary purpose because this is one of things about ancestors, is that they bring blessings to the living if you treat them right in societies that worship their ancestors. So healing as well as fertility, these are going to be some of things that places like this would have been thought to provide.

CONAN: And the aspects of the - well, sort of celestial calendar aspect of Stonehenge. Surely, that couldn't have been a coincidence?

Dr. PEARSON: That's absolutely crucial, and we've noticed that we have similar (unintelligible) axis in the wooden circle upstream. They happen to be exactly the opposite ones, so they are all written on the midsummer sunset, for example, and the midsummer sunrise, whereas at Stonehenge, it's a midwinter sunset and the midsummer sunrise.

We think this is very deliberate, this whole part of having two sides of the same coin. And they're to do, I think, with the moments, the timing of ceremonies. And the biggest one, well, my guess, given the remains we've found, is the midwinter. But the other one, of course, is midsummer. And these are two really crucial moments. I mean, the midsummer is all to do with everything sprouting and growing, being very fertile. Midwinter, everything's dying down.

And I think this is why these two monuments are set up together, because they are actually to do with not just the life passage but the world passage. The idea that humans are plugged into nature and its most sort of elemental and astronomical forms.

CONAN: Let's get Dana on the line, Dana's with us from Sterling, Illinois.

DANA (Caller) Hi, Neal, Dr. Parker Pearson, fantastic to talk to you. I watched the show on "National Geographic" and I had a question for you. Can you hear me OK?

CONAN: Yeah, go ahead, please.

Dr. PEARSON: We can hear you fine.

DANA: The way I understood it, in the summer solstice the people started at Stonehenge and went to Woodhenge and then had a big party.

Dr. PEARSON: Yes.

DANA: And that's 12 hours of daylight. Then on the winter solstice, they started at Woodhenge and went to Stonehenge, during which they stop off at the river to deliver the ashes of their dead. Am I right so far?

Dr. PEARSON: Yes. Carry on. Yes.

DANA: Well, that is about six hours of daylight, give or take. So how do you account for difference in the amount of daylight making the same trip and seeing...

Dr. PEARSON: It matters what you are doing. I mean, it doesn't actually take six hours to walk it.

DANA: OK.

Dr. PEARSON: It's only three or four miles. And I think what we are probably looking at is people planning these events with specific stop-offs along the way. You can do that walk today in three hours, maybe four.

CONAN: So there were stations along the way, wherever the things happened.

Dr. PEARSON: There are some really impressive cliffs there, special deposits in these cliffs. Some of them contain these pits that are full of wood ash, and we think that these must have arrived from huge great fires that were being lit on the cliffs above the river. So it could have been really a quite extraordinary scene. And if it's something that you're not going do from A to B at a constant speed, you're going to do it according to amounts of stopping off.

DANA: So they had rituals along the way, as well as...

Dr. PEARSON: I think so, yeah.

CONAN: Or at least a barbecue.

Dr. PEARSON: The other to remember that we perhaps take for granted is of course the midwinter ceremony is still hugely important across northern Europe today. We call it Christmas, but basically what we've done is we're just Christianized what was indeed a pagan festival and an extremely important one. And because it's a point in the year when, as I said earlier, everything is dying off, but also it's a time to really get together and you know, visit and party and so on.

DANA: That's very interesting. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Dana. We're talking with Mike Parker Pearson, an archeologist at the University of Sheffield about Stonehenge. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Ron on the line. Ron is with us from Hamilton in New York.

RON (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

RON: Hi and thank you. I've been to Stonehenge, but actually was more fascinated by and spent more time exploring the burials. And I believe it was Silvery Hill, actually got to go to the top of that. And stone-lined avenues at the Avebury. So do some of your findings at Stonehenge - do you think they apply there also or weren't the burials themselves actually the burials sites in that area?

Dr. PEARSON: Yeah. One of the really interesting things about Avery is that it, too, has got a wooden counterpart along the river, a place called the West Kennet, and they call it the West Kennet Palisade.

They've had various excavations, what was done over 10 years ago, and we've got a rough idea of their dating. The thing that's really unfortunate about Avery is we just don't have enough dates for the complex itself. So that actually, none of the standing stone arrangements in Avery are properly dated.

We think broadly it's somewhere around the third millennium BC but we haven't got any precise dates. The only monument that is now precisely dated within the Avery complex is Silvery Hill, and that was built within a decade either side of 2400 BC.

It's a fantastic monument. It's one of the most pointless kind of labor anyone can think of. Haul up as much soil as you can and leave a flat platform at the top. I think one of the really interesting things though, is it seems to be the very last of these great super monuments, of which Stonehenge is obviously the classic example. And after that, nobody can be bothered to get together in large numbers to do this kind of public labor anymore. So it's a really interesting point.

I just wonder if after 2400, what happens is that the people just say, we're not doing this anymore. And call it little (unintelligible) but that's the kind of work that you can get the extended family to do. So I'm wondering if - saying earlier about the burial in the ditch at Stonehenge had been shot at three or four different directions. It could be a sacrifice but he might just have been the last king that annoyed everybody so much that they did him in.

CONAN: We need more stones! Thanks very much, Ron.

Dr. PEARSON: More work to be done. More work to be done, yes.

CONAN: Let's see. One last call, Walter, Walter with us from Columbia, South Carolina.

WALTER (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Walter.

WALTER: I appreciate you taking my call. I just wanted to make a quick comment. I'm certainly no expert on henges, but I am an architect and I've studied on it from that standpoint and have visited there. And my comment is only don't you think it's an oversimplification to simply say, it's a graveyard or it is a celestial calendar or it is any one thing? It is certainly something that has been considered a sacred place for millennia and has it not probably been many things, just in the sense that Christian churches are quite often built on the foundation of pagan places, and we're continually burying our dead at places we consider sacred.

CONAN: And we're going to give you 30 whole seconds to answer that.

Dr. PEARSON: Yeah, it's a fair point. I think the key thing is that from the moment that Stonehenge is built, which is very shortly after 3000 BC, they are putting in burials as well as the parts of the monuments itself. And I think it's something that's going hand-in-hand with it. And the reason I think that it's important to have association with the ancestors, I'll just stress it again, is it's not set in isolation.

There is this wooden version of it, and to understand Stonehenge, we've got to understand why they are building the two, because they are creating a sense of difference and opposition between the wood and the stone. And I think what that has to do with is they are using the stone to actually symbolize immortality, permanence, and the wood is to do more with the human condition in life.

CONAN: And there we're going to have to leave it. Walter, thank you very much. And Mike Parker Pearson.

Dr. PEARSON: Neal, thank you very much.

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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