Ghosts of Stonehenge

Archaeologists have uncovered provocative new clues about Stonehenge and the culture that drove its construction. Airing October 11, 2017 at 9 pm on PBS Aired October 11, 2017 on PBS

Program Description

Stonehenge is the grandest and most enigmatic of Europe’s prehistoric monuments, and it has inspired countless theories to explain who built it and why. Was it an ancient cathedral or burial place or even a Stone Age observatory or computer? Over the last decade, fresh answers have come from an ambitious program of research, including the first scientific study of human remains—thousands of fragments of cremated men, women, and children—buried at the site 5,000 years ago. In this Stone Age detective story, archaeologists analyze the bones and piece together tantalizing details of the elite families who presided over Stonehenge. Remnants of huge feasts that fed the laborers at the site have come to light, including evidence that they traveled from the far corners of the British Isles to raise the stones and celebrate the winter solstice. Yet Stonehenge’s place as a centerpiece of ancient culture was not to last. Join NOVA as we reveal intimate details of the Stonehenge people and why their power began to fade soon after they raised the mighty stones.


Ghosts of Stonehenge

PBS Airdate: October 11, 2017

NARRATOR: It's one of the world's most iconic prehistoric monuments. 'Who built it and why' have inspired countless theories. Was it an ancient cathedral or burial place or even a Stone Age observatory or computer?

MIKE PARKER PEARSON (University College London): There's been so much written about Stonehenge. Every generation has come up with new ideas; some great insights, others rather nutty.

NARRATOR: Now, an archaeologist has recovered clues about the people who raised these enigmatic stones and what motivated this extraordinary feat of prehistoric engineering. Provocative new evidence reveals hidden secrets of the people who built Stonehenge and what happened to them.

Five-thousand-year-old bones testify to the elite families, perhaps a single dynasty, that ruled Stonehenge. Groundbreaking new work is giving us intimate glimpses into the builders' lives and the beliefs that inspired this unique monument. Now we know where they came from, what they ate and how they celebrated. But what motivated them to haul some of the rocks here from outcrops in Wales, 180 miles away?

And can these bones solve the ultimate mystery: why did the power of the Stonehenge people finally fade, and their colossal monument fall into ruin? Can science finally lay to rest the Ghosts of Stonehenge? Right now, on NOVA.

The extraordinary story of the lost builders of Stonehenge begins almost a century ago. A team led by archaeologist William Hawley was digging at Britain's most famous prehistoric monument when they uncovered an outer ring of pits. Digging into them, they found burned fragments of human bones.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: Hawley dug up lots of cremation burials at Stonehenge, but he didn't know what to do with them, so they were left with his assistant, put into sandbags, and his assistant buried them, in 1935.

NARRATOR: British archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson was granted special permission to recover these remains.

Hawley's assistants had reburied all the bones in a single pit, so Mike's team was unsure of what they might find.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: I think we've just got to very carefully loosen the soil, bit by bit.

This is desperately uncomfortable.

ASSISTANT 1: Yeah, it is quite.


MIKE PARKER PEARSON: So, we're just going to take it in turns, for as long as each of us can stand.

ASSISTANT 3: Until the blood rushes to your head and you start to feel faint.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: That's already happened.

NARRATOR: One clue was an entry in the assistant's notebook that the remains had been reburied under a plaque.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: Since we dug down into the pit, we came to a layer with a lead plaque, and Hawley's assistant had had it inscribed to say, "Here are the bones of the people of Stonehenge."

NARRATOR: But what was beneath the plaque was a crushing disappointment.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: I think we were all hoping that the two men who buried these bones for posterity would actually put them in decent containers. But all we're really looking at are very loose, cremated bones.

I was hoping it was going to be easy, but this is the worst-case scenario.

NARRATOR: The remains from all the different pits were hopelessly intermingled.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: We were really hoping that he was going to have put them all individually within the pit, but they were all mixed together. We realized that we were looking at a great mass of mixed up material. This was going to be a very long and difficult job to disentangle all the different fragments.

NARRATOR: With painstaking care, they transferred the jumbled bones to their lab, to begin the arduous process of sorting through some 50,000 fragments.

Meanwhile, Mike took a closer look at the pit itself and found evidence that indicated a surprising new chapter in the story of Stonehenge.

That story begins 5,000 years ago, before Egypt built its pyramids. It was Britain's Stone Age, when a flourishing agricultural society, despite having no modern technology, managed a marvel of ancient engineering: a circular ditch and bank surround the enormous stones; upright pillars tower over 20 feet and weigh at least 40 tons; horizontal slabs, called "lintels," form huge archways.

All these giants are made of "sarsen," a local sandstone, harder than granite, yet they were carved and fitted like woodwork. Uprights were tapered and topped with knobs. These fit hollows on the bottoms of lintels. Curved lintels, joined by tongue and groove, formed a nearly perfect circle. And despite a slight slope, this ring of lintels was level to within inches.

The sarsens dominate Stonehenge, but nestled among them are smaller stones, no less remarkable. Geologists determined these are bluestones, transported here from Wales, 180 miles away. So who built Stonehenge? The identity of the builders has always been a mystery.

Will the bones that Mike Parker Pearson's team has found in the burial pit help solve it? After removing the bones, they find a clue at the bottom of the pit.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: What we have here is an area that is really quite smooth and flat, but it's got lots of crunched up pieces in it, whereas around it, we have this blocky type of chalk.

NARRATOR: The chalk at the bottom of the pit appears to have been under pressure from something extremely heavy, perhaps the base of a stone.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: What happens when you put a great big stone vertically into a place like this, it actually crushes the chalk so it loses its structure. It really does look as though this is going to be the position within the pit that the stone was actually placed.

So, it has to have been fairly slim, narrow stones put in those holes, and at Stonehenge, there's only one candidate. It could only be the bluestones.

NARRATOR: Mike suspected that the bluestones now grouped in the center of the monument had once stood in the outer ring of pits, where the cremated bones were found. The bone fragments were buried in the pits, alongside the stones, and they were crushed down so tightly that they picked up fragments of the calcium carbonate, or chalk, bedrock.

CHRISTIE WILLIS (University College London): It's a small piece of bone, completely encrusted with calcium carbonate.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: So, this is actually adhered to the bone from the surrounding chalk environment.

NARRATOR: The crushed chalk sticking to the bones suggested that the burials occurred at the same time the pits were dug for the bluestones. Mike believes that makes the bluestones even more significant.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: I think it shows us something really important: that there's a deliberate association with somebody's remains and one of these stones. It's almost like a gravestone.

NARRATOR: Carbon dating of the bones revealed that they were buried around 3000 B.C. Since it's known that the enormous ring of pillars was not erected until 2500 B.C., this means that the bluestones and the burial pits were the very first structures at Stonehenge.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: This fundamentally changed the accepted view of how we looked at Stonehenge.

NARRATOR: Mike's evidence showed that Stonehenge has not always looked this way. In fact, 5,000 years ago, when it was first built, it looked like this. Before the inner ring of giant sarsen stones was put in place, it was a huge prehistoric cemetery. The bluestones marked the graves of the people whose remains Mike's team is now analyzing.

So, was there something special about the people buried here? Who were they?

With the bone fragments laid out in the lab, Mike and his team can begin their analysis. First, they have to solve a 50,000-piece prehistoric jigsaw puzzle.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: They don't look like much. It's hard to even recognize some of them as bones, because they're fragments that have come through the cremation process. But if you look carefully, with the expert eye, you can see that they belong to different parts of the skeleton: the ribs, the vertebrae, the mandible, the skull.

NARRATOR: The first question is, how many bodies are they dealing with? Osteoarchaeologist Christie Willis finds a telltale clue.

CHRISTIE WILLIS: So, the bones that we have found that are most common throughout the collection are the ear bones. We have one on the left and one on the right, and because of this, we are able to prove that they are unique individuals.

So, this is one of the cremated ear bones here. They are quite easily identifiable, very solid, very compact bone with a small hole in here for your inner canal.

NARRATOR: This tiny bone will allow the team to determine the minimum number of individuals in the sample. Once that's done, they can apply more advanced tests to other bones. Carbon dating should indicate if all the individuals died around the same time or if bones were added over decades or centuries.

As Mike and his colleagues gather their clues, new research is filling in a picture that is very different from the stereotype of Stone Age, or Neolithic, people.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: When you say words like Stone Age and Neolithic, people's image is often of hairy, club-wielding cavemen. We've got to understand that, not only was this at the very end of the Stone Age, when people were busy farming, these are also people who are effectively just like us anatomically, cerebrally the same. What is different is that their technology is much more simple. So, they're not primitive, they are just people with primitive technology.

NARRATOR: The sophistication of Neolithic society has been revealed by a recent find at Lake Chalain in France, 500 miles from Stonehenge. Preserved under water were artifacts from a lakeside village at least as old as Stonehenge itself. These items were likely to have been in common use throughout Europe during the Stone Age.

ALISON SHERIDAN (National Museums Scotland): What we can see here is that people were incredibly skilled. This is a little wooden-handled bowl; it's so beautifully made. You can understand immediately what it was used for. Very, very simple, made probably of ash, with a tiny little handle here, and yet, it's nearly 5,000 years old, and it looks as if it could have been made yesterday. Some of these objects look very, very modern. I mean, you can imagine using this ladle today; it's fit for purpose.

NARRATOR: It's a natural assumption that Neolithic people wore primitive clothing, but the next discovery shows this to be another misconception.

ALISON SHERIDAN: So, what we have here is a shoe that's nearly 5,000 years old. And it's in incredibly good condition. And this is made of bast fibers, and you can see, just about, that it's a shoe. And it's got a kind of seam, a fold here, and, obviously, it would have been flattened out over time. But perhaps the foot would have gone there, and that would have been folded up around it. It would have been, you know, quite hardwearing in its time.

NARRATOR: These Stone Age artifacts point to a more civilized way of life than is often imagined. But what role did the people buried at Stonehenge play in their society? Mike and his colleagues are considering several intriguing possibilities.

One theory draws on evidence that Stone Age Britain sometimes erupted in violent conflict. Settlements centuries older than Stonehenge were often fortified and occasionally burned, a sign of raiding or warfare.

There's further evidence of strife at burial sites in southwest England. Early Neolithic tombs like this one at West Kennet, 15 miles from Stonehenge, reveal forensic evidence of violent injuries.

RICK SCHULTING (University of Oxford): This is the West Kennet chamber tomb. We have chambers either side of us that held the remains of the Neolithic dead.

NARRATOR: Rick Schulting is an expert on prehistoric violence.

RICK SCHULTING: Most of the humans' remains that we have from the Neolithic come from long barrows like this. These were the communal burial places of the dead. So, this is the kind of evidence we have to look at. And sometimes we do find evidence for unhealed injuries, so we have a massive, well it's just a replica, but we have a massive hole to the head, here, that shows no evidence of healing. And we do find injuries like this from this period.

NARRATOR: While such injuries could be from domestic violence, clusters of arrowheads at several sites indicate warfare. Could the people buried at Stonehenge have been a band of warriors or victims of a prehistoric battle? Or could there be a more peaceful explanation?

Two unusual artifacts found among the cremated bones at Stonehenge suggest a special status for the people buried there. One was a mace head of polished volcanic rock, originally mounted on a wooden staff, like a scepter.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: The presence of a mace head in one of the burials at Stonehenge indicates that that man was a person of authority.

NARRATOR: Another find indicates this authority might have been based in religion or ritual.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: One of the other grave goods was a small pottery cup or disc, which had burning on one side. It may well be an incense burner. So, this provides a second clue, which is that they may have had some religious role or religious or ritual authority

NARRATOR: If Mike is right, these bones could be the remains of a religious order, the spiritual leaders of their time.

Meanwhile, Christie discovers another clue as she continues her analysis of the bones. This unremarkable-looking fragment has a special characteristic that could identify it as male or female.

CHRISTIE WILLIS: The second most commonly represented bone that we have been able to identify is the occipital bone. We have several samples here. And it's a bone that's situated right at the very back of your skull. And we can easily sample these, because they are much larger fragment.

NARRATOR: As each occipital bone passes through a CAT scanner, the resulting image allows Christie to gauge the bone's thickness, a reliable indicator of gender.

CHRISTIE WILLIS: So, here we have the first occipital bone coming through.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: Mmmm, it's right at the back of the head. Yes, that's all these different slices, isn't it?

CHRISTIE WILLIS: That's right, that the CAT scan makes. But you can see, as its coming through, the sharp rise, predominant ridge that is happening. And if we stop it here, it properly drops off. And this is where all the muscles are coming from at the back to attach onto this ridge.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: So, that's to be expected with a typical male then?

CHRISTIE WILLIS: That's correct, yes.

NARRATOR: The next specimen they analyze is quite different.

CHRISTIE WILLIS: So, here we have the female occipital coming up. And we can see, as its coming through slice by slice, the rise is very, very gentle. And then it just gently slopes off.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: So, that means we're not really looking at a cemetery of monks or male warriors.

NARRATOR: So, the presence of both sexes in the remains makes it unlikely that the Stonehenge dead were warriors or an all-male religious order.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: It's difficult to be utterly categorical, but, as a generalization, it's unusual to find religious orders where you've got men and women together or, for example, warrior battalions where you've got men and women together. The mix of sexes would suggest that those are unlikely scenarios.

NARRATOR: So, who might the Stonehenge dead be? The tests on the bones are coming to an end. Some 27 individuals have been recovered from the fragments, mostly adult men and women but also five children. If not a religious order or warriors, who were they?

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: What I think we might be looking at is a community, men, women and children, from some sort of special selection process. You could use the word aristocracy, an elite.

NARRATOR: Radiocarbon dating tests offer a final clue, showing that these families were not all cremated and buried at the same time but over five centuries, between 3,000 and 2,500 B.C. If Mike is right, they were members of elite families, perhaps even a single dynasty that ruled over Stonehenge in its earliest stages.

After cremation, their graves were marked by the ring of bluestones. But why here? Is there anything special about Stonehenge's location, a windswept slope on Salisbury Plain, that could explain why these elite families were commemorated here so elaborately?

To help solve the mystery, Mike starts with one of the monument's best-known features, its alignment to the sun.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: Looking at this model, you can get a real sense of why Stonehenge has been one of the most debated monuments of the ancient world. It's a massive great edifice and, of course, the other important aspect is its solstice alignments. So, in the one direction, we're aligned on the midsummer sunrise and 180 degrees in the opposite direction, the sun's setting.

NARRATOR: Visitors to Stonehenge can see that the ring is arranged so its centerline points in the direction where the sun rises at the summer solstice and sets at the winter solstice, the longest and shortest days of the year.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: The solstices were significant, because this was a means of timekeeping. They define important moments in the solar cycle and, particularly at midwinter, the transition from the old year to the new.

Throughout the Neolithic period, the 4th and 3rd millenia B.C., there are monuments which have orientations towards either sunrise or sunset on midwinter solstice.

NARRATOR: Besides the astronomical alignment of Stonehenge, Mike suspects another factor played a part in its location, an unusual natural feature in the landscape. The evidence comes from the remains of an ancient avenue leading to the monument.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: This is the Stonehenge Avenue, the processional route into Stonehenge. And it consists of a ditch on either side and a bank, and there's another bank that runs parallel with it.

NARRATOR: The Avenue's twin banks and ditches are now eroded and best seen from the air. Originally, this processional route led from the local river, nearly two miles away, to the site of Stonehenge.

A curious natural feature, which was here long before Stonehenge, may explain its origin. The archaeology team found that a pair of deep, narrow channels, caused by water freezing and thawing during the Ice Age, ran in parallel across the ancient landscape.

These straight lines may have seemed significant to Neolithic people, since they appeared to point in the direction of the solstice sunrise and sunset.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: By an extraordinary cosmological coincidence, this alignment, and that direction is towards the midwinter solstice sunset, so, this must have seemed like an extraordinary message from the gods. It may well have possibly been the center of their universe.

NARRATOR: In a world without watches, clocks or calendars, a place where the longest and shortest days were marked by a natural feature may have seemed more than a coincidence. To Stone Age people, it could have signaled an auspicious place to bury their most important families and a place worth marking with very special stones.

The bluestones that stood in the burial pits are unlike any of the rocks in the local geology. So where did they come from?

Recent evidence indicates an exact geological match in only one spot in Britain, in West Wales, 180 miles from Stonehenge. Here, there are natural outcrops of bluestone, but after years of searching, no one could find evidence of any ancient quarries.

Mike's team decided to investigate a promising outcrop of a distinctive type of bluestone, called "rhyolite."

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: What we've got here are blocks of rhyolite, so, they are ready-formed standing stones. They are still part of the living rock, but they are just waiting to be prized out. So, if we pull this away, right in front of our eyes there is a Stonehenge standard stone.

So, what we're hoping is that this is going to be a part of the quarry that they came to, to extract some of these, ultimately, that end up at Stonehenge, 180 miles away.

NARRATOR: Can the team find Neolithic artifacts or any traces of quarrying operations at this natural outcrop of bluestones? At first, the results look promising.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: We've now opened an excavation here, and what have we got? Not just a quarry with prehistoric artifacts in it, but something they left behind, because, just over here, we've actually got one of the finished monoliths. This was ready to leave the quarry, but the most extraordinary thing is they left it.

So, by a huge piece of luck, we have found the smoking gun that shows that this was one of the quarries most certainly for Stonehenge.

NARRATOR: Disappointingly, most of the possible traces of quarrying here turned out to date to many centuries after Stonehenge. Yet geological evidence still points strongly to this outcrop as the source of some Stonehenge bluestones, and to other outcrops in this small area of West Wales for most of the rest.

That poses an even bigger puzzle: how did prehistoric people transport about 80 two-ton blocks all the way to Stonehenge, 180 miles away, long before the invention of the wheel? It's a mystery that has led to many colorful theories.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: People get immensely excited about all the possibilities of how those stones made it from Wales to Stonehenge. Because it's so far—it's well over a hundred miles—some have thought, "Well, this just isn't humanly possible, given the technology of the age; it must have been space aliens."

NARRATOR: Mike has a more down-to-earth explanation.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: What people often forget is that we're looking at an age when devotion was really important. This is just one of a whole series of spectacular earth-moving and stone-moving events that Neolithic people were not just capable of, they wanted to do it. And I think that's the missing part of the equation: it's that if you have the will, you can move mountains. And they clearly did.

NARRATOR: Transporting the stones might have been an effort that united communities, inspired by the importance of Stonehenge as a sacred location, and by the power of the elite families who were buried there. The bluestones raised in the burial pits of those special families created an imposing ceremonial monument.

For 500 years, Stonehenge looked like this. Then a second phase of building took place. Eighty or so giant stones, called sarsens, were dragged from natural outcrops 20 miles away and then assembled into a unique and complex design.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: Now, to put up something like this must have taken a very large workforce. So, this is one of the greatest monuments in the whole of prehistoric Europe.

NARRATOR: In all, the builders dragged, carved and erected 2,000 tons of sarsen stone to complete this phase of construction. Its ruins are the iconic monument we know today.

Many questions remain; not only about how the Stone Age builders pulled off this colossal engineering feat, but how did they work and live here? And what did this massive new monument mean to them?

Less than two miles from Stonehenge, at a site called Durrington Walls, Mike and his team discovered a huge village dating to the same period as the sarsen circle. They found traces of wooden houses and vast amounts of animal bones and pottery. It's the largest Stone Age settlement ever discovered in northwest Europe.

Some of the thousands of animal bones found there have been taken into the lab. They're mostly pig and cattle bones, and there are hints they were consumed at feasts held at a specific time of year.

SARAH VINER-DANIELS (University of Sheffield): Pig teeth erupt, which means they come through the jaw and out into the mouth at specific times during the animal's life. So, by looking at which teeth have erupted, we can start to determine how old the animal was when it died. We can then work out that they were killed first winter of their lives.

NARRATOR: Analysis of the teeth shows that after a spring birth, most of the livestock was slaughtered around midwinter.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: What the animal bones are telling us is that Durrington Walls was no ordinary settlement, lived in all year round. There are specific moments in the year when people were consuming those cattle and pigs and bringing their animals. Not so much "bring a bottle," as "bring a cow" or "bring a pig." We know that they are there for the midsummer and the midwinter, times that we know were embodied in the architecture of Stonehenge itself.

NARRATOR: The evidence indicates that animals were slaughtered to mark the winter solstice during the same period as the erection of the giant ring of sarsen stones. So, could the site at Durrington be the remains of a camp for the laborers who built Stonehenge?

Thousands of pottery fragments were recovered from the site. These, too, are now in the lab, where the team extracts microscopic traces of prehistoric meals.

OLIVER CRAIG (University of York): It's only recently that people have really started to think about what pots were actually used for. And that's because we have new methods of analysis that allow us to get out the foods that have absorbed into this ceramic surface during its use.

NARRATOR: Geochemist Oliver Craig borrows methods used to analyze the nutritional content of our food today, to discover what people at Stonehenge were eating, four-and-a-half-thousand years ago.

OLIVER CRAIG: So, when you see a packet of crisps and you see the amount of fat that's written on the side, for example, how they've decided that, how they determine that is exactly the same as method we use to analyze these pots.

These are the actual ranges based on the authentic products that we know are pig or beef or dairy fat. And what you can see here are these little blue dots, so each of these is a separate molecule that was deposited on the pot during its use.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: Boiled beef, barbecued pork…


MIKE PARKER PEARSON: What's interesting is that this shows a contrast with their everyday life. This is going to a huge great party, a massive feast and eating yourself silly. The debris we found…they were throwing away entire racks of ribs, they hadn't even bothered to chew each one individually.

NARRATOR: The evidence from the animal bones and pots suggests feasting on a completely different scale than the everyday prehistoric diet. Could the winter revelers have indulged in fermented beverages, too?

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: We can find all sorts of other traces in those residues—so whether there's been milk in there or various types of meat—but alcohol, itself, leaves no trace. All we can say is we would expect them to have a thorough knowledge of the properties of yeast, because of a thousand years of working with cereals, so I would hope, for their sakes, that they're actually fermenting alcohol.

NARRATOR: It's a vivid picture of feasting on an epic scale.

But the size of these celebrations poses another puzzle for Mike and his team. To judge from the evidence at the site, as many as 4,000 people may have gathered at Durrington each winter. Where did they come from?

Surprisingly, with the help of an ingenious process, animal teeth can reveal the origins of their owners.

JANE EVANS (British Geological Survey): Teeth are very important to us, because they incorporate elements that can tell us something about an animal's diet. Now, the first thing we have to do is we take the tooth out, and we clean off the surfaces, and we cut a section out of the tooth. And then, with these large teeth, in fact, we then cut a very small fragment out of the tooth. And this is the kind of sample that we'd actually work on. It's a tiny little piece of clean enamel. What we do with that is we dissolve it, up in a chemistry laboratory. And then we are able to separate the strontium from all the other elements in that tooth that we don't want. So when we, as archaeologists, come to look at the composition of the teeth, we can use the isotope composition of the strontium to tell us something about where the animal spent the time during which its teeth were formed.

NARRATOR: Isotopes are different forms of chemical elements. Elements like strontium take on different forms, depending on their atomic structure. Different regions have distinctive ratios of these isotopes, which get into the teeth and bones of animals and people living there. By analyzing the mix, scientists can tell where the livestock and their owners came from.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: So that's the strontium isotope map of Britain.

JANE EVANS: Yes. And this shows the different isotope compositions of strontium that you'll find across Britain.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: So Durrington Walls is here, isn't it? On the blue?

JANE EVANS: Yes, on the pale blue. So, any animal that was grazed in that area or…

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: That's chalk isn't it, the blue?

JANE EVANS: Chalk, or nearby…

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: We would expect green and blue for the majority of our animals?

JANE EVANS: Absolutely, but if we bring up the Durrington Walls data, you'll see…

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: Yes! Look at all these oranges and reds. So where do you think they come from?

JANE EVANS: Well, they have to come from further afield. If we look at this map, the area that can provide those sorts of values is predominantly Scotland, and that's because the very old rocks in Scotland generate these high values.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: So that's the other end of the country from Stonehenge. That is really quite extraordinary.

NARRATOR: The isotope map reveals a striking fact. People were coming from all over Britain to work and feast at Stonehenge. Mike believes that some visitors may even have come from as far as the Orkney Islands, at the northern tip of the British Isles.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: The cattle bones, the pottery styles, these show us that this apparently remote archipelago of islands, in Orkney was related or linked with Stonehenge.

That's some 700 miles away. To travel that distance by foot and by boat is going to take you a month. It's a very long way. Even today, it takes the best part of a whole day to get between the two. So, if they are moving back and forwards, that is really quite an undertaking. These are really quite substantial trips, with animals, heading south to all meet up.

NARRATOR: So, from far-flung corners of prehistoric Britain, people flocked to join in the task of raising the great ring of sarsens, suggesting that Stonehenge was regarded as a central sacred place.

Based on evidence from the Durrington Walls dig, Mike estimates that up to 4,000 people were involved in midwinter gatherings at Stonehenge, a large proportion of a total population that probably numbered just a few tens of thousands. So, this may have been the first example of a united, island-wide cultural event.

The festivities would begin at the builders' camp at Durrington. After extravagant feasting, a procession might have made its way up the avenue leading to the sacred burial site of Stonehenge. There, as the sun could be seen setting along the axis between the stones, the gathered would pay respects to their dead ancestors.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: This would have been an extraordinary event, because, previously, there'd never been such a widely drawn gathering. This is of a different order of magnitude, and you can just imagine the excitement. We haven't seen anything like this on that scale before.

NARRATOR: By 2500 B.C., Stonehenge was a revered monument, attracting people from far and wide to work, celebrate and worship. But over the next century, its status began to change.

At Durrington, analysis of the animal bones and pots suggests that the huge scale of the festivities only lasted for a few decades. Then, much of the site was deserted.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: We know from precise radiocarbon dating that the village here was occupied for a period of less than 45 years, somewhere around 2500 B.C.

NARRATOR: After the building of the sarsen ring, the vast labor force was no longer required. The great midwinter feasts stopped. The massive building project that had drawn people from far and wide was over.

Although Stonehenge would remain a sacred burial place for centuries, a fundamental shift in beliefs and society began to take hold. A clue to that change lies in an ancient grave discovered just three miles from Stonehenge. Belonging to a man in his late 30s or early 40s, these intact bones are quite different from the tiny fragments of previous burials, because this body had not been cremated.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: This is one of the most famous pre-historic burials. He is the "Amesbury Archer," and he represents a sea change in the funerary practices of prehistoric Britain.

This must have been, not just an important individual, but a very large funeral. Before this, people were cremated and buried without grave goods. He, as you can see, is buried with over a hundred grave goods. He's the richest burial from this period.

NARRATOR: These dramatically different burial traditions signal the appearance of a new people known as the "Beaker people."

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: He's called a Beaker burial, because of these distinctive types of pottery. It's the kind of pottery that we don't find in Britain until after the big sarsens were put up at Stonehenge, so after 2500 B.C.

NARRATOR: Many of the wealthiest Beaker people burials cluster around the monument, but there was a major change in the way they honored their dead.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: This is a round barrow. It's a burial mound from the time of the Beaker people, and it dates to about 2000 B.C. This is actually a place where the body, unburnt, is buried, and then a mound is constructed over the top of it.

We know that Stonehenge was important for the Beaker people. The barrows are set on the skyline all around it, just like those that we can see up amongst those trees. So, they're a visible testament to the significance that Stonehenge had for them hundreds of years after it was built.

NARRATOR: But the Beaker people treated their dead very differently than their predecessors. In the earlier period at Stonehenge, bodies were cremated and then buried together in the ring of pits that held the bluestones, with no greater emphasis on one grave than another, but the Beaker people followed entirely new traditions.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: Unlike the 63 cremations from Stonehenge who are buried within one single monument, this will have been built, initially, for one person.

NARRATOR: So, who were these people who buried their dead one-by-one in single graves? Where did they come from?

By not cremating their dead, they left behind important clues in their bones. Burning destroys any chemical traces that can be used to pinpoint origins, but many Beaker bones and teeth remain intact. In one of the largest ever studies of prehistoric remains, archaeologists were able to identify chemical traces in nearly 300 Beaker bodies from many different regions of Britain.

JANET MONTGOMERY (Durham University): What we're doing is extracting traces of different chemical elements that will give us information about the type of climate people were living in, the type of geology they were living on, the environment and the types of foods that they were eating. And with all that evidence, we can then reconstruct their environment.

We can look at one individual and say, "Is this individual of local origin or have they come from somewhere else?"

NARRATOR: The results were surprising, starting with the Amesbury Archer.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: The Amesbury Archer is very unusual within our group of over 300 individuals within Britain. His results show that he grew up in a cold and continental climate. So, that's not Britain, but Europe.

NARRATOR: The teeth of the Amesbury Archer contain a mix of isotopes found mainly on the continent. He may have spent his early life in in the Rhine Valley, in what is now Germany. So, was he part of a Beaker invasion? The results of this large study suggest an alternate scenario.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: Alright; so, this is the man from Shrewton. What do we know about his strontium isotopes?

JANET MONTGOMERY: Well, they would suggest that he grew up on the South Downs really, on the chalk.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: So, in fact, he could be a local lad.


NARRATOR: In fact, most Beaker people were born and bred locally, but they took on Beaker customs, which had developed in northwest Europe and spread widely.

It looks like the Stonehenge people adopted these new continental ways as their own. So, why did the new beliefs and practices of Beaker culture make them turn their back on the age-old traditions represented by Stonehenge?

Mike finds clues among the items found in other Beaker burials.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: The second interesting item is the dagger. It's made out of copper, so, beautiful shiny new material, metal. Nobody had seen this before in Britain. It's a very small knife and it's not the sort of thing that's going to be a very effective weapon. So, this is going to have been as much an item of status as of sheer practical utility. It's state of the art.

NARRATOR: The arrival of copper must have had a profound impact on the people of Stonehenge. For thousands of years, they had crafted their tools, weapons and ornaments from stone and bone. The Archer had hair ornaments made of gold, while his copper daggers marked him as a man of high status.

Both materials would transform the social order.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: It's copper and it's gold. And once you've got those metals, you can show off. This is the arrival of the bling culture.

NARRATOR: These coveted metal objects seem to have brought a fundamental change to ancient Britain. They swept away the communal culture that had once united people from all over the country in great solstice feasts and established new beliefs that celebrated the role of powerful leaders and warriors. The arrival of the Beaker people put an end to the Stone Age and would usher in the Bronze Age, an age that, in many lands, would give rise to myths of heroic kings and warriors. Stonehenge gradually fell into ruin, and the sun set on the age and culture that had sustained it for so long.

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A A Terra Mater Factual Studios / Oxford Scientific Films Co-production in association with Channel 4

© 2017 Terra Mater Factual Studios GmbH and the WGBH Educational Foundation

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Additional Material © 2017 WGBH Educational Foundation

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This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.

Original funding for this program was provided by Draper, 23andMe, the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Montgomery Family Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


Image credit (Stonehenge at Dawn)
© WGBH Educational Foundation


Oliver Craig
University of York
Jane Evans
British Geological Survey
Janet Montgomery
Durham University
Mike Parker Pearson
University College London
Rick Schulting
University of Oxford
Alison Sheridan
National Museums Scotland
Sarah Viner-Daniels
University of Sheffield
Christie Willis
University College London

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