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Stonehenge Cemetry

Every summer, they descend on Stonehenge by the thousands to watch the sun rise on the longest day of the year -Pagans, Druids, party animals, foreign exchange students, families with kids, documentary producers.  Some dance, drum or dream the night away; others sip or smoke all manner of mind-altering substances.  When dawn arrives obscured by clouds (or sheets of rain, like the year I tried to attend), no one seems to mind. The vibe is festive and life affirming.  I wonder how many revelers realize they've just boogied down on a sacred burial ground.
GW & MPP at Stonehenge.jpg
Photo Courtesy of Kevin Tod Haug. Left to right: Mike Coles (DP), Gail Willumsen, & Mike Parker Pearson
When I started researching our Stonehenge show, I was surprised to learn that at least 50 human burials were discovered there in the early 20th century.  But that's the tip of the iceberg:  considering all the unexcavated areas of the monument, experts figure at least 240 people were buried at Stonehenge, if not many more.  There has been no shortage of theories about the purpose of Stonehenge -Druid temple, astronomical observatory, landing pad for UFO's- but one thing is certain:  Stonehenge was used as a cemetery.  In fact it's the largest cemetery ever discovered in Britain for its time period (roughly 3000 to 2500 BC -the last gasp of the Stone Age.)

So why have the guidebooks rarely mentioned this? I wonder if it's because nearly all the burials excavated so far have been cremations -small clusters of bone fragments placed directly in the ground (perhaps in now-vanished leather pouches or baskets), with virtually no grave goods.  Finding such modest burials can't have the same impact on archaeologists as the unearthing of full skeletons -or mummies- decked out with jewelry, weaponry, and household items.  

To complicate matters, the archaeologists who excavated most of the burials at Stonehenge did so in the 1920's and 1930's, at time when burnt bone was considered useless for scientific study.  Not a single museum in Britain would accept the cremations from Stonehenge, so they were dumped into four burlap bags, and stored in an attic for a decade.  Then in 1935, archaeologists reburied the bones in a hole at Stonehenge, and largely forgot about them.

What if, instead of 50 cremation burials, archaeologists had discovered 50 complete skeletons at Stonehenge?  What if the dead had been laid to rest in neat rows, or oriented to face the east, with grave goods tucked around them?  What if archaeologists had been able to gaze into the empty eye-sockets of intact skulls? I asked these questions of Mike Pitts, an archaeologist and Stonehenge expert, during an interview in September.  He paused, smiled and mused:  "It's a very good point, that. I like that.  Imagine how different the history of our understanding of Stonehenge would now be."

(PS:  In 2008, Mike Parker Pearson and his team retrieved those reburied cremations.  We'll feature that excavation and the analysis of the bones of the "Stonehenge Dead" in our show.)

Publicist Note: An enduring question about Stonehenge remains: how did Stone Age people --without the wheel or the use of metal--move and raise its stones? NOVA's "Secrets of Stonehenge" airing November 16, 2010... features exclusive coverage of an ingenious new experiment, based on an unusual prehistoric artifact.

User Comments:

When most people think of Stonehenge they think of the Iconic stone monument, not the site on which it was constructed (which had already been in use for some 500 years). We are a long way from proving the structure itself performed any function that was primarily associated with funerary practices or a cemetery. Nor were the cremations ‘placed directly in the ground’, they were for the most part inserted into the fills of existing features (the surrounding ditch and the Aubrey Holes) and show little evidence of having been organized and planned. Given that we are looking at a long period of activity before the major sarsen stones arrived, and a site which has been quite extensively excavated is the presence of these cremations really that surprising?

Return the ancient dead to Aubrey hole #7.

"I wonder how many revelers realize they've just boogied down on a sacred burial ground."

Uh...pretty much most all of the Pagans and Druids you mentioned who didn't come there to "boogie".

'I wonder how many revelers realize they've just boogied down on a sacred burial ground.'

Excuse me dearie most of us that attend are pagan, of course we know its a sacred burial ground. I mean like thats why we go there.

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Gail Willumsen

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