Who Was Buried at Stonehenge?

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The human remains at Stonehenge

Stonehenge is Britain's largest cemetery of the third millennium cal BC and yet we know very little about who was buried there and when. Excavations across almost half of its area have yielded 52 cremation burials, many cremated fragments and over 40 fragments of unburnt human bone (Figures 1 and 2; McKinley 1995). The total number of individuals buried at Stonehenge has been estimated as 240, based on the assumption that many of the cremation deposits each contain the remains of two or three persons (Pitts 2001: 121). If single-individual cremation burials were the norm, a more conservative estimate might be 150 people buried at Stonehenge in the third millennium cal BC.

During his work at Stonehenge between 1919 and 1926, William Hawley excavated cremations from the western half of the monument (mostly from the ditch and the Aubrey Holes; Figure 2). It seems that no museum was prepared to curate these remains, since the scientific value of cremated bone was not appreciated in Britain at the time. In 1935, William Young and R.S. Newall reburied an estimated 58 of the cremation deposits excavated from Stonehenge; packed into four sandbags and accompanied by an inscribed plaque, they were tipped into the previously excavated Aubrey Hole 7. A few cremated remains from later excavations at Stonehenge by Richard Atkinson have remained available for study, being curated in Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum. Only three cremations have been subjected to osteological analysis (McKinley 1995: 456-8) and only one has had associated charcoal radiocarbon-dated, too imprecisely to be of use (C-602; 3798 [+ or -] 275 BP; 2890-2220 cal BC [95% probability]). Previous researchers have assigned the cremation burials to the end of Stonehenge's timber phase (Phase 2; see Table 1) and the beginning of its bluestone and sarsen phase (Phase 3), estimated as around the twenty-seventh to twenty-sixth centuries cal BC (Cleal et al. 1995: 154, 163).

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Some of the unburnt human bones from Hawley's excavations have been lost (Pitts 2001: 116-8), but a number of these have also been kept safely in Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum's collections. The only prehistoric inhumation from Stonehenge, an arrow-pierced adult male known as the Stonehenge Archer, was buried within the ditch (Cutting 61; Evans 1984) and dates to the Beaker period (2340-2195 cal BC [95% probability]).

In 2007 the Stonehenge Riverside Project and Beaker People Project jointly embarked upon a dating programme of these surviving remains to establish when Stonehenge was used as a burial space. With new techniques available for dating cremated human bone (Lanting et al. 2001) and improved methods of analysis for cremated bones (McKinley & Roberts 1993; Mays et al. 2002; Brickley & McKinley 2004) this is an opportune moment to study these neglected people. Furthermore, the contexts and dates of the cremations have led to an amendment of Stonehenge's overall sequence of use.

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Cremations

Of the 34 Aubrey Holes so far excavated, all but eight have contained cremated bones (Figure 2). The cremation burial within Aubrey Hole 32 is the one instance in which human remains are likely to be primary depositions within these pits. Hawley's records of these pits are sketchy at best (Hawley 1921 and unpublished archive). Nonetheless, it is possible to gain some understanding of the stratigraphic positions of cremation deposits within at least some of the Aubrey Holes. Reviewing his descriptions and section drawings, it is possible to establish the positions of some of these deposits within the fills of the pits (see below).

Samples from three cremation burials produced radiocarbon dates within the third millennium cal BC but at different periods within it (Table 2 and Figure 3). The earliest date comes from the cremated remains of an adult from Atkinson's 1950 excavation of Aubrey Hole 32 (Figure 4, layer 4 [context 3008]; Cleal et al. …