The Stonehenge Riverside Project 2007

Prof Mike Parker Pearson, Dr Josh Pollard, Dr Colin Richards, Prof Julian Thomas, Prof Chris Tilley & Dr Kate Welham, on behalf of the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

Stonehenge is Britain’s biggest cemetery of the 3rd millennium BC (© Adam Stanford of www.aerial-cam.co.uk)

The 2007 season was the largest yet with over 270 people working during the four weeks in August and September on seven different sites as well as on outreach, geophysical survey, flotation and finds processing. Students came from Sheffield, Manchester, Bristol, Bournemouth and Cardiff Universities as well as from University College Dublin, Leiden University in the Netherlands and Kalmar University in Sweden. Over 4000 visitors, the vast majority of them local, received guided tours from National Trust volunteers and project staff, and the re-enactments, craft activities and flint knapping demonstrations at the two Open Weekends were very well attended.

Archaeological excavations were carried out at the east, west and south entrances to Durrington Walls, along the ridge south of Woodhenge, at the Cuckoo Stone, at the west end of the Stonehenge Greater Cursus, and within the relict river channel of the River Avon adjacent to Durrington Walls. Geophysical surveys were finally completed at Durrington Walls and were carried out around the Cuckoo Stone and south of Woodhenge, at the east end of the Greater Cursus, the southwest end of the Stonehenge palisade, the area immediately in front of Stonehenge and at the `elbow´ of the Stonehenge avenue. Geological study of the Welsh bluestone chippings from south of the Greater Cursus has shed new light on their sources in South Wales.

New dates for the people buried at Stonehenge

Reappraisal of previously collected material from Stonehenge continued in 2007-2008 with the submission of 8 samples of human bone for radiocarbon determination. Despite an extensive dating programme in 1994, none of the cremation burials or loose human remains from Stonehenge has been dated until now. Three of the five unburnt human bones submitted dated to the Middle Bronze Age, Iron Age and late Roman period – all considerably later than the main period of Stonehenge´s use. However, the remaining five samples date to the third millennium BC.

These human remains from old excavations have been curated in Salisbury Museum, whose officers and trustees have kindly agreed to their further invest

The earliest date was for the cremation burial of an adult from the lower fill of Aubrey Hole 32. Its date of 3030-2880 BC (at 95% probability) provides a terminus ante quem for the Aubrey Holes, hitherto undated, which can now be placed most likely as part of the monument´s initial construction (3015-2935 BC). The cremation burial thus dates to the earliest use of the monument. A cremation burial of a young or mature adult from the middle fill of the Stonehenge ditch (layer 3898 on the ditch´s north side) dates to 2930-2870 BC, shortly after construction. Human skull fragments from the northern ditch fill (1560 in layer 3639) and from the eastern ditch fill (2589 from layer 3641) date to 2890-2630 BC and 2880-2570 BC respectively. Both of these fall largely within the period before the great sarsen stones were erected.

Dates

Stonehenge´s ditch was re-cut (partly dug out) during the period 2560-2140 BC and the third cremation burial – that of a 25 year-old woman – was placed in this new ditch on the ditch´s northern side (in layer 3893). Its date of 2570-2340 BC (at 95% probability) places her death within or after the period when the sarsens were erected.

Men, women and some children buried over 600 years or more

Archaeologists have considered that Stonehenge was used as a burial ground only for a short part of its use (i.e. in the 28th and 27th centuries BC). The new dates refute this theory and support the notion that Stonehenge was a cemetery from around its inception until the period of the sarsens (2655-2485 BC). The three dated cremation burials span a period of about 500 years from Stonehenge´s beginnings to after the sarsen circle and trilithons were erected. The remaining 49 cremation burials excavated from Stonehenge were re-buried in 1935. Half of these came from the Aubrey Holes and half from the ditch. Of those from the ditch, most were buried in its upper fills and are likely to date to the same period as the cremation of the 25 year-old woman.

The implications of these new dates are considerable.

  1. Stonehenge was a place of burial from beginning to end during its use in the 3rd millennium BC. The cremation burial dating to Stonehenge’s sarsen phase is probably just one of many from this later period of the monument’s use and demonstrates that it was still very much a ‘domain of the dead’ when the sarsen circle and trilithons were erected.
  2. Stonehenge was the biggest cemetery of its time, larger than 14 other comparable cemeteries known elsewhere in Britain from the 3rd millennium BC.
  3. The long span of dates indicates that this was a cemetery which grew over many centuries; the estimated total of up to 240 dead – men, women and children – buried at Stonehenge were interred over a period of around 500 years. If people were buried here at an average rate of around one person every two years then they were drawn from a very small and select living population. We can thus rule out the validity of any historical evidence from Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century AD, that Stonehenge commemorated casualties of a battle. Rather, the people buried here were interred over centuries, possibly because of their special status as members of an elite dynasty of rulers.