Almost 100 years ago, a British archaeologist discovered the remains of ancient humans buried beneath the iconic monument of Stonehenge. Now researchers have been conducting their own studies. And they have made startling revelations about who really built this strange structure thousands of years ago.
West of the English town of Amesbury in Wiltshire and north of the busy A303 road, the green expanse of Salisbury Plain stretches for 300 square miles across southern England. And at the heart of this landscape is the unmistakable silhouette of Stonehenge. This mysterious prehistoric monument has captured our imaginations for hundreds of years.
Thought to have been constructed between 3000 and 2000 B.C., Stonehenge today comprises a circle of standing stones some 13 feet tall. And surrounding it are monuments such as burial mounds dating back to both the Neolithic and the Bronze Age periods. Scientific techniques have allowed us to date the structure. However, the questions of how it was built and why remain a matter of much debate.
Created by a culture that we know very little about, the mysteries of Stonehenge have posed a great challenge. To some, the site’s apparent alignment with astronomical events such as the summer and winter solstices indicates that the monument once served a ritualistic purpose. To others, the multiple burials found in the region suggest that the sick once traveled there in search of healing.
But although we might never know the truth about Stonehenge’s purpose, the biggest puzzle of all is the monument’s construction. Some of the individual stones weigh as much as 50 tons. That makes it difficult to see how builders, without the modern machinery employed today, could have achieved such a task.
Over the years, everyone from academics to psychics have attempted to solve the mysteries of Stonehenge. Finally, in the 1920s, a breakthrough was made. Geologists traced the source of the monument’s smaller bluestones to the Preseli Hills. This is a range located more than 100 miles northwest of Salisbury Plain in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
However, no one has solved the mysteries of how – and why – people transported these stones so far. But on August 2, 2018, the journal Nature Scientific Reports published the results of a study that has shed new light on this fascinating piece of ancient history.
England’s University of Oxford and University College London, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium and the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle de Paris in France collaborated on the study. It used both radiocarbon dating and pioneering archaeological techniques to reveal new insights about the people who built Stonehenge.
Apparently, back in the 1920s, archaeologist William Hawley excavated human remains from the vicinity of Stonehenge. Discovered in pits scattered about the inner circumference of the monument, the bones represented 25 different individuals who lived about 3000 B.C. However, they had been cremated, and Hawley could not learn much from his discovery.
Subsequently, Hawley reburied the bones at Stonehenge. And almost 100 years later, the UCL Institute of Archaeology’s Mike Parker Pearson led a team to excavate them once more. In the intervening time, the University of Oxford’s Christophe Snoeck – also a lead author on the study – had pioneered a new technique. This allowed researchers to extract important information from cremated remains.
The technique analyzes the strontium isotope composition of bone. With it, the archaeologists could determine where the people buried at Stonehenge had lived at the end of their lives. And amazingly, they discovered that ten of them did not spend their last years in the local area.
According to experts, strontium isotopes act as a sort of geochemical tag. They allow researchers to trace samples of bone to certain geographic locations. And in this case, the ratios found in ten of the Stonehenge burials were not consistent with the conditions of Salisbury Plain. However, they did match up with another place – western Britain, home of the Preseli Hills.
The science is not precise enough to allow researchers to trace the remains to a specific region of western Britain. However, given the preexisting connection between Stonehenge and the Preseli Hills, it seems likely that the bones discovered at the monument belonged to humans who once lived in the place where the stones were quarried.
“The powerful combination of stable isotopes and spatial technology gives us a new insight into the communities who built Stonehenge,” lead author John Pouncett from the Oxford School of Archaeology announced in an August 2018 statement. “The cremated remains from the enigmatic Aubrey Holes and updated mapping of the biosphere suggest that people from the Preseli Mountains not only supplied the bluestones used to build the stone circle, but moved with the stones and were buried there too.”
According to the study, the movement of people – as well as materials – played a vital role in the construction of Stonehenge. But even though this research has shed some light on who was responsible for building the monument, it fails to explain why such a connection between Wiltshire and west Wales might have existed.
Interestingly, it’s not the only breakthrough relating to Stonehenge that researchers have made in recent years. In fact, back in 2015, a team of archaeologists led by University College London were able to trace the Stonehenge bluestones to a far more specific location within the Preseli Hills.
According to their research, the stones used to build Stonehenge came from two outcrops known as Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin. However, both sites were dated to between 3,400 and 3,200 years ago – some half a century before the monument was constructed. Interestingly, Pearson, who was also involved with this study, believes that the rocks could have been used locally before being relocated to Wiltshire.
And that wasn’t all. It turned out that researchers could cast doubt on previous theories. They achieved this by proving that the stones were quarried from the north side of the hills. Before, many had believed that the builders carried the rocks south across the land to the port of Milford Haven, where they placed them on rafts to float to their final destination.
Instead, Pearson believes that the stones were carried east into England from Wales. “Personally I think that the overland route is more likely,” he said in a statement in 2015. “Each of the 80 monoliths weighed less than two tons, so teams of people or oxen could have managed this. We know from examples in India and elsewhere in Asia that single stones this size can even be carried on wooden lattices by groups of 60 – they didn’t even have to drag them if they didn’t want to.”
Back in 2018, the success of this latest research has drawn attention to the importance of revisiting old finds. New technology has achieved fascinating revelations from just a few scraps of cremated bone. Consequently, it’s thrilling to think what else might be out there waiting to be discovered.