Stonehenge has been the subject of numerous theories as researchers attempt to trace its history. It is one of the most iconic and enduring landmarks in the UK, still standing since prehistoric times. The reason it was built is a question that has led to endless debate, but scientists claimed they had solved this mystery. For the first time, human cremation remains excavated from the site were radiocarbon dated.
The results suggested that, for 500 years from its earliest beginnings around 3000 BC, Stonehenge was used as a cemetery.
Mike Parker-Pearson of the University of Sheffield, UK, who led the work in 2004, said: “It is clear that the burials were a major component of Stonehenge in all its main stages.
“This was a cemetery which grew over many centuries.”
Archaeologists had previously assumed that the site was mainly used as a burial ground only between 2800 and 2700BC.
The carbon-dated remains studied in 2004 were three of 52 cremation burials originally excavated during the 1920s.
They were stored in a local museum, while the remaining 49 were reburied because they were thought to be of no scientific value.
The oldest remains found at Stonehenge were found in one of the 56 pits, named Aubrey Holes, hosting remains dating back to between 2930 to 2870 BC.
The oldest remains were found in one of the 56 pits circling Stonehenge, called the Aubrey Holes, which date to the earliest phases of Stonehenge, around 3000 BC. The remains also date to around this period – between 3030 and 2880 BC, the study suggests.
However, the fact that Stonehenge was a burial site is not necessarily proof that its primary purpose was as a cemetery.
Christopher Chippindale, curator at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology, said: “Ceremonial places have all sorts of meanings”.
He said, for example, churches are full of burials because they are sacred places, but that’s not their primary purpose.
Mr Chippendale added: “It is another part of the puzzle, but it’s not the final answer.”
Meanwhile, Tim Darvill at Bournemouth University, UK, had a different explanation as to why Stonehenge was built.
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He and Geoff Wainwright, former head of archaeology at English Heritage, believed that the arrival of the stones marked a transition in the site’s use to a centre of healing – a kind of prehistoric Lourdes.
Mr Darvill said: “I don’t think the new dates change one iota what we already knew, which was that pretty much all the burials were before 2500 BC.
“It’s a good step forward to have these fully dated examples, but they simply reinforce our model that after about 2500 BC, when the stones start being put up, the burials decline in number and the stones become the focus of the monument.”