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The dead of Stonehenge

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The assemblage of Neolithic cremated human remains from Stonehenge is the largest in Britain, and demonstrates that the monument was closely associated with the dead. New radiocarbon dates and Bayesian analysis indicate that cremated remains were deposited over a period of around five centuries from c. 3000–2500 BC. Earlier cremations were placed within or beside the Aubrey Holes that had held small bluestone standing stones during the first phase of the monument; later cremations were placed in the peripheral ditch, perhaps signifying the transition from a link between specific dead individuals and particular stones, to a more diffuse collectivity of increasingly long-dead ancestors.
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The dead of Stonehenge
Christie Willis, Peter Marshall, Jacqueline McKinley, Mike Pitts, Joshua Pollard, Colin Richards,
Julian Richards, Julian Thomas, Tony Waldron, Kate Welham and Mike Parker Pearson
Antiquity / Volume 90 / Issue 350 / April 2016, pp 337 - 356
DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2016.26, Published online: 06 April 2016
Link to this article:
How to cite this article:
Christie Willis, Peter Marshall, Jacqueline McKinley, Mike Pitts, Joshua Pollard, Colin Richards,
Julian Richards, Julian Thomas, Tony Waldron, Kate Welham and Mike Parker Pearson (2016).
The dead of Stonehenge. Antiquity, 90, pp 337-356 doi:10.15184/aqy.2016.26
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The dead of Stonehenge
Christie Willis1, Peter Marshall2, Jacqueline McKinley3, Mike Pitts4,
Joshua Pollard5, Colin Richards6, Julian Richards7, Julian Thomas6,
Tony Waldron1, Kate Welham8& Mike Parker Pearson1,
The assemblage of Neolithic cremated human
remains from Stonehenge is the largest
in Britain, and demonstrates that the
monument was closely associated with the
dead. New radiocarbon dates and Bayesian
analysis indicate that cremated remains were
deposited over a period of around five
centuries from c. 3000–2500 BC. Earlier
cremations were placed within or beside the
Aubrey Holes that had held small bluestone
standing stones during the first phase of the
monument; later cremations were placed in
the peripheral ditch, perhaps signifying the
transition from a link between specific dead
individuals and particular stones, to a more
diffuse collectivity of increasingly long-dead ancestors.
Keywords: Stonehenge, Late Neolithic–Early Bronze Age, cremation, Bayesian dating
Stonehenge, a Late Neolithic–Early Bronze Age monument in Wiltshire, southern England,
was constructed in five stages between around 3000 BC and 1500 BC (Darvill et al.2012).
The first stage consisted of a circular ditch enclosing pits thought to have held posts or
standing stones, of which the best known are the 56 Aubrey Holes. These are now believed
to have held a circle of small standing stones, specifically ‘bluestones’ from Wales (Parker
Pearson et al.2009: 31–33). In its second stage, Stonehenge took on the form in which it
is recognisable today, with its ‘sarsen’ circle and horseshoe array of five sarsen ‘trilithons’
surrounding the rearranged bluestones.
1UCL Institute of Archaeology, 31–34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, UK
2Chronologies, 25 Onslow Road, Sheffield S11 7AF, UK
3Wessex Archaeology, Portway House, Old Sarum Park, Salisbury SP4 6EB, UK
4Council for British Archaeology, 66 Bootham, York YO30 7BZ, UK
5Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BF, UK
6School of Arts, Languages & Cultures, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PL, UK
7Archaemedia, Foyle Hill House, Shaftesbury SP7 0PT, UK
8Department of Archaeology, Anthropology & Forensic Science, Bournemouth University, Poole BH12 5BB, UK
Author for correspondence (Email:
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ANTIQUITY 90 350 (2016): 337–356 doi:10.15184/aqy.2016.26
Christie Willis et al.
Starting in 2003, the Stonehenge Riverside Project explored the theory that Stonehenge
was built in stone for the ancestors, whereas timber circles and other wooden structures
were made for the living (Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998). Stonehenge has long been
known to contain prehistoric burials (Hawley 1921). Most were undated, so a priority for
the project was to establish whether, when and in what ways these dead were associated with
the monument. Until excavation in 2008, most of the recovered human remains remained
inaccessible for scientific research, having been reburied at Stonehenge in 1935 (Young
1935: 20–21).
Stonehenge’s human remains
As reported in a previous issue (Parker Pearson et al. 2009), radiocarbon dating of museum
specimens of human bone from Stonehenge (Figure 1) reveals that they date from the third
millennium BC (Late Neolithic) to the first millennium AD (Pitts et al. 2002; Hamilton
et al. 2007; Parker Pearson et al. 2009; Parker Pearson & Cox Willis 2011). Most of
the human remains from Stonehenge were cremated, the excavated sample being recovered
largely as cremation deposits by William Hawley between 1920 and 1926. Of these cremated
bones, the larger components recognised and hand-collected by Hawley were later reburied,
unanalysed, in Aubrey Hole 7 in 1935 (Young 1935: 20–21). This material was re-excavated
in 2008 by the Stonehenge Riverside Project in order to assess demographic structure, recover
pathological evidence and date the burial sequence at Stonehenge. Aubrey Hole 7 was itself
investigated to explore whether the Aubrey Holes had formerly held standing stones—the
Welsh ‘bluestones’ (Hawley 1921: 30–31; Parker Pearson et al. 2009: 31–33).
Hawley excavated cremated remains from many contexts across the south-eastern half of
Stonehenge, including the fills of 23 of the 56 Aubrey Holes (AH2–AH18, AH20–AH21,
AH23–AH24 & AH28–AH29), the Stonehenge enclosure ditch and the area enclosed by
that ditch (Figure 2; Hawley 1921,1923,1924,1925,1926,1928). Most of the cremation
deposits within the enclosure were found clustered around Aubrey Holes 14–16, with
only one (2125) from the centre of the monument, just outside the sarsen circle. Fifty-
nine deposits of cremated bone are identifiable from Hawley’s records. There was a single
grave good: a polished gneiss mace-head from a deposit within the enclosure’s interior
(Hawley 1925: 33–34; Cleal et al. 1995: 394–95, 455); pyre goods of bone/antler skewer
pins were recovered from Aubrey Holes 5, 12, 13 and 24, and from a deposit in the
ditch (Cleal et al. 1995: 409–10). A ceramic object from a disturbed deposit of cremated
bone in Aubrey Hole 29 may also be a grave good (Hawley 1923: 17; Cleal et al. 1995:
Hawley noted that several of the burial deposits had circular margins, suggesting that
they had been placed in organic containers such as leather bags. He states that: “in every
case [the burials in the Aubrey Holes] had apparently been brought from a distant place for
interment” (1928: 158).
Youn g (1935) recorded that four sandbags of bones were brought to the site for reburial
in 1935. On re-excavation in 2008, the remains formed an undifferentiated layer at the base
of Aubrey Hole 7 (Figure 3). Consequently, it was not possible to distinguish visually either
the material from the four sandbags or the original 59 cremation deposits, or to relate the
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The dead of Stonehenge
Figure 1. Stonehenge and its environs on Salisbury Plain (drawn by Josh Pollard).
remains to the grave or pyre goods. The remains were re-excavated by spit (50mm) and by
grid (50mm ×50mm) to allow the formation process to be studied through osteological
analysis. The distribution of discrete skeletal elements (e.g. occipital bones, internal auditory
meatus (IAM)) deriving from different individuals showed, however, no spatial patterning.
This suggests that the remains were thoroughly commingled on deposition rather than
having been packed separately by context as individual burials.
During re-excavation of Aubrey Hole 7 (Figures 4 &5), the remains of a hitherto
unexcavated cremation burial (007), unaccompanied by any grave goods, was identified
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Figure 2. The distribution of third millennium BC burials (in red) at Stonehenge; Aubrey Hole 7 is in the east part of the
circle of Aubrey Holes (drawn by Irene de Luis, based on Cleal et al. 1995:tab.7).
on the western edge of the Hole. It had a circular margin indicative of a former organic
container and was set in its own shallow, bowl-shaped grave (Figure 6).
The remains (1173.08g) were identified as those of an adult woman, and were dated
to 3090–2900 cal BC (95% confidence; SUERC-30410, 4420±35 BP; and OxA-27086,
4317±33 BP; providing a weighted mean of 4366±25 BP). No stratigraphic relationship
survived between the grave and the Aubrey Hole. An adult cremation burial made within
the primary fill of Aubrey Hole 32 is dated to 3030–2880 cal BC (OxA-18036, 4332±35
BP; Parker Pearson et al. 2009: 26), so burial 007 may be broadly contemporary with the
digging of the Aubrey Holes.
The discovery of this grave beside Aubrey Hole 7, in an area already excavated during
the 1920s, provides a reminder that Hawley’s methods were not particularly thorough
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Figure 3. Cremated human remains being excavated from the base of Aubrey Hole 7 by Jacqui McKinley and Julian Richards.
The bone fragments were deposited in this re-opened pit in 1935 (photograph: Mike Pitts).
(McKinley 1995: 451–55; Pitts 2001: 116–21). An idea of these methods is provided by a
diary entry for 25 March 1920: “We sieved the cremated bones [from AH9], keeping the
larger ones and casting away the sifted remnant after thoroughly searching” (Hawley 1920:
73). The deposits of bone that Hawley found varied from scattered fragments to the remains
of burials; during excavation of Causeway crater 2 on 7 November 1922, he noted that:
“There were odd pieces of cremated bone met with occasionally and at one spot about a
handful in a small mass” (Hawley 1922: 129). We cannot rule out the possibility that some
of these remains might be multiple deposits from single cremations; there may have been a
variety of methods of deposition (McKinley 2014).
Thus, any assessment of the numbers of such remains and other forms of cremation-
related deposits recovered by Hawley must take into account the likelihood that his retrieval
was incomplete. Estimates for the total number of cremation burials at Stonehenge, which
range from 150 (Parker Pearson et al. 2009: 23) to 240 (Pitts 2001: 121), must remain
informed guesswork.
Ages of the individuals from Aubrey Hole 7
During examination of the well-preserved bone retrieved from Aubrey Hole 7 in 2008, a
minimum number of individuals (MNI) of 22 adults and five sub-adults was determined by
counting the most frequently occurring skeletal element in each of the broad age categories.
Fragments of 24 right petrous temporal bones (incorporating internal auditory meati (IAM))
were identified. The second most commonly recovered skeletal element is the occipital bone,
of which 22 adult examples were recovered.
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Figure 4. Aubrey Hole 7 after removal of the re-deposited cremated bone fragments, viewed from the south. The hole for the
intact cremation burial is on the left side of the pit.
The MNI of five immature individuals represented in the assemblage was established
by looking for the most frequently occurring duplicate elements, and noting obvious age-
related differences in bone growth and development. There was no duplication of skeletal
elements within any of the sub-adult age categories, so it can be assumed that only one
individual is represented from each (Table 1). Shrinkage was taken into consideration in
determining broad age ranges, but more precise determinations of age at death were not
possible owing to the fragmented nature of the cremated bones (see McKinley 1997: 131).
A MNI of seven adults was identified from fragments of two pubic symphyses and nine
auricular surfaces (left and right hips; Table 1). The former indicate individuals aged 15–24
years (Suchey & Brooks 1990) and the latter indicate individuals aged between 25 and 49
years of age (Lovejoy et al. 1985).
Some form of intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) was noted in five cervical, six thoracic,
three lumbar and one sacral vertebrae (from one or more individuals), all exhibiting
osteophytosis along the body surface margins, suggesting mature or older adults. A fragment
of molar tooth root showing severe occlusal wear (down to the tooth root) provides further
evidence for an older adult.
The total MNI of 27 is considerably less than might be expected from Hawley’s record
of 59 cremation burials. The quantity of bone included originally in each burial will have
varied (see McKinley 1997). For example, Hawley noted that, while most Aubrey Hole
burials “seemed to contain all the bones” (1928: 158), burials into the fill of the ditch “were
chiefly small and insignificant little collections” (1924: 33).
Analysis of ages reveals a high ratio (4.4:1) of adults (n=22) to sub-adults amongst the
MNI of 27. Given the smaller sizes of the elements, sub-adult cremated bone fragments
are usually more easily recognised, and should thus be well identified against the mass of
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Figure 5. Plan of Aubrey Hole 7 and the intact cremation burial to its west (in Cut 008; drawn by Irene de Luis).
fragmented adult bones. Very few sub-adult bone fragments were, however, recovered from
the re-buried assemblage from Aubrey Hole 7. The original ratio of adults to sub-adults in
Hawley’s 59 deposits would probably have been much higher.
The ratio of adults to sub-adults among Stonehenge’s cremation deposits does not follow
expected mortality curves for pre-industrial populations (Chamberlain 2006), where child
mortality has been estimated at 30 per cent or more of all deaths (Lewis 2006: 22). The
Aubrey Hole 7 ratio is also higher than those recorded for British earlier Neolithic burials
of the fourth millennium BC in southern Britain, where the average ratio is 3.9:1 (Smith
&Brickley2009: 87–90). Thus, there may have been a preference for adults to be buried
at Stonehenge as opposed to juveniles, children or infants.
Sex of the individuals in Aubrey Hole 7
Forensic and archaeological advances in analysing non-cremated and cremated IAMs have
produced reliable techniques for determining sex by measuring the lateral angle of the
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Figure 6. The intact cremation deposit of an adult woman beside Aubrey Hole 7 during excavation, viewed from the south
(photograph: Mike Pitts).
internal acoustic canal (Wahl & Graw 2001; Lynnerup et al. 2005;Nor
en et al. 2005). This
was achieved by taking measurements from CT scans of each of the 24 right and 16 left
IAMs from Aubrey Hole 7 (Figure 7). The results from the lateral angles reveal nine males
and fourteen females (three are undeterminable). There are potentially some sub-adult IAMs
within this assemblage, so these CT-scan results are considered to provide a count for the
entire assemblage, not just for adults.
Biological sex was also determined from the 22 adult occipital bones: nine are identified
as male, and five as female. Given the small sample size, it is not possible to say more than
that numbers of males and females were roughly equal.
The most commonly occurring pathology is IVDD, resulting in changes to the spinal
column. Many vertebral bodies exhibit mild to moderate osteophytosis (new bone growth)
around their margins, and Schmorl’s nodes (indentations) on their surfaces (Rogers &
Waldron 1995: 20–31). Also noted were changes to the neck of a femur and to the
intercondylar ridge of a distal femur, linked to osteoarthritis affecting the synovial joints.
These changes are most often the result of advanced age but can also derive from occupation,
genetic disposition and a highly calorific diet (Roberts & Cox 2003: 32).
Periostitis, a non-specific disease affecting the periosteum (connective tissue on the surface
of the bones) that results in new bone growth, was noted on fragments of a clavicle, a fibula,
a radius and a tibia. Periostitis can be caused by injury, chronic infection or overuse of a
particular body part.
The distal fifth of a left femur had a defect in the popliteal fossa on the back of the bone
just above the femoral condyles (Figure 8), likely to result from the pulsatile pressure caused
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Table 1. Ageing descriptions for bone fragments from Aubrey Hole 7, identifying those bones from
which age was determined in each category. The occipital bones and internal auditory meati do not
appear in this table; the full sample MNI of 27 is calculated from the adult occipitals and the five
sub-adults shown here.
Category Broad age range MNI Age-diagnostic skeletal fragments
Foetus–neonate conception–1 month
after birth
1 scapula
Infant 1 month–1 year 1 mandible, humerus, ulna, ribs, femur
Young child 1–5 years 1 maxilla, humerus, radius, scapula, clavicle,
sacrum, pelvis, femur, tibia, patella,
Older child 5–12 years 1 maxilla, teeth, humerus, radius, clavicle, ribs,
femur, tibia, metacarpals/metatarsals
Juvenile 12–18 years 1 clavicle, femur, tibia, patella
Young adult 18–35 years 3 pubis and auricular surfaces
Mature adult 35–50 years 4 auricular surfaces
Older adult 50+years 1 intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) in the spine,
severe dental wear to tooth root
As there was no duplication of bones within the sub-adult categories, it is assumed that there is only one individual in each
sub-adult age range.
Figure 7. An example of a CT scan’s axial slice through a petrous bone (from grid square 355) to measure the lateral angle
of the internal auditory meatus.
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by an aneurysm of the popliteal artery (a widening of the femoral artery where it passes
through the popliteal fossa). This condition is rare in women but occurs among 1 per cent
of men aged 65–80, and was common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among
horsemen, coachmen and young men in physically demanding jobs (Suy 2006). This is
the first-recorded palaeopathological case of an aneurysm of the popliteal artery from any
archaeological assemblage.
Radiocarbon dating
Although the internal auditory meati provided the largest MNI from Aubrey Hole 7, it
was decided to select the occipital bones for destructive sampling for radiocarbon dating
Figure 8. A defect in the popliteal fossa on the back of
a femur. The defect is oval in shape with its long axis
orientated in the long axis of the bone (25.5 ×21.8mm
and approximately 10mm in depth); the edges of the lesion
are smooth with no evidence of remodelling, and its walls
are smooth. It was probably caused by a popliteal aneurysm
(photograph: Stuart Laidlaw).
because of the greater potential of the
complex structure of the IAMs to yield
future insights into the lives of these
individuals buried at Stonehenge. Twenty-
one adult/probable-adult occipital bone
fragments were dated (one was omitted),
along with three sub-adult bone fragments.
The foetus and infant bone fragments were
omitted because they would have been
entirely destroyed by sampling. All samples
were submitted to the Oxford Radiocarbon
Accelerator Unit (ORAU) and samples
from six of the 21 adults dated at Oxford
were also dated at the Scottish Universities
Environmental Research Centre (SUERC)
as part of a quality assurance programme.
Five of the six replicate measurements
are statistically consistent (Tab le 2 ), with
only the measurements on sample 225
(OxA-27089 and SUERC-42886) being
statistically inconsistent at 95% confidence
(T’=5.5; ν=1; T’(5%)=3.8). The measurements on sample 225 are statistically consistent at
99% confidence (T’=5.5; ν=1; T’(1%)=6.6), and thus weighted means of all the replicate
determinations have been taken as providing the best estimate of the dates of death of these
six individuals.
Previously dated human remains from the third millennium BC at Stonehenge include
two fragments of unburnt adult skull from different segments of the ditch (OxA-V-2232-46
& OxA-V-2232-47; Parker Pearson et al. 2009: 28–29), and cremated bone from Aubrey
Hole 32 (see above) and two contexts in the ditch. One of these ditch contexts (3893)
contained 77.4g of cremated bone (McKinley 1995: 457), from which a fragment of a
young/mature adult radius dates to 2570–2360 cal BC (OxA-17958, 3961±29 BP; Parker
Pearson et al. 2009: 26). The other two cremated specimens, both from ditch context 3898,
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Table 2. Radiocarbon dates on cremated human remains from Aubrey Hole 7 and adjacent deposit 007.
reference Material
age (BP) Weighted mean
date, cal
BC (95%
Aubrey Hole 7
OxA-26962 110 cremated human occipital bone, probable adult, ?female –22.0 4281±31 2920–2870
OxA-26963 173 cremated human occipital bone, probable adult –23.5 4358±34 3090–2890
OxA-26964 221 cremated human occipital bone, probable adult –24.3 4325±31 3020–2890
OxA-26965 223 cremated human occipital bone, adult, ?male –22.6 4101±30 2870–2500
OxA-26966 227 cremated human occipital bone, probable adult, ?female –23.7 4168±29 4125±16 BP
(T’=3.1; ν=1;
T’(5%) =3.8)
SUERC-42892 227A as OxA-26966 –19.7 4107±19
OxA-27045 246 cremated human occipital bone, adult –21.5 4456±36 3340–2940
OxA-27046 255 cremated human occipital bone, probable adult –18.5 4195±31 4173±17 BP
(T’=0.7; ν=1;
SUERC-42893 255A as OxA-27046 –20.8 4164±19
OxA-27047 280 cremated human occipital bone, adult male –21.8 4377±31 3100–2900
OxA-27048 281 cremated human occipital bone, adult, ?male –22.4 4210±31 2900–2690
OxA-27049 288 cremated human occipital bone, adult, ?male –22.5 4237±30 2910–2750
OxA-27077 307 cremated human occipital bone, adult male –24.9 4418±31 4395±17 BP
(T’=0.8; ν=1;
SUERC-42885 307A as OxA-27077 –24.4 4385±20
OxA-27078 330 cremated human occipital bone, adult, –24.2 4255±33 2920–2790
OxA-27079 334 cremated human occipital bone, probable adult, ?female –22.8 4391±30 4393±16 BP
(T’=0.0; ν=1;
SUERC-42883 334A as OxA-27079 –22.3 4394±18
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Table 2. Continued.
reference Material
age (BP) Weighted mean
date, cal
BC (95%
OxA-27080 357 cremated human occipital bone, adult male –22.5 4325±32 4344±17 BP
(T’=0.5; ν=1;
SUERC-42895 357A as OxA-27080 –22.6 4350±19
OxA-27081 366 cremated human occipital bone, probable adult, ?female –23.0 4348±30 3090–2890
OxA-27082 389 cremated human occipital bone, probable adult, ?female –19.9 4404±26 3270–2910
OxA-27083 390b cremated human occipital bone, adult –19.8 4261±30 4258±22 BP
(T’=0.0; ν=1;
OxA-27091 390b as OxA-27083 –20.6 4255±30
OxA-27084 596 cremated human occipital bone, adult male –20.3 4364±31 3090–2900
OxA-27085 211 cremated human proximal left diaphyseal humerus bone,
child, 5–12 years
–23.3 4340±30 3080–2890
OxA-27089 225 cremated human occipital bone, adult male –20.9 4132±31 4194±17 BP
(T’=5.5; ν=1;
SUERC-42886 225A as OxA-27089 –21.6 4219±20
OxA-27090 336 cremated human occipital bone, probable adult –23.5 4413±32 3310–2910
OxA-27092 344 cremated human right diaphyseal humerus bone, child,
1–5 years
–23.6 4426±33 3330–2920
OxA-27093 382+323 cremated human proximal left femoral diaphysis bone,
juvenile, 12–18 years
–23.4 4180±34 2890–2630
OxA-30294 289 cremated human occipital bone, adult male –21.7 4392±30 3095–2920
Cremation deposit adjacent to AH7
SUERC-30410 007 cremated human bone, femoral shaft fragment 4420±35 4366±25 BP
(T’=4.6; ν=1;
OxA-27086 007 cremated human bone, femoral shaft fragment –21.5 4317±33
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date to 2920–2870 cal BC (SUERC-42882, 4289±20 BP; combined with OxA-17957,
4271±29 BP); one of these (if not both) is from a young woman aged around 25 years.
Finally, a human tooth from the SPACES project 2008 trench at Stonehenge dates to
2470–2210 cal BC (OxA-18649, 3883±31 BP; Darvill & Wainwright 2009). This has
been excluded from this study because it was found immediately below the turf in soil that
may not be from Stonehenge (the turf was laid some 20–25 years ago, and may incorporate
topsoil from nearby).
The radiocarbon dates from all dated human remains group between 3100 and 2600
cal BC (Figure 9), except for one cremation-related deposit dating to 2570–2360 cal BC
(context 3893; OxA-17958) and the Beaker-period inhumation burial (Evans 1984) dating
to 2400–2140 cal BC (Cleal et al. 1995: 532–33). The measurements are not, however,
statistically consistent (T’=1339.4; ν=38.7; T’(5%)=26; Ward & Wilson 1978), so they
represent more than one burial episode.
Chronological modelling
Bayesian statistical modelling was employed because these radiocarbon dates all come from
the same site (Buck et al. 1992;Baylisset al. 2007). A standard approach to modelling,
when dealing with chronological outliers such as ditch context 3893, would be to eliminate
them manually from the analysis. This was considered an unsuitable method to apply to this
assemblage because the late cremation-related deposits (including burials) in the ditch—
“small and insignificant little collections” (Hawley 1928: 157), such as the Beaker-period
cremated remains from context 3893—appear to be under-represented or entirely missing
from the Aubrey Hole 7 sample. Therefore the chronological outliers from Hawley’s ditch
contexts are of great significance, especially for the cemetery’s end-date.
More useful are trapezoidal models for phases of activity (Lee & Bronk Ramsey 2013)in
situations where we expect activity to follow the pattern of a gradual increase, then a period
of constant activity and finally a gradual decrease, unlike the assumptions of a uniform
model (Buck et al. 1992). The model shown in Figure 10 uses the trapezoid model of
Karlsberg (2006) as implemented in OxCal v4.2 (Lee & Bronk Ramsey 2013).
A trapezoid prior model more accurately reflects the uncertainties in processes such as the
use of a cremation cemetery: in uniform models there is an abrupt increase from no use to
maximum use, while the trapezoid model allows for gradual change. The parameters from
the trapezoid model represent the very first and last use, and this model is preferred over
others because we do not have the archaeological information to show that there were any
abrupt changes apriori.
This model has good overall agreement (Amodel=93) and provides an estimate for the
first burial of 3180–2965 cal BC (95% probability: start_of_start;Figure 10)or3075–
2985 cal BC (68% probability). This model estimates that the last burial took place in
2830–2685 cal BC (40% probability: end_of_end;Figure 10)or2565–2380 cal BC (55%
probability) and probably 2825–2760 cal BC (28% probability)or2550–2465 cal BC (40%
probability). The model estimates that burial of cremation deposits took place for 170–715
years (95% probability) and probably 225–345 years (26% probability)or485–650 years
(42% probability).
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Figure 9. Probability distributions of third millennium cal BC dates on cremated and unburnt human remains from
Stonehenge. The distributions are the result of simple radiocarbon calibration (Stuiver & Reimer 1993).
The development of the cemetery
The date of 2990–2755 cal BC (95% probability; Ditch_constructed; Marshall et al.2012:
fig. 6) for the digging of the ditch in Stonehenge’s first stage (Darvill et al. 2012: 1028)
accords well with the dates of the earliest cremation burials. The use of Stonehenge as a
cemetery probably ended with the Beaker-period inhumation burial after 2140 cal BC,
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Figure 10. Probability distributions of dates from Stonehenge’s third millennium cal BC burials (trapeziummodel), excluding
the Beaker-period inhumation (Evans 1984) dating to 2400–2140 cal BC.
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by which time Stonehenge stages 2 and 3 were completed (Darvill et al. 2012: 1026).
Thus, burials began at Stonehenge before, and continued beyond, the stage when the sarsen
trilithons and circle were erected.
The re-cutting of the ditch after 2450–2230 cal BC (Darvill et al. 2012: 1038) means that
all cremation-related deposits from its upper fills—as many as 15 of Hawley’s “small and
insignificant little collections” (1928: 157)—probably date to after 2450 cal BC. Yet only
context 3893 has been radiocarbon-dated to this period (Beaker Age), presumably because
none of these 15 deposits from the ditch’s upper fills (25 per cent of Hawley’s 59 deposits
re-buried in Aubrey Hole 7) was substantial enough to include identifiable occipital bones.
Hawley noted that, in contrast, most of the burials in Aubrey Holes “seemed to contain
all the bones” (1928: 158), so the dated occipital bones from Aubrey Hole 7 therefore
probably provide a representative sample of the individuals originally buried in these pits.
Some, such as the adult in the packing of Aubrey Hole 32, were buried at the time of
the digging-out of the pit circle. Hawley (1923: 17) considered that others were buried
while a pillar stood in the hole: he remarks that the upper edges of many Aubrey Holes
had bowl-shaped recesses for containing cremated remains, indicating that interments were
made against standing stones after they were erected. He also records one cremation-related
deposit that was placed in its Aubrey Hole (24) after the standing stone had been withdrawn
(Hawley 1921: 31; he mis-numbered this hole 21). The hypothesis that human cremated
remains were introduced into the Aubrey Holes when bluestones were erected within them
during stage 1 of Stonehenge, and subsequently (until the bluestones were removed for
constructing stage 2), is supported by the date range for the occipital bones.
The chronological distribution of age and sex within the cemetery reveals that men and
women were buried at Stonehenge from its inception, and that both sexes continued to be
buried over the following centuries. This lack of sexual bias is of interest when considering
the probable higher social status of those buried, and when compared with higher ratios
of adult males to females in earlier Neolithic tombs in southern Britain (Smith & Brickley
2009: 88–90). Stonehenge was a cemetery for a selected group of people who were treated
separately from the rest of the population. It was surely a powerful, prestigious site in the
Neolithic period, with burial there being a testament to a culture’s commemoration of the
chosen dead.
Cremation practices in Late Neolithic Britain (c. 3000–2500 BC)
There are very few human remains in Britain dated to the early and mid third millennium
cal BC, a period when the rite of inhumation burial seems, by and large, not to have
been practised (see Healy 2012 for rare exceptions). Cremation burials that are probably
of this date are known from a growing number of sites (Parker Pearson et al. 2009: 34–
36). Stonehenge is the largest-known cemetery from this period, with small cemeteries or
groups of burials excavated from former stone circles or stone settings at Forteviot (Noble &
Brophy 2011), Balbirnie (Gibson 2010), Llandygai (formerly Llandegai; Lynch & Musson
2004) and Cairnpapple (Sheridan et al. 2009: 214), and from circular enclosures at Imperial
College Sports Ground (Barclay et al. 2009) and Dorchester-on-Thames (Atkinson et al.
1951). Cremation burials that may date to this period have also been found at Flagstones
Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2016
The dead of Stonehenge
(Healy 1997), Barford (Oswald 1969), Duggleby Howe (Mortimer 1905)andWestStow
(West 1990).
The growing recognition of the extent and number of Late Neolithic cremation burials
and cemeteries across Britain has largely resulted from the ability to radiocarbon-date
cremated bone in unaccompanied cremation burials. It is now possible to recognise in
Britain a major phase, lasting half a millennium, during which cremation was practised
almost exclusively. This followed the collective and individual inhumation rites of the Early
and Middle Neolithic but occurred prior to the inhumation rites of the Beaker period.
With so few cremation burials independently dated, let alone known from this period,
the Stonehenge assemblage is the largest and most important in Britain, regardless of the
significance of the site itself. Although scattered examples of cremation burial are recorded
in the British Early Neolithic (Smith & Brickley 2009: 57–60; Fowler 2010: 10–11),
Stonehenge and other Late Neolithic sites mentioned above are the first-known cremation
cemeteries in Britain.
In contrast, the evidence from Ireland shows a more continuous and extensive tradition
of cremation burial stretching back to the first half of the fourth millennium BC (e.g.
O’Sullivan 2005; Bergh & Hensey 2013; Cooney 2014). It is possible that the widespread
adoption of cremation in Late Neolithic Britain may have been influenced by mortuary
practices in Ireland.
Our research shows that Stonehenge was used as a cremation cemetery for mostly adult
men and women for around five centuries, during and between its first two main stages
of construction. In its first stage, many burials were placed within and beside the Aubrey
Holes. As these are believed to have contained bluestones, there seems to have been a direct
relationship between particular deceased individuals and standing stones.
Human remains continued to be buried during and after Stonehenge’s second stage,
demonstrating its continuing association with the dead. Most of these later burials appear,
however, to have been placed in the ditch around the monument’s periphery, leaving the
stones, now grouped in the centre of the site, distant from the human remains.
Stonehenge changed from being a stone circle for specific dead individuals linked to
particular stones, to one more diffusely associated with the collectivity of increasingly long-
dead ancestors buried there. This is consistent with the interpretation of Stonehenge’s stage
2 as a domain of the eternal ancestors, metaphorically embodied in stone (Parker Pearson
& Ramilisonina 1998; Parker Pearson 2012).
Technical note
The calibrated date ranges for the radiocarbon samples were calculated using the maximum
intercept method (Stuiver & Reimer 1986), and are quoted with end points rounded
outwards to 10 years, or 5 years if the error is <25 years. The probability distributions of the
calibrated dates, calculated using the probability method (Stuiver & Reimer 1993), are shown
in Figures 9 &10. They have been calculated using OxCal v4.1.7 (Bronk Ramsey 2009)
Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2016
Christie Willis et al.
and the internationally agreed atmospheric calibration dataset for the northern hemisphere,
IntCal09 (Reimer et al. 2009).
Wethank Amanda Chadburn for helping us to meet English Heritage’s requirements for sampling for radiocarbon
dating, and David Sugden and Charles Romanowski of the Royal Hallamshire Hospital for scanning and
measuring of petrous canals. Useful comments on the manuscript were provided by Duncan Garrow and Derek
Hamilton. Funding was provided by the AHRC (Feeding Stonehenge Project; AH/H000879/1) and Oxford
Scientific Films.
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... Wahl 1981;Graw et al. 2005;Norén et al. 2005;Kozerska et al. 2020), regardless of the adult age categories or origins of individuals studied, there were significant differences between the size of the LA in both sexes. The method has already been applied for estimating the sex of cremated prehistoric individuals, for instance, those discovered at Stonehenge, dated to the Late Neolithic/ Early Bronze Age (Willis et al. 2016). Due to its applicability to individuals from cremation graves, the method gave basis also to the analyses of such prehistoric finds like the ones presented below. ...
... Since PP are commonly subject also to biochemical analyses, including isotopic ones (Harvig et al. 2014;Chmielewski et al. 2021), any contamination with modern matter must not be accepted. Currently used non-invasive methods based on computed tomography are more appropriate for the frangible and otherwise sensitive archaeological osseous material (Akansel et al. 2008;Panenková et al. 2009;Morgan et al. 2013;Willis et al. 2016;Afacan et al. 2017;Gibelli et al. 2021;Pezo-Lanfranco and Haetinger 2021). ...
Full-text available
Research of cremated human remains are limited by severe analytical constraints. Estimation of basic anthropological parameters such as sex of individuals or their age at death is often uncertain. A method for assessing the sex of cremated individuals measures the lateral angle of the petrous part (PP) of the temporal bone, known as the lateral angle (LA) method. In the cemetery of the Lusatian culture in Czernikowice (51.317389°N, 15.871469°E), 6 well-preserved PP were identified. The analyzed PP belonged to 6 different individuals: 3 adults and 3 children. Based on standard anthropological methods, sex was estimated for adults individuals: 2 males and 1 female. The identified PP served as the basis for application of the LA method. The bones were scanned by computed tomography (CT) and the tomographic imaging allowed measurement of the lateral angle. The absolute values of intra-observer errors did not exceed 1°. Relative technical errors of measurements (rTEM) fell in the range below 5%, which is indicative of their high precision. Individuals for which the LA value was greater than or equal to 45.0° were qualified as females and those for which it was less than 45.0° – as males. The LA values for female individuals ranged from 48.0 to 49.1°, (average 48.5±0.78°, median 48.4°) and for male individuals were in the range of 24.9-37.5° (average 33.4±5.80°, median 35.5°). The absolute difference between the average values for female and male individuals was considerable (15.1°) and statistically significant (p < 0.001). The LA method provides good reliability of measurements when it comes to this analysis with regard to cremated osteological material, and the use of non-invasive CT enhances its value in the context of archaeological remains. However, its capability for sexing subadult individuals should be approached with caution and requires further research.
... The healing theory is not without problems. Excavations at Stonehenge in 2008 by a second team, the Stonehenge Riverside Project, produced evidence that the bluestones had been erected much earlier, during its first stage in 2995-2900 bce (Parker Pearson et al. 2020, 168, 536), and that the monument had been used as a large cemetery from this time onwards for the next 300-600 years (Parker Pearson et al. 2009;2020, 539-43;Willis et al. 2016). The burials with unusual injuries were most likely 600-1,000 years later than the arrival of the supposed 'healing' bluestones, which had in fact adorned a burial ground -a place of the dead rather than a place of healing. ...
Full-text available
Stonehenge is one of the world’s most famous prehistoric monuments, built 4,500–5,000 years ago during the Neolithic in a time long before written history. The recent dramatic discovery of a dismantled stone circle near the sources of some of Stonehenge’s stones in southwest Wales raises the fascinating possibility that an ancient story about Stonehenge’s origin, written down 900 years ago and subsequently dismissed as pure invention, might contain a grain of truth. This article explores the pros and cons of comparing the legend with the archaeological evidence.
... Some of the work presented in this volume has been previously published elsewhere, either within SRP books aimed at the public (Parker Pearson, 2012;Parker Pearson et al., 2015) or within academic papers thomas et al., 2009;allen et al., 2016;Willis et al., 2016). On occasion, it is difficult to know whether certain chapters are edited versions of previously available work or contain new information; close reading and comparison is required. ...
Trade before Civilization explores the role that long-distance exchange played in the establishment and/or maintenance of social complexity, and its role in the transformation of societies from egalitarian to non-egalitarian. Bringing together research by an international and methodologically diverse team of scholars, it analyses the relationship between long-distance trade and the rise of inequality. The volume illustrates how elites used exotic prestige goods to enhance and maintain their elevated social positions in society. Global in scope, it offers case studies of early societies and sites in Europe, Asia, Oceania, North America, and Mesoamerica. Deploying a range of inter-disciplinary and cutting-edge theoretical approaches from a cross-cultural framework, the volume offers new insights and enhances our understanding of socio-political evolution. It will appeal to archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, conflict theorists, and ethnohistorians, as well as economists seeking to understand the nexus between imported luxury items and cultural evolution.
Trade before Civilization explores the role that long-distance exchange played in the establishment and/or maintenance of social complexity, and its role in the transformation of societies from egalitarian to non-egalitarian. Bringing together research by an international and methodologically diverse team of scholars, it analyses the relationship between long-distance trade and the rise of inequality. The volume illustrates how elites used exotic prestige goods to enhance and maintain their elevated social positions in society. Global in scope, it offers case studies of early societies and sites in Europe, Asia, Oceania, North America, and Mesoamerica. Deploying a range of inter-disciplinary and cutting-edge theoretical approaches from a cross-cultural framework, the volume offers new insights and enhances our understanding of socio-political evolution. It will appeal to archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, conflict theorists, and ethnohistorians, as well as economists seeking to understand the nexus between imported luxury items and cultural evolution.
The Beaker phenomenon in Britain is typically represented by a particular form of pottery and its inclusion in graves with flexed or crouched inhumations referred to as Beaker burials. Analysis of the full range of burial evidence, however, reveals a high degree of variability in funerary rites including cremation and skeletal disarticulation. Summed probability distribution analysis of radiocarbon dates provides evidence for continuity of these other, atypical rites from the pre-Beaker Late Neolithic ( c. 3000–2450 cal bc ) through the Chalcolithic ( c. 2450–2200 cal bc ) and into the Early Bronze Age (after c. 2200 cal bc ). Regional diversity is apparent in Beaker period funerary treatments and grave good provision between these typical and atypical rites, as is differential selection of rites on the basis of age and biological sex. This evidence for within and between community funerary diversity has implications for understanding the large-scale processes of cultural and genomic transformation across this period of major transition in British prehistory.
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Cremated human remains are commonly found in the archaeological records, especially in Europe during the Metal Ages and the Roman period. Due to the high temperatures reached during cremation (up to 1000°C), most biological information locked in the isotopic composition of different tissues is heavily altered or even destroyed. The recent demonstration that strontium isotope ratio (⁸⁷Sr/⁸⁶Sr) remained unaltered during cremation and was even very resistant to post-burial alterations (which is not the case of unburned bone), opened new possibility for palaeomobility studies of ancient populations that practices cremations as a funerary ritual. This paper summarizes the strontium isotopic data produced over the last decade which is then deposited on the open-access platform IsoArcH ( for any interested parties to use. It is the first time isotopic data on cremated remains is introduced in this database, significantly extending its impact on the scientific community.
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This paper contains a summary of many of the ideas that I have had, discussed or encountered about standing stones over the years and much of which has been published or are in press. In particular, this includes the possible anthropomorphic connotations and roles that standing stones might have played in the communities that built them. It begins with a very short review of some of the interpretations on standing stones known to date, firstly the oldest known standing stones, or their first appearances in some regions and then those of Britain, followed by a discussion of the author’s research results that incorporate standing stones connection to Nature. The chapter finishes with the ideas on the place that standing stones had within societies within Scotland, namely as active individuals of their communities.
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While the Early Neolithic chambered tombs of the Isle of Man are well known and the Late Neolithic has been clearly defined with reference to a distinctive suite of artefacts, little is known about the Middle Neolithic. This article reports on 17 new Neolithic radiocarbon dates from cremated human remains from the Isle of Man. These identify five burials in cists as Middle Neolithic and indicate new sequences of activity at cemeteries starting in the Middle Neolithic. Each of these sites is examined in detail. The dates also spur a reconsideration of the development of Ronaldsway pottery and the integration of Grooved Ware pottery and motifs into early 3rd millennium practice on the island. The paper ends with a consideration of the changing effects of mortuary practices throughout the Neolithic on the Isle of Man and a discussion of connections with Middle and Late Neolithic activity in Ireland and Britain.
Recent aDNA analyses demonstrate that the centuries surrounding the arrival of the Beaker Complex in Britain witnessed a massive turnover in the genetic make-up of the island's population. The genetic data provide information both on the individuals sampled and the ancestral populations from which they derive. Here, the authors consider the archaeological implications of this genetic turnover and propose two hypotheses—Beaker Colonisation and Steppe Drift—reflecting critical differences in conceptualisations of the relationship between objects and genes. These hypotheses establish key directions for future research designed to investigate the underlying social processes involved and raise questions for wider interpretations of population change detected through aDNA analysis.
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Main Sections: Agriculture and Domestication.- Archaeology of Art.- Archaeology in the Modern World.- Archaeological Science.- Bioarchaeology and Human Osteology.- Classical Archaeology.- Conservation and Preservation.- Cultural Heritage Management.- Environmental Archaeology.- Ethics.- Extreme Environments.- Field Archaeology.- Geographical and Cultural Overview Essays.- Historical Archaeology.- History of Archaeology.- Human Evolution.- Hunter-Gatherer and Mid-Range Societies.- Indiginous Archaeology.- Islamic Archaeology.- Legislation.- Medieval Archaeology.- Museums.- Near East .- Political and Social Archaeology.- Public Education.- Theory.- Underwater and Maritme Archaeology.- World Heritage.
Single- and multiphase models have been used extensively in construction of chronologies. We model more gradual transition between phases with a trapezoid model since it better reflects the nature of the information that goes into the model prior. We find that a simple trapezoid model has a bias that docs not reflect prior knowledge, and thus propose an addition of a noninformative clement to the prior. We also present an alternative parameterization, which transforms the current abrupt transition model into a model that allows for gradual changes. The addition of a noninformative prior ensures model flexibility. We evaluate these Bayesian models using 2 case studies.
If radiocarbon measurements are to be used at all for chronological purposes, we have to use statistical methods for calibration. The most widely used method of calibration can be seen as a simple application of Bayesian statistics, which uses both the information from the new measurement and information from the 14 C calibration curve. In most dating applications, however, we have larger numbers of 14 C measurements and we wish to relate those to events in the past. Bayesian statistics provides a coherent framework in which such analysis can be performed and is becoming a core element in many 14 C dating projects. This article gives an overview of the main model components used in chronological analysis, their mathematical formulation, and examples of how such analyses can be performed using the latest version of the OxCal software (v4). Many such models can be put together, in a modular fashion, from simple elements, with defined constraints and groupings. In other cases, the commonly used “uniform phase” models might not be appropriate, and ramped, exponential, or normal distributions of events might be more useful. When considering analyses of these kinds, it is useful to be able run simulations on synthetic data. Methods for performing such tests are discussed here along with other methods of diagnosing possible problems with statistical models of this kind.
The interpretation of the sequence at the Balbirnie stone circle and cairn was based largely on stratigraphy and the then-perceived chronology of ceramic styles. An increased radiocarbon database and the facility to date cremated bone have now allowed the sequence at this site to be refined and reinterpreted. The construction of the stone circle can be demonstrated to have begun 1,000 years earlier than originally reported and the stone circle can be shown to have been in use for over 1,500 years. These new data, as well as an increased and growing amount of research on later Neolithic and earlier Bronze Age ritual monuments in Britain as a whole, has further allowed the position of this site within the Balfarg/Balbirnie ritual complex to be reconsidered and as a result it is possible to suggest a revised sequence for the complex.
Demography in Archaeology, first published in 2006, is a review of current theory and method in the reconstruction of populations from archaeological data. Starting with a summary of demographic concepts and methods, the book examines historical and ethnographic sources of demographic evidence before addressing the methods by which reliable demographic estimates can be made from skeletal remains, settlement evidence and modern and ancient biomolecules. Recent debates in palaeodemography are evaluated, new statistical methods for palaeodemographic reconstruction are explained, and the notion that past demographic structures and processes were substantially different from those pertaining today is critiqued. The book covers a wide span of evidence, from the evolutionary background of human demography to the influence of natural and human-induced catastrophes on population growth and survival. This is essential reading for any archaeologist or anthropologist with an interest in relating the results of field and laboratory studies to broader questions of population structure and dynamics. © Andrew T. Chamberlain 2006 and Cambridge University Press, 2009.
ANTIQUITY has had a long tradition of publishing pieces on Stonehenge, represented in our cover design. Here we present an intriguing and thought-provoking paper, which draws an analogy with Madagascar to help explain the meaning of the enigmatic monument.
The calibration curves and tables given in this issue of RADIOCARBON form a data base ideally suited for a computerized operation. The program listed below converts a radiocarbon age and its age error o s (one standard deviation) into calibrated ages (intercepts with the calibration curve), and ranges of calibrated ages that correspond to the age error. The standard deviation o C in the calibration curve is taken into account using (see Stuiver and Pearson, this issue, for details).