In The Field

SAA: Life and death at Stonehenge

Although this is a meeting of American archaeologists held on Canadian soil, the common link of Great Britain made an appearance in a special session on Stonehenge, the iconic standing stones in southern England that were constructed starting around 2600 BC.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project has been excavating for the past couple of seasons at both Stonehenge and at Durrington Walls, a few kilometers away. Because of the huge interest in the site, much of the team’s findings have been reported already (see for instance Nature‘s earlier story on the topic, subscription required). In short: Stonehenge wasn’t an isolated site but was instead linked as part of a far larger complex to the giant timber henges and settlements at Durrington Walls.

Michael Parker Pearson, one of the excavation’s leaders, talked here about how Durrington Walls may have served as the place of the living, and Stonehenge the place of the dead. At least 52 cremation burials, plus more than 40 unburnt human bones, have been unearthed at Stonehenge – perhaps the remains of a royal dynasty. People who weren’t important enough to merit burial at Stonehenge may also have been cremated but dumped instead into the River Avon; last summer, the excavation team uncovered three large timber monuments that may have been viewing platforms overlooking the Avon for such cremation burials.

All this goes to show that Stonehenge is more than a place of mystical rituals and a tourist must-see. Millennia ago, it was the biggest cemetery in Britain and a hugely significant place to transition from the living to the dead.

More small digs are planned for next week – so keep an eye out for more news from Stonehenge shortly.


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