Today, Stonehenge means many things to many people; tourist destination, great feat of engineering, source of traffic jams, sacred space, or even just a good old place for a solstice celebration. But back in the day, it was also a cremation cemetery. And now, it seems, the dead are coming back to challenge one of our most ingrained present-day assumptions.
“In almost every depiction of Stonehenge by artists and TV re-enactors we see lots of men, a man in charge, and few or no women,” said archaeologist Mike Pitts in an interview with Discovery News.
He was commenting on a discovery he had reported in the latest issue of British Archaeology magazine, which suggests these crude depictions are, quite simply, wrong.
In 2008, Pitts co-led a team of archaeologists who excavated Aubrey Hole 7, one of 56 chalk pits which had been dug just outside of the stone circle during one of the earliest phases of Stonehenge’s construction over 5,000 years ago.
When the team excavated the pit, they recovered 45kg of cremated human bone. The task of analysing those remains went to Christie Willis at UCL who painstakingly picked through them looking for identifiable fragments. Among them, she found 24 bones from the inner ear from different people. With the aid of CT scans, she was then able to confirm the presence of at least 14 women and nine men.
The fact that the individuals had all been cremated thousands of years ago was just one complication to her task. The remains had also been dug up and reburied once before; they were first uncovered in the 1920s, but the team decided that without the technology to usefully analyze them, they were better off being reburied, along with a lead plaque explaining their decision.
This time around, however, the team did have the technology. So who were these women?
Well, according to Pitts, that’s a complete no-brainer. “Anyone buried at Stonehenge is likely to have been special in some way: high status families, possessors of special skills or knowledge, ritual or political leaders.”
The fact that there are at least as many women buried here as men is in stark contrast with what he says archaeologists tend to find at earlier UK burial sites. Prior to this, they often took the form of large mounds (or ‘barrows’) erected on hilltops and in which the commemoration of men seems to have been much more prominent.
The results of Willis’ analysis suggest that in the case of Stonehenge “as far as the burials go, women were as prominent there as men,” Pitts said.
Archaeological and historical evidence has shown that the role of women in society has changed considerably at different times in the past. Could this change in burial practices, away from territorial markers and emphasis on the male lineage, represent an underlying shift in society towards something a bit more… well, progressive?
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Become a DigVentures Subscriber and be part of great archaeology - all year round!Subscribe