for National Geographic News
Stonehenge stood as giant tombstones to the dead for centuries—perhaps marking the cemetery of a ruling prehistoric dynasty—new radiocarbon dating suggests.
The site appears to have been intended as a cemetery from the very start, around 5,000 years ago—centuries before the giant sandstone blocks were erected—the new study says.
New analysis of ancient human remains show that people were buried at the southern England site from about 3000 B.C. until after the first large stones were raised around 2500 B.C.
"This is really exciting, because it shows that Stonehenge, from its beginning to its zenith, is being used as a place to physically put the remains of the dead," said Mike Parker Pearson of England's University of Sheffield.
"It's something that we just didn't appreciate until now."
Parker Pearson heads the Stonehenge Riverside Project, a seven-year archaeological investigation of the Stonehenge area, supported by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Cremated Humans Analyzed
The new finding supports the theory that Stonehenge represented the "domain of the dead" to ancestor-worshiping ancient Britons, Parker Pearson said.
Previously it was believed that Stonehenge was a place of burial only between about 2700 and 2600 B.C., the new report says.
But new radiocarbon dates spanning 500 years were obtained for three cremated humans (photo) unearthed in 1950s at Stonehenge and kept at the nearby Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.
The earliest cremation, a pile of burned bones and teeth, came from one of 56 pits called the Aubrey Holes (map of the layout of Stonehenge, including Aubrey Holes).
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