Britain's Oldest Toy Found Buried with Stonehenge Baby?

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
October 21, 2008

A carved animal figurine found buried alongside a prehistoric baby at Stonehenge may represent Britain's earliest known toy, researchers say.

The unique chalk relic of a hedgehog or pig, thought to be at least 2,000 years old, was unearthed in September near the stone monument on southern England's Salisbury Plain.

"Whether it's a hedgehog or a pig you can argue about, but I like the hedgehog idea myself," said the dig's co-leader, Joshua Pollard of the University of Bristol.

The Bronze Age figurine was likely made as a toy or in memory of the baby being stillborn or dying in infancy, the archaeologist said.

The discovery was made during 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. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

The burial was uncovered during the excavation of an ancient palisade—or timber wall—and ditch, both of which are thought to have stretched eastward from the megalithic circle.

Archaeologists have speculated that the estimated 6-meter-tall (19.5-foot-tall) timber structure served as a boundary fence to Stonehenge.

"We thought it might be related to the stone [portions] of the monument, but in fact it turned out to be a much later feature," Pollard said.

Very Rare Find

Evidence of toys during this period in British history is "extremely scant," Pollard said.

"In fact, it's very rare to find any kind of representational art in British prehistory—almost to the extent where you get the impression there's a bit of a taboo on making images of animals or people."

The young child's grave, tentatively dated to between 800 B.C. to 20 B.C., included a pottery vessel, which may have contained food intended for the child's journey to the afterlife, the team said.

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