Cremated remains reveal hints of who is buried at Stonehenge

Chemical analyses of skull pieces suggest some of the dead came from Wales


FOREIGN TIES  Some cremated humans buried at Stonehenge in southern England around 5,000 years ago came from far away, possibly West Wales, researchers say.

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Stonehenge attracted the dead from far beyond its location in southern England.

A new analysis of cremated human remains interred at the iconic site between around 5,000 and 4,400 years ago provides the first glimpse of who was buried there. Some were outsiders who probably spent the last decade or so of their lives in what’s now West Wales, more than 200 kilometers west of Stonehenge, researchers report August 2 in Scientific Reports.

West Wales was the source of rocks known as bluestones used in early stages of constructing Stonehenge. Bluestones are smaller than the ancient monument’s massive sandstone boulders.

The new investigation “adds detail to a previously rather shaky framework” of archaeological finds suggesting that links existed among ancient societies across southern England and Wales, says archaeologist Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University in Poole, England, who was not involved in the research.

Geographic origins of cremated remains at the site had previously eluded scientists. In the new study, bioarchaeologist Christophe Snoeck of Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium and colleagues analyzed two forms of the element strontium in human skull fragments that were previously found among cremated remains at Stonehenge to narrow down individuals’ origins. Signature levels of these strontium types characterize rock formations and soil in different regions. Humans and other animals incorporate strontium into their bones and teeth by eating plants.

HOT TAKE Chemical analyses of human skull fragments such as these, found among cremated remains buried at Stonehenge, indicate that some of the ancient site’s dead had been brought from more than 200 kilometers away in West Wales. Christie Willis

Snoeck demonstrated several years ago that, rather than absorbing strontium from surrounding soil like unburned bone, pieces of cremated bone retain a strontium signal from around the last 10 years of a person’s life. Of 25 cremated people whose bones were studied, 10 individuals spent their last decade in West Wales or near there, the researchers found. The rest were locals.

“Our results show that it was not just bluestones but people, or in some cases perhaps just their cremated remains, that came to Stonehenge in its early phases,” says coauthor Rick Schulting, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford.

Stonehenge served as a cemetery for at least 500 years, beginning around 5,000 years ago (SN: 6/21/08, p. 13). Excavations at Stonehenge between 1919 and 1926 recovered cremated remains of up to 58 individuals that had been placed in 56 pits. Researchers reburied these finds in 1935. Archaeologist and study coauthor Mike Parker Pearson of University College London led a team that in 2008 re-excavated remnants of the 25 individuals analyzed in the new study.

Nonlocal people buried at Stonehenge were cremated before being transported to the ancient site, Snoeck’s group suspects. Levels of two forms of carbon absorbed into the bones during cremation indicate that funeral pyres consisted of trees from dense woods such as those in Wales. A different carbon makeup characterizes trees from relatively open landscapes, as in southern England. The extent of contacts between communities in the two regions is unknown. One reason: Cremation destroys tooth enamel, which preserves a strontium record of childhood diet. As a result, investigators can’t determine whether nonlocal people buried at Stonehenge grew up in West Wales or elsewhere.

For now, the best bet is that nonlocal people buried at Stonehenge around 5,000 years ago spent their final years in western Britain, possibly West Wales, says archaeologist Alasdair Whittle of Cardiff University in Wales. Archaeological finds from that time link inhabitants of the Orkney Islands off Scotland’s northeast coast to communities in mainland Britain and probably continental Europe, boosting the plausibility of long-distance contacts between western Britain and Stonehenge, Whittle adds.

Archaeologists also have discovered cultural ties between southern England and France’s northwestern Brittany region dating to as early as around 5,000 years ago, Darvill says. That means outsiders could have come from other places. Snoeck’s group should compare strontium signatures typical of Brittany folk to those of people buried at Stonehenge, he suggests.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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