Discovery of ‘elite cemetery’ at Stonehenge offers insight into purpose of site

Stonehenge: Osteoarchaeologist discusses find of human bones

Stonehenge is one of Britain’s most revered Neolithic sites.

It has been the focus of meticulous study and research for decades and sits at the centre of a rich archaeological dig site.

Everything in and around Stonehenge has offered researchers an unprecedented understanding of the past.

But still, one question has remained: exactly what purpose did it serve?

There are several theories. They range from the practical, like a way for ancient humans to keep track of the seasons, to the more outlandish, like being a beacon to communicate with extraterrestrials.

READ MORE UK village so beautiful it even has its own less famous version of Stonehenge

One theory floated during the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, Secrets: Stonehenge Mystery, proposed that Stonehenge once served as the resting place of Britain’s most prestigious people, something like an “elite cemetery”.

Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at University College London (UCL), has spent years working at the site and said the monument would not only have served the people in the local area but also those who lived far away.

DNA analysis of human remains found at the site has proved that continental humans regularly visited, lived, and worked around Stonehenge, and were perhaps even buried there.

Work carried out by bioarchaeologist Dr Christie Willis, also from UCL, found tiny biological stamps in bone fragments at Stonehenge.

“These results not only rewrite what we know about Stonehenge but rewrite what we know about Neolithic Britain,” she noted.

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The remains of Neolithic humans hint at harrowing stories: broken, shattered, and perforated bones, their deaths often came because of fatal fights and confrontations.

Dr Willis said she expected to find evidence of “arrowheads and of spears [having passed] through the body, hitting the bones, deflecting off the bones.”

Yet, at Stonehenge, this was not the case. “There is just no evidence of any kind of violence on these bones,” she explained.

The overall picture of the bones was varied. Some were small, others large, and many were short and long. Dr Willis said this tells us “something about how they honoured their dead”.

Each fragment of bone buried at Stonehenge was carefully collected and looked after by the Neolithic people, “suggesting what linked the burials was the status and respect these people commanded in life,” the narrator noted.

While a breakthrough discovery, helping to explain at least in part what Stonehenge may have been used for, the site’s exact purpose and wider meaning remain a mystery.

This week, more controversy found its way to the ancient site after the Department for Transport approved the £1.7bn two-mile tunnel from Amesbury to Berwick Down in Wiltshire, a plan that has been vehemently opposed by campaign groups hoping to protect the land around the structure.

Planning permission was first given in 2020 but was soon quashed by the High Court in 2021 after an ardent campaign by locals.

Highways England says it wants to build the tunnel in order to relieve traffic and cut journey times on the A303.

But Stonehenge enthusiasts and researchers fear that countless objects, samples, and stores of history will forever be lost with the tunnel’s construction.

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