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Saturday, 9 March 2013

The latest from MPP - Stonehenge was a mega-cemetery

Coming tomorrow-- the latest TV spectacular from MPP and his busy band of helpers. This time the programme (scheduled for Channel Four) will apparently deal with all those bones found in the Aubrey Holes -- many of which have now been dated.   What interests me is that the heroic story of the long-distance bluestone haulage is still there -- MPP can clearly not admit to any doubt on that score -- but that the date for the arrival and use of the stones at Stonehenge is being pushed back all the time.  Now MPP is talking about the stones being on the site 5,000 years ago -- something I have pointed out many times on this blog.  That far back in the Neolithic we have to question the technical ability of the Stonehenge builders to conduct a civil engineering / haulage project on the vast scale envisaged by MPP -- and we have to give a gentle reminder that the stones were probably used because they were already there or thereabouts, having been dumped by ice many thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of years before........

Anyway, we look forward to seeing the programme.

Stonehenge may have been burial site for Stone Age elite, say archaeologists

from Stonehenge News blog (Guardian news story by Maev Kennedy)

Dating cremated bone fragments of men, women and children found at site puts origin of first circle back 500 years to 3,000BC

Centuries before the first massive sarsen stone was hauled into place at Stonehenge, the world's most famous prehistoric monument may have begun life as a giant burial ground, according to a theory disclosed on Saturday.

More than 50,000 cremated bone fragments, of 63 individuals buried at Stonehenge, have been excavated and studied for the first time by a team led by archaeologist Professor Mike Parker Pearson, who has been working at the site and on nearby monuments for decades. He now believes the earliest burials long predate the monument in its current form.

The first bluestones, the smaller standing stones, were brought from Wales and placed as grave markers around 3,000BC, and it remained a giant circular graveyard for at least 200 years, with sporadic burials after that, he claims.

It had been thought that almost all the Stonehenge burials, many originally excavated almost a century ago, but discarded as unimportant, were of adult men. However, new techniques have revealed for the first time that they include almost equal numbers of men and women, and children including a newborn baby.

"At the moment the answer is no to extracting DNA, which might tell us more about these individuals and what the relationship was between them – but who knows in the future? Clearly these were special people in some way," Parker Pearson said.

A mace head, a high-status object comparable to a sceptre, and a little bowl burnt on one side, which he believes may have held incense, suggest the dead could have been religious and political leaders and their immediate families.

The team included scientists from the universities of Southampton, Manchester, Bournemouth, Sheffield, London, York and Durham. Their work is revealed for the first time in a documentary on Channel 4 on Sunday night, Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons.

Archaeologists have argued for centuries about what Stonehenge really meant to the people who gave hundreds of thousands of hours to constructing circles of bluestones shipped from Wales, and sarsens the size of double-decker buses dragged across Salisbury plain. Druids and New Age followers still claim the site as their sacred place. Others have judged it a temple, an observatory, a solar calendar, a site for fairs or ritual feasting or – one of the most recent theories – a centre for healing, a sort of Stone Age Lourdes.

The latest theory is based on the first analysis of more than 50,000 fragments of cremated human remains from one of the Aubrey holes, a ring of pits from the earliest phase of the monument, which some have believed held wooden posts. Crushed chalk in the bottom of the pit was also revealed, suggesting it once supported the weight of one of the bluestones. Dating the bones has pushed back the date of earliest stone circle at the site from 2500BC to 3000BC.

Parker Pearson believes his earlier excavation at nearby Durrington Walls, which uncovered hut sites, tools, pots and mountains of animal bones – the largest Stone Age site in north-west Europe – is evidence of a seasonal work camp for the Stonehenge builders, who quarried, dragged and shaped more than 2,000 tons of stone to build the monument. Analysis of the animal bones shows some of them travelled huge distances – from as far as Scotland – and were slaughtered at Durrington in mid-summer and mid-winter: "Not so much bring a bottle as bring a cow or a pig," Parker Pearson said.

Mike Pitts, an archaeologist, blogger and editor of the British Archaeology journal, who has excavated some of the cremated human remains from Stonehenge, says the new theory proves the need for more research and excavation at the site.

"I have now come to believe that there are hundreds, maybe many times that, of burials at Stonehenge, and that some predate the earliest phase of the monument," Pitts said. "The whole history of the monument is inseparably linked to death and burial – but I believe that there are hundreds more burials to be found across the site, which will tell us more of the story."

Almost all the prehistoric human remains come from the eastern side of the circle, and many had been excavated by earlier archaeologists including William Hawley in the 1920s, who regarding them as unimportant compared with the giant stones, reburied them jumbled together using one of the Aubrey holes as a convenient pit.

"There must be more, in the western quadrant, or buried outside the enclosure ditch. A new excavation could clinch it," Pitts said.

This autumn visitors to Stonehenge will see more interpretation of its complex history than ever before, when English Heritage finally opens its long-awaited visitor centre – originally planned to usher in the new millennium in 2000.


Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian quoting from the article,

“more than 50,000 fragments of cremated human remains from one of the Aubrey holes, … excavated by earlier archaeologists including William Hawley in the 1920s, who ... reburied them jumbled together using one of the Aubrey holes as a convenient pit”

I find it rather odd only bone fragments are found and not entire skeletal remains. What was the setting where these remains were first found? Were there many jumbled bone fragments found scattered together with other artifacts like pottery chips and animal bones and charcoal pieces and chalk? We need to know much more about the details to draw any conclusions. But my sense is such debris was naturally deposited by meltwater streams collecting at Stonehenge.

Any RC-dates yet from MPP on the Rhosyfelin “quarry”? The way forward is never to look back!


chris johnson said...

I don't think the earlier dates for bluestones at Stonehenge, by a few hundred years, help the argument about transportation one way or another. Still seems to me that glaciation is very likely to have contributed.

The cultures in 4th millenium BC were capable of organising big efforts for Long Barrows, Causeway Camps, Dolmens, etc. They seem to have had an interest in astronomy and philosophy. There is no evidence that the basic tools at their disposal in 4th millenium were inferior to those available around 2500 BC. Had the stones been transported in 2500 BC they could equally well have been moved in 3500 BC.

If anything the arguments for human transport are strengthened because it seems likely that the migration of megalith builders from Brittany up the West Coast started in 4th or even 5th millennium BC and a subsequent migration eastwards is plausible too.

Personally I think the bluestones were found in the vicinity of Stonehenge and their origin recognised by people who knew Prescelli. Interesting enough one might think.

The dates from Rhos-y-felin will be interesting, although my understanding is that another season of digging will be required to go back sufficiently in time.

My current investigation into economics turned up the interesting factoid that economists think there was very little difference in societal economics that might (in our terms) have changed the cost benefit equations. I need to "dig" further but, believe it or not, there are economists who calculate the rate of interest for hunter-gatherer and farmer communities. Anybody who has studied such things would delight me at least with a contribution.

Interesting too that Mike searches for more evidence to bolster his theory about Stonehenge being a graveyard. His hypothesis about dynastic rulers seems to be undermined by the new facts. I have long wondered about the relatively few people buried on the site. As Alice says, it become curiouser and cruiser.

Dave Maynard said...


When a body is cremated using prehistoric technology, it is difficult to get the high temperatures and prolonged heat of a modern crematorium. This results in many large fragments of bone that can be identified by a specialist into the parts of a body and sometimes sex, obviously much less detail than if the full skeleton had survived.

This group of material came from very old excavations that were reburied and dug up again by the MPP team, re-examined and dated using techniques not available to the earlier excavators.

Because of the jumbled nature, it will be interesting to see the range of radiocarbon results and how many individuals are represented. Quite how these remains tie into the history of Stonehenge depends on the detail of the original excavations.

It sounds as if the programme will be interesting, but some of the process has been covered by previous programmes, now several years old I think.


Anonymous said...

The most revealing report comes from the Telegraph:

"Now experts claim the monument was built as part of an annual winter solstice ritual which resembled "Glastonbury festival and a motorway building scheme at the same time".

Researchers from University College London said as many as 4,000 people may have gathered at the site each year, at a time when the entire population numbered only tens of thousands.

Tests on remains found at the site reveal that people came to the site from as far as the Scottish Highlands at the same time every year to feast, and built the monument together."

I guess if they came from the Highlands - Preseli would be a cakewalk?

Alex Salmond

Myris of Alexandria. said...

The clue is in the word cremated!!
This is the fill from Aubrey Hole 7(I think 7) but it is complicated as the cremated remains are from (Many??)other Aubrey Holes after- early 20th cent excavations they (bone/other finds??) were all put together and re-interred into 7.
Bluestones including a bit of SH48 knock-off-are also present.
RC dates not yet.
We have had very successful African-born Roman rulers in he past- perhaps we shall have another soon.Tuesday/Wednesday even. The Gods and Sublime Apollo will decide.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Myris, et al

Cremation: burning instead of burying the dead. Today high temperature gas kilns are used. But even so, the skeletal bones remain. These are mechanically ground into fine powder and preserved along with the ashes in a cremation vase.

So what is it about cremations 5000 years ago that would result in bone fragments and not skeletons? And why should these be found in a jumble mixed with animal bones and other debris?

Challenge question: Can you think of Natural events that would result in burned bones broken in fragments buried in unmarked indiscriminate jumble along with animal bones and pottery chips and pieces of charcoal and stones and other debris?

The Pope has nothing to say about this! Only clear and objective Reason is required!


Jon Morris said...

According to the doco, copper (and gold) arrived with the Beaker people after Stonehenge, but in his book he says (quite often) there's evidence it could have arrived before.

Anyone know what the thinking is? Is it the book or the documentary that's now out of date?

BRIAN JOHN said...

There was an awful lot that was very confusing -- and the usual quantity of wild speculation based upon remarkably little evidence. From the sound track, one might even think that MPP has personally invented or discovered the Beaker culture and the Bronze Age. I imagine that quite a few fellow archaeologists will not be best pleased by the manner in which all sorts of discoveries made by them and others are now apparently to be attributed to the MPP team......

Anonymous said...

The problem with people who insist on riding their hobby - horses to exhaustion, is that one day they may find themselves eating their own words and suffering from indigestion, flatulence or worse........oh dear...

And a word for the bibliophile/ Literati: in press,apparently, is:-

M PARKER PEARSON,J POLLARD,C RICHARDS, J THOMAS, C TILLEY & K WELHAM, "Stonehenge for the Ancestors", Oxford: Oxbow Books 2013(Recession permitting)

P Larkin, Hull

myris said...

Dear Phil
I knew your mum and dad.
Care to comment on them.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Anon -- "Tests on remains found at the site reveal that people came to the site from as far as the Scottish Highlands at the same time every year to feast, and built the monument together." As far as I can see, the tests show nothing of the sort. They show that some animals and maybe some people came from the far north (maybe)-- but they don't show that this was down to anything other than normal trading and travelling activity.

geocur said...

The strontium isotope analysis was on cattle not people and did indeed show that some may have come from the Highlands or Western isles of Scotland . MPP implied that they had come from Orkney which has an entirely different isotope signature form the highlands and is closer to that found in middle England .

Anonymous said...


No, but what can you tell me about C P Cavafry, with whom you appear to be inextricably linked?

Posthumous Phil

Myris of Alexandria. said...

Ah perhaps the greatest 19th/20th cent European poet.
No one does irony better. Read the poem called 'The Ides of March' a poem to die for, cannot help but make you smile.
He was almost a geologist- worked in hydrology.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

More on Cremation

Quoting from the Wikipedia article directly (

“Contrary to popular belief, the cremated remains are not ashes in the usual sense. After the incineration is completed, the dry bone fragments are swept out of the retort and pulverised by a machine called a Cremulator — essentially a high-capacity, high-speed blender — to process them into "ashes" or "cremated remains",[11][12] although pulverisation may also be performed by hand.”

Note: the dry bone fragments are swept out of the retort and pulverised by a machine called a Cremulator


BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Kostas -- So who was in charge of sticking those bits of high-class or aristocratic charred bone into the Aubrey holes that later took the bluestones? The Lord High Cremulator?

Jon Morris said...

A few comments/critiques in link:

Comments on the program

What did you think of the periglacial representations Brian?

Anonymous said...

Myris, a Word from JT:

My Daddy used to ride the rails
So they say So they say
Soft as smoke and tough as nails
Box car Jones Old walking man
Coming back home was like going to jail
The sheets and the blankets and all
No he never did come back home
Never that I recall

P Larkin'

BRIAN JOHN said...

Nice summary on your site, Jon. I agree that the representation of those "periglacial stripes" was absurd. MPP now says that they are probably drainage rills cut by meltwater in periglacial times -- but that doesn't fit the evidence, since our colleagues who have looked at these sites on the ground say they run diagonally across the slope rather than directly down it. And as you say, there must be many scores of such rills in the Stonehenge landscape -- and to select just those two is patently ridiculous.

TonyH said...

I am puzzled. Whatever the causation of the stripes, are we agreed there is SOMETHING there that pre - dates prehistoric man's creation of The Avenue up towards the [future] Monument? If we do, there is no denying that this particular alignment is towards the Mid- Winter Solstice beyond the Monument, and towards the Mid - Summer Solstice looking down The Avenue from the Monument & Heel Stone in the opposite direction, 180 degrees around.

Surely, regardless of whether or not their were OTHER meltwater rills in the immediate landscape, prehistoric man was entitled to become enthralled by this [coincidental to modern Western minds] alignment?

TonyH said...

Continuing from my previous comment, I would suggest that prehistoric man was already greatly taken up by the specific feature in the landscape upon which they next decided to construct their several hundred metres' section of The Avenue (i.e. as far as The Elbow), primarily because The Heel Stone was a naturally - occurring sarsen megalith in the prehistoric landscape, more or less exactly where it is today, as Mike Pitts argued after his excavations close to it in the late 1970's [ see his "Hengeworld" for a fuller explanation]. So this coincidental alignment of Heel Stone with geomorphological feature (however it was formed), encouraged them to build The Avenue and to next build the Monument, regardless of whether or not the setting of the mid - winter sun could be seen from a LONG WAY DOWN The Avenue beneath the lintel of the Great Trilithon, as Jon is querying in the summary he has guided us to on his own website.

Jon Morris said...

Could be Tony. It is fortuitous that these two point to Solstice so I don't discount the solstice link.

But there is another possibility: It is possible that other periglacial/rill lines radiate from the centre of Stonehenge: A hill from which lines appear to radiate may have been just as strong a motivation to site a monument?

Has any research been done to find out what else exists?

g said...

Tony , the axis of the earliest phase of the monument was not towards the solstice and therefore not coincident with the "stripes " also the Avenue had yet to be built . The axis of the monument was changed towards the solstice then after that Avenue was built .

BRIAN JOHN said...

So everything that MPP says about the alignment of the stripes being the reason for the location of Stonehenge here (rather than anywhere else) is nonsense?

geocur said...

I said it was nonsense from the first day I encountered it years ago . They were initially believed to have been man made and maybe the idea was too useful to ignore , even when it was understood that they were natural .It would be difficult to prove that the builders were not aware of the stripes prior to the megalithic component of the alignment but according to the sequence the megalithic alignment preceded the Avenue .

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Addendum to Cremation:

In the Wikipedia quote in my previous post bones did not burn when heated to temperatures as high as 2100 F degrees. Only cracked into fragments under thermal stress.

Wooden pyre of Neolithic people could not reach such high temperatures. Skeletal bones would have survived incineration almost intact. But this claim is simple to test! Just incinerate a dead animal in a wood pyre and see if the skeleton survives.

I argue in Neolithic cremations (if these ever actually occured) the bone skeletal remains would have survived the cremation. And thus we should find at the very least large skeletal bones.

But we don't! We instead find jumbles of indiscriminate bone fragments just inch long. All mixed in with other dibris, like animal bones, pottery chips, chalk, and charcoal.

This should raise serious questions! Yet another of MPP's desperate theories going up in smoke!


Constantinos Ragazas said...


Some inconvenient questions for MPP or his surogates in this blog.

1) How can meltwater run diagonally downhill to cut the Avenue stripes?
2) Do chalk strata run vertically to provide 'structural constrains' for meltwater to run diagonally downhill?
3) If the Avenue “periglacial stripes” are meltwater drainage rills, shouldn't there be many others? Have any been found? I wager non will be found in the immediate vecinity!


Constantinos Ragazas said...


You write, “... cultures in 4th millenium BC were capable of organising big efforts”.

How do you know that! Isn't this a bit Darwinian? “Survival is evidence of fitness to survive”. Such reasoning borders “truth by conviction”.

As for your discovered economic “factoids” ... let me help you out a bit here!

Economists (like all other intellectuals) will see themselves in the past the same as in the present and in the future. This is no different than seeing Neolithic people as “modern man dressed in a lionscloth”. Or as Fred Flintstone!