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Tales from the Crypt: Stonehenge an ancient cemetery

by Brad A. Greenberg

May 29, 2008 | 3:30 pm

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What’s a guy got to do to get a plot at Stonehenge?

At least part of the mystery of Stonehenge may have now been solved: it was from the beginning a monument to the dead.

New radiocarbon dates from human cremation burials in and around brooding stones on Salisbury Plain in England indicate that the site was used as a cemetery from 3000 B. C. well into its zenith around 2500 B.C., British archaeologists reported on Thursday.

What appeared to be the head of a stone mace, a symbol of authority, was found with one of the burials, the archaeologists said, indicating that this was probably a cemetery for the ruling dynasty responsible for erecting Stonehenge.

“It’s now clear that burials were a major component of Stonehenge in all its main stages,” said Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield in England.

In a teleconference with reporters, arranged by the National Geographic Society, Dr. Parker Pearson described the three burials of burned bones and teeth that were dated in recent weeks. Researchers estimated that up to 240 people were buried there, all as cremation deposits. Other evidence from the British Isles shows that skeletal burials were rare at this time and that cremation was the custom for the elite.

Another Sheffield archaeologist, Andrew Chamberlain, noted one reason to think that Stonehenge burials were for generations of a single elite family. The clue, he said, is the small number of burials in the earliest period and the larger numbers in later centuries, as offspring would have multiplied.

Given the monumental surroundings, Dr. Parker Pearson said, “One has to assume anyone buried there had some good credentials.”

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