Powerful Women Buried at Stonehenge
Oct. 12, 2012
-- It might look like just an ordinary picture of Stonehenge, but this is how the creators of the prehistoric monument wanted the site to be viewed, according to research using the latest 3D laser scanning technology. The groundbreaking analysis determined that the prehistoric monument was built to show off the solstices. In this view Stonehenge would look best when approaching from the Avenue, its ancient processional way to the north east.
Commissioned by the English Heritage, the laser-scan survey revealed in unprecedented detail the efforts made by prehistoric people at Stonehenge. "The result of the project were beyond all expectations. The investigation identified traces of stone working on virtually every stone," Marcus Abbott, head of geomatics and visualization at ArcHeritage, Hugo Anderson-Whymark, an Oxford-based expert on ancient worked stone, and colleagues wrote in the English Heritage report.
The laser-equipped researchers investigated the entire site. The laser scanner collected data with a resolution of 1 mm across the entire stone circle, and of just 0.5 mm for four stone surfaces of special interest. More than 700 surface features came to light.
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The laser highlighted prehistoric carvings from 4,500 years ago as well as damage made by modern visitors. Along with modern graffiti, this image shows scores of little axe heads and a possible dagger added when the slabs were already 1,000 years old.
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Overall, the laser scanning revealed 71 new Bronze Age axe heads, which bring the number of this type of carvings known at Stonehenge to 115.
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But the most interesting findings came from analysis of the stone surfaces. The study showed that the techniques and amounts of labor used varied from stone to stone. According to the researchers, these variations provide almost definitive proof that it was the intent of Stonehenge's builders to align the monument with the two solstices along a north-east/south-west axis. Indeed, the extremely straight and neat outline of the Great Trilithon, compared with all the other trilithons, shows that Stonehenge creators made deliberate efforts to shape it more carefully due to its special position on the solstice axis, just as they did for other stones that flank this axis.
The laser scanning showed that sides of the stones that flanked the solstice axis were most carefully worked to form very straight and narrow rectangular slots. To make them glisten in the sunlight, some stones had their crusts removed. These stones include two of the north-east facing sarsens in the outer circle, the Great Trilithon in the inner sarsen horseshoe, and an isolated upright stone in the south-west segment of the outer circle. By contrast, the stones in the south-western segment of the circle did not have their crusts removed.
The specially smoothed slabs created a dazzling light effect when the sun rays hit the stones. They would glisten in the dawn light on the longest day of the year and at sunset on the shortest This drawing shows Stonehenge in about 2300 B.C., after the construction of the sarsen outer circle and trilithons. Note the solstice axis.
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The remains of 14 women believed to be of high status and importance have been found at Stonehenge, the iconic prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England.
The discovery, along with other finds, supports the theory that Stonehenge functioned, at least for part of its long history, as a cremation cemetery for leaders and other noteworthy individuals, according to a report published in the latest issue of British Archaeology.
During the recent excavation, more women than men were found buried at Stonehenge, a fact that could change its present image.
"In almost every depiction of Stonehenge by artists and TV re-enactors we see lots of men, a man in charge, and few or no women," archaeologist Mike Pitts, who is the editor of British Archaeology and the author of the book "Hengeworld," told Discovery News.
"The archaeology now shows that as far as the burials go, women were as prominent there as men. This contrasts with the earlier burial mounds, where men seem to be more prominent."
Pitts added, "By definition -- cemeteries are rare, Stonehenge exceptional -- anyone buried at Stonehenge is likely to have been special in some way: high status families, possessors of special skills or knowledge, ritual or political leaders."
The recent excavation focused on what is known as Aubrey Hole 7, one of 56 chalk pits dug just outside of the stone circle and dating to the earliest phases of Stonehenge in the late fourth and early third millennium B.C.
Christie Willis of the University College London Institute of Archaeology worked on the project and confirmed that the remains of at least 14 females and nine males -- all young adults or older -- were found at the site. A barrage of high tech analysis techniques, such as CT scanning, was needed to study the remains, given that the individuals had been cremated.
Radiocarbon dating and other analysis of all known burials at Stonehenge reveal that they took place in several episodes from about 3100 B.C. to at least 2140 B.C. Long bone pins, thought to be hair pins, as well as a mace head made out of gneiss -- a striped stone associated with transformation -- have also been excavated at Stonehenge.
As for why no children’s remains were found during this latest excavation, both Willis and Pitts believe that such corpses must have been treated differently. Pitts suspects that infants and children were also cremated, but that their ashes were scattered in the nearby river Avon.
"There is a common association between late Neolithic religious centers and the sources or upper reaches of significant rivers," he explained.
Stonehenge’s location is also important because prior U.K. burial sites, which were often large mounds containing stone and timber chambers, tended to be erected on hilltops or other high ground, far away from where people lived.
While Stonehenge was also set apart from housing, it and other later cremation cemeteries tended to be on lower ground near rivers that locals must have frequented.
Pitts said this placement is "perhaps in line with a move from a focus on male lineage and hierarchy to both genders and family or class. This reflects a parallel shift from markers of territory and land (via the barrows) to commemorations of communities."
As for the culture(s) represented by Stonehenge, Willis said the monument was built about 1,000 years after agriculture arrived from the Middle East. The people had wheat, barley, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats, but no horses yet. They did not yet use wheels, but had well-crafted stone tools. Metalworking spread to Britain at around 2400 B.C., which was well after the early stages of Stonehenge construction.
Stonehenge, now a World Heritage Site, radiates timeless beauty and achievement, but it seems women's status proved to be more ephemeral.
Willis said that the role of women in society "probably declined again towards the 3rd millennium B.C…both archaeological and historical evidence has shown that women’s status has gone up and down quite noticeably at different times in the past."