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.
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"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."
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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.
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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.
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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."