WASHINGTON (AFP) — England's Stonehenge was used as a burial site from its inception 5,000 years ago and remained so for more than 500 years, says a study that may shed some light on the ancient monument.
Radiocarbon dating of cremated human remains from the site show that Stonehenge was used as a cemetery at its inception around 3,000 BC until 2,500 BC, a British archeologist said Thursday.
"It's now clear that burials were a major component of Stonehenge in all its main stages," said Mike Parker Pearson, archeology professor at the University of Sheffield.
"Stonehenge was a place of burial from its beginning to its zenith in the mid-third millennium BC," said Parker Pearson, who with support of the National Geographic Society leads the Stonehenge Riverside Archaeological Project
Up to now, archeologists believed that people had been buried at Stonehenge only between 2,700 and 2,600 BC, before its large stones, known as sarsens, were put in place.
But a small pile of burned bones and teeth from one of the pits around Stonehenge's edge known as the Aubrey Holes dates to 3,030-2,880 BC, the study found.
A second burial of an adult, from the ditch surrounding Stonehenge, dates to 2,930-2,870 BC.
The most recent cremation, of a 25-year-old woman in the ditch's northern side, dates to 2,570-2,340 BC, around the time the first arrangements of sarsen stones appeared at Stonehenge, Parker Pearson said.
"The cremation burial dating to Stonehenge's sarsen stones phase is likely just one of many from this later period of the monument's use, and demonstrates that it was still very much a 'domain of the dead,'" he said.
The people buried at the site were likely among prominent members of the society at the time, the archeologist said.
"I don't think it was the common people getting buried at Stonehenge -- it was clearly a special place at that time," Parker Pearson said.
"The people buried here must have been drawn from a very small and select living population," he said.
"Archaeologists have long speculated about whether Stonehenge was put up by prehistoric chiefs -- perhaps even ancient royalty -- and the new results suggest that not only is this likely to have been the case but it also was the resting place of their mortal remains."
His colleague at at Sheffield, Andrew Chamberlain, a specialist in ancient demography, suggests that it may have been a site for a single elite family and its descendants, perhaps a ruling dynasty.
His theory is based on the small number of burials in Stonehenge's early stages, a number that increases in subsequent centuries as offspring multiplied.
The research marks the first time any of the cremation burial sites from Stonehenge have been radiocarbon dated.
The remains dated by Parker Pearson's team were excavated from the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1950s and have been kept at the nearby Salisbury Museum.
Archeologists estimate that the remains of 240 people may be buried in Stonehenge.
Stonehenge is one of the world's best preserved prehistoric monuments. In around 2,600 BC, 80 giant standing stones were arranged on Salisbury Plain, where there was already a 400-year-old stone circle.
Around two centuries later, even bigger stones were brought to the plain.
Today, only 40 percent of the originals remain. But around 850,000 visitors per year come to marvel at the 17 stones which are still intact.
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