The Stonehenge Dead Tell Their Stories

July 11, 2018

Quite why the child left central Europe around 1500 BCE and travelled to the southern chalklands of England will be forever unknown, but perhaps the reason he stayed can be guessed with a bit more certainty.

There was better food in what is these days known as the county of Wiltshire. In Europe, the boy had suffered anaemia so severe that it forever marked his bones. Also, there was also a role to fill.

What that role was is also unknown, although it seems like he was still an outsider when he died at about the age of 30. The reason for his continued presence, though, is likely uncontroversial.

When he arrived, the area was arguably the centre of Europe’s Bronze Age world. For generations already, the site had been the focus of intense activity – work, labour, and ritual. There was a monument just completed, a geographically vast and spiritually complex collection of massive standing stones and enclosures. Today it’s called Stonehenge.

The tentative tale of the unknown boy is one of four deduced biographies of ancient skeletons unearthed from the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. They arise from comprehensive analyses of the remains, including archaeological interpretation and bone and tooth examinations using radiocarbon dating, stable isotope measurements and other forms of biomolecular interrogation.

The skeletons were all excavated in in 2015, but the long, slow process of investigating them – conducted by a team led by skeletal biologist Simon May of conservation body Historic England – has only now been completed. The results are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

The four skeletons comprise the central European incomer (dubbed 8102), a local man who may well have been his friend (8101), a baby – who died probably during their lifetimes, but three kilometres distant (8201) – and another man (8301), who died much earlier, around 3000 BCE, before the construction of Stonehenge began.

For the three Middle Bronze Age skeletons, the very fact that they were found at all marks them as unusual. Mays and his colleagues point out that during the period cremation was the norm and burial very rare.

Mr 8301, dating from the Middle Neolithic, is also unusual. By the time he died the earlier practice of burying the dead in earthen mounds known as barrows had ceased. By then, the dead were either cremated, or dismembered and thrown into pits. He is the only full skeleton from that period ever discovered at Stonehenge.

The critical question of why these four were treated differently in death to their contemporaries will forever be a matter for speculation. But the researchers’ results serve to at least constrain the possibilities.

Mr 8102 and 8101, for instance, were buried very close together, and positioned, curled up, in very similar positions (indeed, they may have been identically posed, their limbs perhaps tied, their remains moving later in response to decay). Dating evidence suggests that Mr 8101, who had spent his entire life in the area, died very shortly after 8102, aged about 40.

Perhaps the pair were friends, perhaps not. Certainly, they were interred adjacent to each other – although Mays and colleagues note that burial is the final act of funerary practice, and their corpses may have been treated differently before being placed in their pits. On available evidence, however, it seems that their ethnicities did not make a difference when it came to interment.

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