Stonehenge Used as Cemetery From the Beginning

Posted by Kendall Harmon

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 among and around the brooding stones on Salisbury Plain in England indicate that the site was used as a cemetery from 3000 B.C. until after the monuments were erected around 2500 B.C., British archaeologists reported Thursday.

What appeared to be the head of a stone mace, a symbol of authority, was found in one grave, 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.

Some scholars have contended that the enigmatic stones, surrounded by a ditch and earthen banks in concentric circles, more than likely marked a sacred place of healing. The idea is at least as old as medieval literature, which also includes stories of Stonehenge as a memorial to the dead. So there could be an element of truth to both hypotheses, experts say.

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Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryDeath / Burial / Funerals* Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* International News & CommentaryEngland / UK* Religion News & CommentaryOther Faiths

Posted May 29, 2008 at 7:12 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Alice Linsley wrote:

The discovery of red-deer antlers at the site suggest it has a connection to the older Mesolithic (9,500 year old) community at Star Carr in North Yorkshire England where 21 red deer skulls were discovered.  These are stag and hinds, not the red elk of eastern Asia and North America. This species roamed from North Africa to Ireland. The red color symbolized revitalizing blood for North Africans and may have had the same significance for the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles. That would explain the presence of red-deer antlers at Stonehedge.  A parallel is the burial of non-cremated bodies (usually rulers only) in red ochre dust.  Read about that here:

May 29, 8:27 pm | [comment link]
2. Br_er Rabbit wrote:

The National Geographic special video presentation on Stonehenge will air Sunday June first.
The Rabbit.

May 29, 8:41 pm | [comment link]
3. RevK wrote:

I thought that the mystery of Stonehenge was solved in the early 1960’s; that it is a astronomic calculator.

May 30, 8:33 pm | [comment link]
4. Br_er Rabbit wrote:

RevK, they’ve learned a ton of stuff since the 60’s. The astronomic alignment of the stones is a later addition, probably to emphasize an annual event which had been held there for generations. They already knew how to calculate the date.
The Rabbit.

May 30, 8:46 pm | [comment link]
5. RevK wrote:

Br_er Rabbit,
I was commenting on the tone of the statement, “At least part of the mystery of Stonehenge may have now been solved: It was from the beginning a monument to the dead.”  It’s tenor is that we have known nothing about Stonehenge until now. 

We’ve known for decades that there were burial plots - perhaps not the extent of the burials.  The only thing new in this story is that radiocarbon dating has shed more light and made the dating more accurate.  But it is speculation to say that the stones were a latter addition because of the 500 year span between the first burials and upright stones.  They could just as easily been co-planned - the burials just a little easier to accomplish.  It has also been suggested that there was first a wooden version and then stones added later and over a significant period of time and with huge effort.

Hawkins determined that Stonehenge existed in the place on the Salisbury Plain that astronomically allowed the intersection of various lunar and solar events.  Its major calculation was actually the 56 year ecliptic cycle.  I suggest that it is more likely the burials occurred there because that was where they could calculate eclipses and the like - it was sacred ground.

May 31, 12:30 am | [comment link]
6. Br_er Rabbit wrote:

RevK, you may well be right. I remember closely following the Stonehenge research back in the 60’s.
What intrigues me now is the comparison with what was going on in the apparently illiterate English countryside and what was going on in the near east, where Akkadian was already a written language by 3000-2600 BC. One assumes that a powerful hierarchical society is required to erect such monuments as Stonehenge, but the lack of written records leaves us wondering.
The Rabbit.

May 31, 3:40 am | [comment link]
7. RevK wrote:

Br_er Rabbit,
Fr. Pat Reardon was a professor at Trinity when I went through.  I remember one of his classes on the development of Israel as a nation; in it he suggested that it is hierarchical societies (those that can tax their citizens) who can afford a group of people who are writers, musicians, artists and such on a full-time basis.  Tribal society (Israel, up to and including the warlord king, David) did not bother with such mundane things as written language,. But that does not mean they didn’t have a well developed theology or series of rituals.  I suspect that the inhabitants of Salisbury might have been similarly inclined.

May 31, 11:27 am | [comment link]
8. Alice Linsley wrote:

There is much evidence of writing systems among the ancient Afro-Asiatics from the 9th century BC and older: Akkadian, Moabite and Phoencian.  But many tribal groups recorded their data not in writing, but using number systems. These involved notches on bones (Lebombo Bone) or ropes with knots, such as the Inca quipu.  The first written symbolism was numerical rather than alphabetical.  One of the great challenges of anthropologists today is to understand the symbolism which apparently correlates with the 4 directional poles, the lunar cycles, the path of the sun, and the binary oppositions surrounding male and female.

May 31, 12:00 pm | [comment link]
9. Sarah1 wrote:

RevK, I’m not certain that I agree with your thesis in Comment #7 [although I have yet to come to a firm conclusion on it].

For one thing, it seems clear that the tribal Israel had artists and musicians.  Just the description of those who built the temple seems to imply the existence of such a strata of tribal society: “0 Then Moses said to the Israelites,

“See, the LORD has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts- 32 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 33 to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship. 34 And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. 35 He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them master craftsmen and designers.”

Further, setting aside the written texts from the Ebla and Mari tablets from as early as 2500 BC, the Amarna correspondence between Egypt and its Canaan representatives from the 1380s onward seems to indicate that the Israelites entered a society that had writing [as well as, of course, leaving a society that had writing], and the Canaanites had the Ugaritic language as well.

I set to the side as secondary the many references to writing in the Pentateuch, since if one holds to the Wellhausen school those references are presumed to be inserted into the text after writing became common much later in Israel’s history.

May 31, 4:34 pm | [comment link]
10. RevK wrote:

I think we are talking about the difference between an artisan and an artist.  Fr. Pat was making the point that a hierarchy and specific government structure led to a leisure class - those who could afford to employ full-time musicians, artists, writers and so on - as opposed to those who used their art while farming, herding or whatever.  While music, art and language existed - David himself played the harp and composed songs - it was in the time of Solomon, his son, that the arts took off because they had patronage.  To be sure, every society beyond hunter/gatherer has artisans - those who can do useful and often beautiful tasks - but these are different than ‘the arts.’  Israel may have moved into an area with a pro-written language, but I do not know of any significant body of Israelite writing (even in a language other than Hebrew) that dates before Solomon.  Alas, this seems to have also caused the creation of the government bureaucrat.

But to be sure, Britain did not have a written language at that time of Stonehenge, did they?

May 31, 4:52 pm | [comment link]
11. Br_er Rabbit wrote:

Tribal society (Israel, up to and including the warlord king, David) did not bother with such mundane things as written language

RevK, I agree that has been the conventional wisdom of academia in the past, and among perhaps most liberal scholars today (I won’t ask when you went through Trinity). But when I went through Vanguard (MA in Bible), the professors pointed out a handful of (IIRC, recent) archaeological finds that seem to put the lie to this theory. I don’t have those references at hand here, although Sarah may have alluded to some of them above, e.g. Ebla and Mari.

(Footnote: I have argued elsewhere against the Source Theory and the “unlettered horde” view of the people of the Exodus using Georg Fohrer as a reference, although I don’t have any direct quotes from him at hand. A more accessible window into Fohrer’s findings is the Word commentary on Exodus.)

The Rabbit.

May 31, 6:09 pm | [comment link]
12. Alice Linsley wrote:

I don’t mean to take this thread off course, but there are different pictures of Israel in Scripture.  One is as a confederation of tribes.  Another is as a confederation of patrilineal and inter-married clans.  Both are accurate.  For more on this go here:
and here:

May 31, 7:30 pm | [comment link]
13. Sarah1 wrote:

RE: “I think we are talking about the difference between an artisan and an artist.”

Hmmmm . . . that may be an artifical distinction.  It appears that an artisan by your definition is someone who makes beautiful—but useful—things.  But I’m not certain that a novelist does not do the same thing—make a beautiful and useful thing which is bought by people interested in such things.

It is an interesting discussion and probably off-topic.  There’s a great little book called “Art Needs No Justification” which discusses this in a bit deeper way.

May 31, 10:27 pm | [comment link]
14. RevK wrote:

I would modify your definition of artisan - someone who makes something that is first useful and then, if possible or desired, beautiful; and because of that, I make a rather large distinction.  When one looks at the artifacts of early civilizations, one finds pottery, quilts, and personal items like combs - beautifully created, but first of all, useful.  While I’m sure that there were full-time artists and musicians prior to a leisure class, I suspect that they were few and far between.  The Arts existed, but its ‘professional status’ had not yet evolved.  Your example of a novel is case in point - while there were woodworkers and metalworkers in great abundance, I don’t think there were any bookstores or their 10th century bce equivalent.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not dismissing the Arts.  I am merely suggesting that their status within a culture evolves as that culture evolves.

May 31, 11:32 pm | [comment link]
15. Sarah1 wrote:

But can we not tell an object’s “usefulness” by the fact that individuals pay for them?  By that standard, a novel is useful if it is bought.

May 31, 11:48 pm | [comment link]
16. RevK wrote:


Using your definition then, please tell us the names of the 11th and 10th century bce Hebrew novelists.  What were their “best sellers?”

June 1, 11:11 am | [comment link]
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