Bluestones and white bones: the origins of the people buried at Stonehenge
by Professor Rick Schulting
Rick Schulting of Oxford’s School of Archaeology will present the intriguing results of the strontium isotope analysis of the remains, which suggested there were strong connections between West Wales and Wessex, extending beyond the transportation of stones, to the movement of people.
Stonehenge has long inspired the imagination. Much work has been done on understanding (or speculating on) how the stones themselves were moved, whence they came, and what the monument meant to its creators. Far less attention has been paid to those creators themselves. The cremated remains of more than 50 individuals were placed in the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge, making it one of the largest Late Neolithic (ca. 3000-2500 BC) cemeteries known in Britain.
The Aubrey Holes were excavated by Colonel Hawley in 1919-1926, who, unusually for the time, had the foresight to rebury the cremated remains on site, albeit commingled in a single pit. Nevertheless, bones of at least 25 separate individuals could still be identified. These were recently used for radiocarbon dating, and a small fragment of what was leftover from that process was used for strontium isotope analysis. This is a method that provides insights into where people lived, following the adage that ‘you are where you ate’. Strontium is a trace element that is absorbed into our bodies, including our bones and teeth. It comes in slightly different forms termed isotopes, the ratios of which closely reflect the bedrock geology of the place, thence entering the food chain after being taken up in groundwater by plants. It happens that the Chalk on which Stonehenge sits has a very distinctive strontium isotope signal, one that is quite different from western Britain.
The results of our project suggest that over one-third of the individuals buried at Stonehenge did not spend the last years of their lives on the Wessex Chalk, but instead came from further west. A number of individuals are consistent with coming from west Wales, long seen as the source of the bluestones at Stonehenge. This shows that, for whatever reason, there were strong connections between west Wales and Wessex, extending beyond the transportation of stones, to the movement of people
Image: Cremated human remains being excavated from the base of Aubrey Hole 7 by Jacqui McKinley and Julian Richards. The bone fragments were deposited in this re-opened pit in 1935 (photograph Mike Pitts)
2.00 pm for 2.30 pm at the RISC Centre, London Street, Reading RG1 4PS Google map reference
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