Stonehenge in five easy stages (or perhaps six)

What did Stonehenge look like? How did it begin? The new Antiquity features an article by Tim Darvill, Pete Marshall, Mike Parker Pearson & Geoff Wainwright called “Stonehenge remodelled”. It’s designed to be the definitive summary of the current rethinking about the monument’s construction history. You can see an abstract here, though you need to subscribe to read the paper. There is a much fuller study published by English Heritage available online (though not live as I write).

Julian Richards in 2008, excavating a previously unsuspected cremation burial close to the edge of Aubrey Hole 7. Carbon dating suggests this burial was almost certainly made before the main ditch circuit was dug
Julian Richards in 2008, excavating a previously unsuspected cremation burial close to the edge of Aubrey Hole 7. Carbon dating suggests this burial was almost certainly made before the main ditch circuit was dug

Mike Parker Pearson has already published much of this (see my earlier blog), though every time it’s described, some detail has changed, and that’s true of this version. I’ve summarised their Stages in this table, which is based on one by the authors. Radiocarbon dates on the right are mostly actual dates, calibrated at 95% confidenceMicrosoft Word - stonehenge_RRS_1.docThis is a substantial advance on where we were until recently, and overall it’s a history that feels truer to the spirit of the place than earlier versions. But the depressing thing is that in some respects little has changed since the last definitive version published in 1995. This is because the archaeology, in particular the poor quality of the excavations and doubts about precise contexts of many of the radiocarbon samples, just cannot stand up to much more precision, much as we’d desperately like it to.

That’s not to say it’s all over. One thing that struck me as we considered this new phasing, is that Stonehenge seems to have a history that pre-dates the main ditch and bank enclosure that is traditionally (as effectively here by Darvill et al) taken to be the start of it all, at around 3000BC.

As is now clear, the Aubrey Holes, or maybe just some of the cremation burials, might slightly predate the ditch circuit. There are several other radiocarbon dates that are older than the ditch construction: some of them from bones in the ditch, where they are ascribed to older, “curated” remains that were carefully placed there when the ditch was dug; and others from contexts that make less obvious sense, where the finds are simply dismissed as “residual”.

But if cremation burial at Stonehenge began before 3000BC, might other remains come from features or activities on site that are contemporary, i.e. also pre-3000BC?

In January this year I went through the date lists and tabulated all the samples with older dates, listing them in rough order from older to younger (see chart). These are mostly samples we have traditionally labelled “structured”, “curated”, “residual” or “rejected” – in other words, we’ve labelled them out of the picture. There are also three antler samples that have been included with the others used to date the first ditch excavation.

Microsoft Word - stonehenge_RRS_1.doc

There are arguably three chronological groups here (indicated by the lines in the stage column), but what’s most interesting is that we have a bunch of dates that suggest a story:

1. All the ditch samples are near terminals in the circuit, ie by the entrances

2. Of these, older samples are at the south, younger at the north-east.

This might indicate that these “structured” remains are in fact dating early features with which they are contemporary, i.e. Hawley’s “craters” at what later became ditch terminals. In that respect, the primary burial of distinctive cattle bones (look at all those ox jaws) at a “pre-ditch stage” at the same time as some cremation burials has obvious long barrow analogues. A number of neolithic long barrows on Salisbury Plain have large cattle bones where in other cases we might have found human remains. These ox bones might be telling us that Stonehenge was already a place where death was celebrated, before it became Stonehenge.

But suppose the bones in the ditch had been taken from somewhere else? Where might that have been?

One area of the site that remains stubbornly difficult to integrate, is that between the main entrance and out beyond the Heelstone. This plan is from Cleal et al, I’ve just removed all the excavation trenches and labels to make it easier to read.

Stonehenge entranceA

Many of those features, including stone pits D and E, Stone 95, the rash of postholes across the ditch causeway, the stone or post pits B and C and the row of postholes at A – even the Heelstone and Stone 97 (the latter could be the former in an earlier position) – could be parts of what elsewhere might be interpreted as a large “mortuary house” defined by parallel ditches:

Stonehenge entranceBThe structure was dismantled, perhaps when the ditch circuit was dug. Cattle bones were retrieved and reburied. The ditches subsequently became the start of the Avenue.

Who knows? My point is that the story is far from over. The only way to make significant new progress now is to combine re-examination of old excavation records (particularly Hawley’s) with new excavation at the site on a scale commensurate with the problems.


18 thoughts on “Stonehenge in five easy stages (or perhaps six)

  1. Thanks for the summary.
    It isn’t just the post holes at the avenue end that are perplexing, there are all sorts of “join the dot” puzzles as you come in from the south entrance right into the middle. A project on Stonehenge before the Stones would either make a promising young student’s name or drive her completely mad.

  2. Good summary, explanation and exciting possibilities! The other comment I would like to make is regarding the 14C dating of cremated remains from the Aubrey Holes, which now seem to predate in some cases the construction of the bank and ditch enclosure at Stonehenge. It would be interesting to look for aspects of long-term curation within these cremated human remains, which could also influence the suggested discrepancy between the two dated phenomena. One dates the moment of cremation, not the moment these remains were interred in the Aubrey Hole. Something to think about at least…

  3. Just wondering if in your research, if you remember them finding a man, a woman and a child buried close together, same grave possibly,
    near the altar stone. I researched that finding last year and cannot find anything now. They were all killed at the same time. Or any idea as to where
    to look?

    Thanks so much,


    1. If such a thing exists anywhere it will be in fiction. Inside the stone circle there is a hint of a burial of a single person that could be prehistoric (not particularly near the Altar Stone), but the record of the discovery if that’s what it was is so poor we are unlikely ever to know more (what had been thought on reasonable grounds to be a prehistoric grave outside the circle, well recorded, was decades later radiocarbon dated and found to be Anglo-Saxon).

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