Prehistoric Stonehenge is shown in reconstructions as a place where men shout at each other. We might catch a glimpse of a woman or two watching on the sidelines, but the important stuff was all being done by males.
We need to get the paints out. The largest analysis of human remains from Stonehenge ever conducted reveals that exactly half those buried there were women.
How has this come about? What does it mean?
The Stonehenge dead have long been with us. Ancient cremated human remains were first found there in 1920, and throughout major excavations that ran for a further five years. Yet until now, almost nothing was known about them. How many people were there? Were they typical of the wider population, or different? Male or female, young or old, fit or poorly, these individuals were anonymous, unstudied and unavailable for analysis.
The problem was that at the time the remains were dug up, no one knew what to do with them. Scientists thought they were useless. No museum wanted to store them. So in 1935, all the bones that had been kept – from at least 59 burials – were put back. Aubrey Hole 7, first excavated in 1920, was re-excavated, and the bones contained in four sandbags were poured in and covered up.
As a consequence, despite being the largest of its kind in the country – never mind that it was also at Stonehenge – the cemetery has been overlooked. It has played a bit part in histories and explanations of the monument.
We knew the remains had been put into Aubrey Hole 7 because of two short records. William Young, then curator at Avebury Museum, recorded the event in his diary, now in the collection of Wiltshire Museum, Devizes. As I noted in the paperback edition of Hengeworld, 15 years ago I found a letter in the Public Record Office that showed the “surplus bones” were indeed the human cremations (and not, for example, animal bones).
“Mr Newall arrived with the surplus bones at half-past two. There were four ordinary sand bags full. These were placed at the bottom of the Aubrey Hole, together with a stout leaden plate, which bore an inscription recording at length all the circumstances which led to their being deposited here, and the date.
“The hole was then filled in immediately while Nr Newall was present, then after I had re-laid the turf bordering, and had put a layer of fresh, white chalk in the centre, there were hardly any indications to show that it had ever been touched. !!!”
WEV Young Diary, 28 January 1935
The ring of Aubrey Holes excavated in the 1920s marked with red circles. Photo Adam Stanford
In 2008 Mike Parker Pearson, Julian Richards and I led a team to re-re-excavate Aubrey Hole 7 (you may have seen us at work in a TV film first broadcast in 2010), one of the last excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project
We found the pit. We found the lead plaque. And we found the bones – sadly not in little tins or boxes, or even in four bags, but a dense layer of mixed fragments (so it was impossible to distinguish individual burials). We also found, as an unexpected bonus, a new burial. Perched on the edge of the Aubrey Hole was an undisturbed cremation burial (of a woman, as it turned out), that William Hawley in 1920 and Young and Newall in 1935 had missed. Which begs the question, how many more had they dug over and not seen?
Christie Willis has spent years analysing the fragments of burnt bone, a monumental task. The first full results of her studies are about to be published in Antiquity (see reference at end). The new British Archaeology has a feature written by the same team, summarising these results and putting them into a bit of context.
Here I will write just about the women. It seems to me this is a big thing to think about.
Because of the fragmentation and mixing, it was very difficult to distinguish between individuals. Of 21 pieces of skull that came from different people, Christie found nine were from men, five from women. She found 24 bones from the inner ear that were also from different people, and of these she was able to say nine were from men and 14 from women. I’ve already mentioned the woman whose burial we found on the edge of the Aubrey Hole, and another female burial had been found elsewhere at Stonehenge which was not reburied for us to dig up. You cannot possibly argue with this evidence that Stonehenge was a male preserve.
SO WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
We found an undisturbed burial beside the Aubrey Hole, which had been missed in 1920
We think burial at Stonehenge was likely to be reserved for selected people of higher status. Why?
Stonehenge is the biggest, but it’s not the only circular cremation cemetery of this time, around 3000–2500BC. But they are not common: we know of less than 20 across the whole of the UK.
Secondly, those we do know are not big enough to represent everyone in a likely local population. At Stonehenge, we know from new radiocarbon dates from 25 different people that cremation burial occurred over at least six centuries (between around 3100BC and 2500BC). At the higher estimate of 240 burials for all of Stonehenge (my personal choice), that would be only 10 people/generation (25 years). At 150 burials (Mike Parker Pearson’s choice) it’s even less, six or seven. Neither number seems remotely big enough to represent the likely catchment area were everyone buried there.
Thirdly, this one is at Stonehenge!
We can only guess as to why more women were buried at Stonehenge than in earlier generations – though our guessing is backed by more scientific evidence than you will have seen in last night’s Silent Witness. It’s probably a reflection of wider changes across Britain, associated with the origins of the circular cremation cemeteries that replaced long barrows.
These earlier barrows were closed but accessible: remains were hidden away deep inside stone or wood chambers beneath large mounds. People seem to have entered the chambers repeatedly to add burials and possibly to take out bones for ritual use.
At the bigger cremation cemeteries like Stonehenge, as much effort was expended in digging and moving stones or timber as in building a barrow (at Stonehenge, for example, we have a ring of 56 Bluestones in the Aubrey Holes, surrounded by a circular ditch and bank 100m across). But after cremation (a demanding and spectacular event) an individual got their own, simple, grave. Their bones were not put into a communal chamber where in time they were muddled up with others. They remained separate, where they could be commemorated and remembered as individuals.
It seems these individuals could be women as much as men. Perhaps we are seeing a shift from a society dominated by male lineages and hierarchies – where the family or class was more significant than the person – to one where individual status or achievement stood for more. And that wider recognition extended to women as well as men.
Another of Christie Willis’s discoveries further suggests that in the early neolithic status was partly achieved by birth – and less so in the late neolithic. She found relatively very few children buried at Stonehenge compared to remains from long barrows – and even those we can see are probably an exaggeration of the relative quantities, as smaller younger bones will have survived the cremation and mixing better than larger adult bones, and thus be easier to spot.
It’s worth noting also that long barrows tended to be sited on hilltops or high ground, away from where people lived. Cremation cemeteries tend to be on lower ground, near rivers – not necessarily precisely where people lived (Stonehenge is conspicuously clear of any domestic remains), but in similar environments and near by.
This is a complete guess, but perhaps in line with a move from a focus on male lineage and hierarchy, to both genders and individuals, this reflects a parallel shift from markers of territory and land (barrows) to commemorations of communities (cremation cemeteries). Selective access to burial places (perhaps the ashes of most people were scattered in the rivers) suggests society remained hierarchical, but it doesn’t prove it.
It has been immensely rewarding to see these remains finally re-excavated and analysed (notwithstanding Pagan protests that would have stopped us). The remains of these forgotten people will change the way we understand Stonehenge. The journey of discovery has only just begun.
The excavation of Aubrey Hole 7 and the subsequent research were conducted by Mike Parker Pearson, Christie Willis and Tony Waldron (UCL Institute of Archaeology), Pete Marshall (Historic England), Jacqueline McKinley (Wessex Archaeology), Mike Pitts (Digging Deeper), Joshua Pollard (University of Southampton), Colin Richards and Julian Thomas (Manchester University), Julian Richards (Archaemedia) and Kate Welham (Bournemouth University). Our report (“The dead of Stonehenge”) appears in the February 2015 edition of Antiquity [now slated for April 2016]. The project was part-funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Oxford Scientific Films, with the consent of English Heritage, the Department for Culture Media & Sport, and the Ministry of Justice
“The Stonehenge people: senior and high status… and not all men” is in British Archaeology Mar/Apr 2016/147, online today and in the shops on Friday February 5
Added Feb 3 9.20am.
In response to Tim Daw’s comment, I’ve added this plan below. The yellow Aubrey Holes have been excavated, but have no record of cremated human remains being found in them. I’ve also put a yellow line in the south-east marking the edge of the excavated areas there (Hawley claimed to have dug up almost everything on that side of the site north and west of this line). You can see from this how little of the bank immediately adjacent to the Aubrey Hole ring, or the area beyond the ditch, has been investigated: Hawley trenched along the ditch, but barely touched the bank. If you read anything that suggests there is some kind of astronomical significance in the location of things found under the bank, you need to bear this in mind – what we’re seeing could easily be just where archaeologists have dug.
David Dawson, director of the Wiltshire Museum, has put a very interesting piece up about WEV Young’s diaries, which are in the museum’s collection.