Stonehenge: Not just a man thing

digging henge view (c) Mike Pitts.jpgPrehistoric 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.


Aubrey Hole 7 WEV Young 1935.jpg
Wiltshire Museum

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

Excavating Aubrey Hole 7 (c) Adam Stanford.jpg

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


lead plaque (c) Mike Pitts.jpgWe 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?


excavating bones (c) Mike Pitts.jpgChristie 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.


excavating burial (c) Mike Pitts.jpg

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.

BA147 Stonehenge.jpgThe 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

Alan Sorrell sledge
Not so much this perhaps (Alan Sorrell 1950s)…
Kelvin Wilson stonehenge.jpg
… as this (Kelvin Wilson for Archaeology magazine in 2007)

Added Feb 3 9.20am.

Stonehenge site plan.jpg

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.

And BBC News picks up the story. And Discovery News, and many others. The struggling-unsuccessfully-to-get-a-grabbing-but-relevant-headline prize must go to a Jezebel contributor.


21 thoughts on “Stonehenge: Not just a man thing

    1. I follow the work at Stonehenge as an amateur, since 1978.
      But the only comment I can give here is the incorrect scale of 30 km (…?) on the map….
      Do go on with the excavations and studies!

  1. Mike – Excellent BA and Blog articles, Elsewhere last week we were discussing the distribution of cremated remains in Aubrey Holes and the importance of noting that the excavations may well have missed some, actually DID miss some, but also that not all the Aubrey Holes have been excavated. The distribution plan in the magazine, which you reproduce here, doesn’t distinguish between undug and dug holes and so might give a false impression that the remains are only found in one half, whereas we don’t know what are in the others. Would it be helpful to highlight the unknowns?

  2. notwithstanding Pagan protests?…It has always been our point of view that gaining knowledge of our ancestors is a good thing! But after research has been done ,,PUT THEM BACK!!!! by not doing so you have damaged Stone henge in unequalled ways!
    T .Roekieman van Hagen , officer of The Loyal Arthurian War band.

    1. I’m pleased you agree that learning about the people who built Stonehenge is a good thing. But you can’t have it both ways. The morning we started the dig, there was a Pagan protest at the site telling us and everyone else there that we were desecrating the memory of the people buried in the ground, and we should not be excavating them. We did, and as a result we now know a lot more about them. But as Christie Willis said on BBC Wiltshire radio this morning, the scientific research has only just begun. We will learn more from future studies, not least as new and unimagined technologies become available. If we rebury the remains, we lose those opportunities for good.

  3. A fascinating find, so little on the obvious side but, as for today, less men than women would have died during childbirth.

    1. You’re probably right, though perhaps more men died in warfare. However a higher proportion of men is found in burial mounds across the country, which pre-date the Aubrey Holes

      1. Agree with that, perhaps it was the women killing off the men when they had their backs turned. Dangerous lot these prehistoric women.

    1. He does describe small collections of bone, but that needn’t mean they were from children (no one analysed them). They are more likely – as Hawley himself suggests – to be from pyres where even less than usual had been gathered, when the custom anyway appears not to have been to aim for more than a representative sample of remains.

  4. Mike, please stop perpetuating the falsehood that pagans protesting your dig would have stopped the research. This is untrue. We only wish for a commitment to reburial once a reasonable period of study is complete. This is a matter of public record. The dignity of these individuals will only be restored when they are allowed to rest again in the soil at Stonehenge.

  5. I’m a student in Archaeology and I would be interested in reading the report published in Antiquity. Even in the table contents of February 2015, it is not mentioned…

  6. The Antiquity article hasn’t yet been published. We were expecting publication around now, but have been told it will be in the following edition, which comes out in April. It will be worth looking at. As well as more detail on the matters discussed here, there is much about age and health, and a full listing of radiocarbon dates.

  7. Mike,
    I must disagree with your statement on reconstructions and Stonehenge. If you take Stonehenge to mean the monuments in the surrounding landscape through their interconnected stages, the Stonehenge Complex, as well as the site itself, there are reconstructions showing women and men of all ages doing stuff, important and the everyday.
    Those I produced for The Stonehenge Riverside Project and others going back to the early 1990s of Durrington and other sites depict women in foreground prominent positions, they are central to the story. Those of Stonehenge itself are all overall aerial views, but there are individual figures in the details which are intended to be women, the gathered crowds are a mass of humanity men, women and children some important some not so.
    These in my mind when I am working are the Stonehenge people not as they were but as I imagine they might have been.
    Take another look, let me know what you think.

  8. Mike makes a very valid point about the position of the cremation remains at Stonehenge; “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.”

    As the author of a paper – – that claims that there might be some such significance I feel it is worth expanding on my reasoning.

    My paper was about the Great Trilithon being twisted from its “expected” position and that this twist then aligns it with the Winter Solstice Sunrise. With regards to the cremation burials it says: “There is also a cluster of cremation burials on this alignment. Because of the uneven past excavations and recordings of them we cannot be sure that cremation remains were not missed in the excavated parts of Stonehenge, and of course we know nothing of what lies buried in the unexcavated part. So while the cluster may be significant there must be some caution applied. ”

    I plotted the known cremation burials which aren’t in Aubrey Holes to highlight this cluster. (I ignored the one in the Sarsen circle – identified as 2125 – as there is some doubt as to whether it is of animal or human remains.)

    As Mike is I’m cautious in claiming any significance in the cluster in itself. But it is part of a pattern.

    Firstly is the cluster real? The excavations were not of modern standards and in the area excavated more than one cremation was probably missed. Obviously we know nothing of what is under the unexcavated turf but in the excavated area the null hypothesis would be that there is an even sampling of the cremations present, meaning if Hawley missed, say, one out of four cremations then the cluster is real and actually had more cremations in it. It is not certain but that is the most probable scenario.

    Does the cluster prove an astronomical alignment? No, not on its own. But the case is built up from multiple circumstantial clues. None in themselves prove it but combined together they provide a strong case. Evidence can either be supportive, or not or neutral. Weighting the supportiveness and significance is not a precise science, so all I can ask is that you read the paper and judge for yourself.

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