A recent find at the mysterious monument known as Stonehenge has offered a clue to the origins of the stones. Recently, the bones of people buried at the site were examined by researchers from the University of Oxford, and it would appear that many of the bones came from west Wales. Specifically, it is thought that the individuals found buried near Stonehenge came from a region near Preseli Hills, where scientists believe that the stones themselves were quarried. This is over 160 kilometers (100 miles) away from the site.
All The Way From Wales
The scientists who worked on the bones, an international team hailing from the University of Oxford, as well as Brussels and Paris, note that while they can’t definitively say that the bones found near Stonehenge are those of the people who created it, the dates of the bones are very close to when the bluestones (stones foreign to the region) of Stonehenge were brought to the region to create the stone circle.
Christopher Snoeck, a researcher from Vrije University in Belguim, was one of the lead researchers on the project. Snoeck says that of the 25 people who had been buried there, around 40% of them couldn’t have lived in the region for the last decade or so that they were alive. Snoeck notes that this is extremely rare for the time, considering that approximately 5000 years ago wheeled transport hadn’t been invented, and most people lived their lives within just a few kilometers of their settlements.
Analyzing the bones proved to be a challenge, largely because of the condition of the bones. The remains of the people buried there had been cremated, so many of the bones were brittle and charred. Another problem was that earlier archeological efforts had complicated the identification process. During the 1920s, archeologists had identified 58 individuals that had been cremated and buried within 56 different holes. Yet after the excavation, the archeologists simply reburied the fragments of bone within a single hole, making the site a mess of charred bones.
The site was re-excavated in 2008, and researchers began trying to identify individuals from the mass of bones. Christie Willis, a co-author on the study and researcher from University College London’s Institute of Archeology, managed to identify 25 individuals from the around 60 who had been initially discovered.
In the intervening decade, Snoeck had been working on a technique to determine levels of strontium within cremated remains. Strontium is an element that plants absorb from the soil, and when people eat plants the strontium accumulates in their bones. By studying tooth enamel, archeologists can often detect different strontium isotopes, which can clue them into where the individuals may have lived. The strontium isotopes are frequently strongly correlated with the geology of an area. Unfortunately, cremation often renders it impossible to detect strontium levels within teeth.
Snoeck kept testing the technique and refining it, under the suspicion that the heat of a cremation pyre would crystallize the bone, and seal the isotopes within them. As it turns out, Snoeck’s hunch seems to have been proven correct, with an analysis of the bone fragments showing little to no alteration of the strontium. Snoeck explains:
Clearly when it comes to light chemical elements such as carbon and oxygen these are heavily altered, but for heavier elements such as strontium – about seven times heavier than carbon – no alteration was observed. On the contrary, thanks to the high temperatures reached, the structure of the bone is modified, making the bone resistant to post-mortem exchanges with the burial soil.
According to Snoeck, the Wessex soil that lies beneath the stones at Stonehenge has a unique strontium profile. The Wessex soil profile was inconsistent with the strontium samples obtained from ten of the people who were buried there. Yet the Neolithic era bones did prove to be a match for isotopes of strontium found in Wales. While it can’t be conclusively said that Welsh ancestors were responsible for the creation of Stonehenge, archaeological dates for the bones are extremely close to the time that Stonehenge was believed to be constructed in.
Archeologists have long debated how it was that the stone of Stonehenge arrived in that region. The large sarsen stones (blocks of local sandstone) are thought to have come from a relatively close by area, some 32 kilometers (20 miles) away. Yet the precise method that was responsible for delivering the bluestones is still under debate. One theory that was proposed was that they could have been moved by glaciers, but when the actual quarry for the stones was discovered in 2015, this theory was put to rest. Strangely enough, the bluestones seemed to have been quarried centuries prior to their placement at Stonehenge. This fact causes some to theorize that the stones were originally part of a different monument located in Wales, but that the stones were then moved over a hundred kilometers to the east for reasons that are still unclear.
It isn’t just the act of transporting the stones all the way to their current location that makes archeologists believe that the site was an important place to Neolithic people. The fact that some of the bones found within the excavation site seem to be from Wales implies a continual link to the area.
Snoeck doubts that the individuals from Wales had been cremated at the Wiltshire location. Rather, Snoeck notes that the original archeologists found impressions of organic containers in the excavation sites, and says it was more likely that the travelers brought the dead to the place then cremated them. The author’s of the study say this is evidence of the importance of both Stonehenge and the people buried there. Rick Schulting, a senior author on the study explains that to be buried at Stonehenge was the “ancient equivalent of being interred in Westminster Abbey today.”
Since Snoeck’s technique has been proven to get results, the researchers are hoping to do analysis on the other remains found at Stonehenge to determine if the connection between Stonehenge and Wales was an isolated event, or if there was a continual connection with the area over the years. Similar analysis can also be done on other cremated remains found around the UK. Snoeck himself will be heading to Belgium to conduct a large-scale project on the subject of cremation and migration in the country’s pre-historical era.