he same Stonehenge Riverside Project has announced that dates have been obtained from eight samples of cremated bone from the Stonehenge area, five of which proved to date from the third millennium BC, and three of which dated from the Middle Bronze Age, Iron Age and late Roman period.
The importance of these dates, according to Sheffield University’s Professor Mike Parker Pearson, is to demonstrate that Stonehenge was used as a burial ground throughout the third millennium BC, and not just in the early period (the 28th and 27th centuries BC). He further estimates that the total number of third millennium burials at Stonehenge is 240, making Stonehenge the biggest cemetery of its era, larger than 14 other comparable cemeteries known elsewhere in Britain from the same period.
These figures represent an average of one person being buried here every two years for a period of around 500 years, suggesting that the people buried here might have come from a small and select population; burial at Stonehenge might have been reserved for members of an elite dynasty of rulers.
Dating the enigmatic Greater Stonehenge Cursus P
rofessor Julian Thomas of the University of Manchester has announced that a broken-off tine from an antler pick excavated from the Greater Stonehenge Cursus last year has been dated to the period between 3630 and 3375 BC, confirming that the cursus was constructed some 500 years before the first henge at Stonehenge.
The linear cursus is 3km in length, runs east to west and consists of two broadly parallel banks, with external ditches, enclosing an area that varies in width from 100m to 150m. The antler pick fragment came from the western terminal of the southern ditch. Found 1.6m below the surface, it was deposited very soon after the ditch was dug. A
Above A lucky digger works to uncover the antler fragments. Inset Antler pick used for dating the Cursus. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.
further clue to the date of the cursus was provided by a sherd from a lugged bowl of Windmill Hill style, dating from the mid to late 4th millennium BC, which was found in the topsoil of the western terminal of the northern ditch.
The excavation of September 2007 – forming part of the collaborative Stonehenge Riverside Project run by the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Bristol, Bournemouth and University
The new dates The earliest date of 3030-2880 BC came from the lower fill of Aubrey Hole 32, and provides a terminus ante quem for the Aubrey Holes, hitherto undated, placing them as part of the monument’s initial construction phase (3015–2935 BC). The second in chronological order dates from 2930–2870 BC, shortly after the initial construction. Two others date from 2890–2630 BC and 2880–2570 BC, falling within the period before the sarsen stones were erected. Stonehenge´s ditch was then partially re-cut during the period 2560–2140 BC and another cremation burial was placed in this new ditch in 2570–2340 BC, within or after the period in which the sarsens were erected. Stonehenge: an elite cemetery? Stonehenge: an elite cemetery?
College, London – showed that there were no internal structures between the two banks. Professor Thomas said: ‘We don’t know what the cursus was used for – but we do know it encloses a pathway which has been made inaccessible, and that suggests it was either a sanctified area or for some reason was cursed.’
An English Heritage team is currently studying the 150 or so cursus monuments already recorded in England to see whether their landscape context offers a clue to their use: many cursuses were sited at transitional places, such as the confluence of two rivers, or the crossover points of different types of geology.
The Manchester University team also found evidence for a realignment and change of significance in the mid 3rd millennium BC, when pits and ditches were dug to shift the original east-west axis, aligned on Beacon Hill, to a northsouth direction, redefining the cursus as a boundary separating the Stonehenge area from the Durrington Walls area.
Fieldwork will continue in the summer of 2008. ‘We hope more discoveries lie in store when we work on the eastern end of the cursus this summer’, Professor Thomas said.