Cremated remains, which were reinterred in a pit following Hawley’s excavations of Stonehenge, were re-excavated in 2008 and underwent stable isotope analysis to determine their origins. (IMAGE: Adam Sanford, Aerial-Cam)
Recent analysis of cremated human remains excavated from Stonehenge has shown that some of the individuals buried at the Neolithic monument may have spent some of their lives in western Britain, or even west Wales – the same region where the Stonehenge bluestones are believed to have come from.
During William Hawley’s excavations of the famous monument between 1919 and 1926, up to 58 individual cremations were unearthed. These were subsequently reinterred in a single pit, which was re-excavated in 2008. At least 25 individuals were identified from the recovered remains – a task made difficult as they had been co-mingled during their re-interment – and all were radiocarbon dated to between 3180-2965 and 2565-2380 BC. This places the burials in the earlier stages of the monument’s construction – a period when cremation was a common funerary practice in Britain.
Now, samples from these remains have also been subjected to isotope analysis, to find out more about where the individuals came from. This kind of research can be difficult with cremated remains, as the high temperatures that bones are exposed to during burning alter the stable carbon and oxygen isotope ratios (which are commonly used to assess diet and mobility). Strontium isotopes, though, which provide information on a person’s whereabouts in the last decade or so before death, remain preserved in cremated bone.
The results of the strontium isotope analysis showed that 15 individuals had isotope ratios consistent with the chalky geology found at Stonehenge, and for at least 15km in any direction from the monument. This suggests that in the years leading up to their deaths, they most likely obtained much of their diet from (and therefore probably lived in) the local area. The other ten individuals, though, yielded significantly different results. Three had isotope ratios that were so dissimilar to the Stonehenge area that they are unlikely to have obtained any of their diet from the region. Instead, their isotope values point to older lithologies more in keeping with parts of Devon and Wales, particularly western Wales. The other seven had isotope values in between the two, possibly reflecting a diet that came from both west Wales and Wessex.
These results lend further credence to the idea that during the Neolithic there was a strong connection between west Wales and Salisbury Plain, which included the movement of both materials and people.
The paper highlighting these results is freely available here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-28969-8. We hope to bring you a more in-depth account of this exciting new research in the next issue of CA – watch this space!
This article appeared in CA 343.