Stonehenge: An osteoarchaeologist discusses the discovery of human bones
The story of Stonehenge should be told in a major exhibition at the British Museum. More than 250 objects from institutions in six European countries and the UK will be loaned to the country’s flagship museum to place the stone monument in the context of an era marked by massive social and technological change. The Neolithic structure, built 4,500 years ago, is the largest of its kind in the world.
It’s unclear exactly why the ancient Britons built it, but many of its purposes have since been realized, including as a means of monitoring the night sky during the two solstices of the year.
Some other very specific details are also known about Stonehenge, such as the origin of certain rocks.
Last year, in a groundbreaking study, researchers uncovered the exact location of its bluestone’s origin – a windswept piece of land in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire, South Wales.
Another niche but vital aspect of the stones was revealed during the Discovery UK documentary, ‘Blowing Up History’.
Stonehenge: Biological analysis showed the remains belonged to a man from Germany
Solstice: Twice a year people gather to observe the summer and winter solstice at Stonehenge
Here, osteoarchaeologist Jackie McKinley analyzed the remains of two ancient humans found buried beneath the structure.
She believes that Stonehenge was not only used as a means of observing the sky, but also as a point of culture, commerce and a vast cemetery.
While examining the remains, the two men – one young, aged in his twenties, the other older but without a head, made an unprecedented discovery.
Human remains and their bones often hold vital keys to a person’s biological signature, the most specific being where they may have come from.
These signatures can sometimes be traced back to groundwater consumed by someone in their early years, which can become embedded in a growing child’s tooth enamel or in the bones.
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Assessing the older man, his signatures suggested he may have originated from central Europe, the area of present-day Germany.
The young man, too, spent part of his life in the same place, but was born in Stonehenge.
Ms McKinley said: “The fact that we have been able to demonstrate that people have been able to move multiple times in their lifetime between long distances is absolutely fascinating.
“What you have is a connection between people over a wide geographic area.
“And, whether they kept that connection because of commerce, or because of family, or a combination of both – it’s so modern in so many ways, similar to what we would do now.”
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Biological signature: osteoarchaeologist Jackie McKinley analyzed the bones to find their origins
Metallurgy: She claimed the rare gold found in their graves hinted at their professions
Buried alongside the two men were two rare pieces of gold metalwork, which Mr McKinley said alluded to their profession as metalworkers or jewellers.
She argued that the younger man may have moved to Germany to take up something like an apprenticeship, learning his trade from the older man and then returning to Stonehenge to make and sell their wares – things that were at extremely modern times.
This reasoning supported his claim that Stonehenge was much more than a place where people came to observe the solstices.
Other research also suggests that Stonehenge was, in fact, something more like a large settlement.
UK Stone Circles: Some of the many UK stone circle structures
Fieldwork done during the recent Channel 5 documentary, “The Stonehenge Enigma: What lies below?” found a series of large pits placed in what appeared to be a strategic circle around the walls of nearby Durrington.
The area was later discovered to be a bustling hub of Britons from all over the country, who regularly traveled to the site in order to take part in organized ritual hunts.
They later called the ring of pits – which they believe was intended to mark Stonehenge as the last great Neolithic monument – the ‘Great Durrington Ring’.
Professor Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at University College London (UCL) who spent many years working at Stonehenge, suggested the ring was a “true swansong moment for a way of life that was on about to disappear forever”.
The Great Ring of Durrington: the pits encircled Stonehenge and the walls of Durrington
He continued: “You have to have a boundary, you have to have a point where you say, ‘Beyond that, something else happens’.
“These conditions are totally different, and what better way than to create that boundary in a great encirclement of the Walls of Durrington.
“What they were doing was marking it to say that it was something great once, and now it’s the area that will remain special for eternity.”
“We come, now I think, with the most extraordinary sight of seeing Stonehenge for the first time in its own context.”