The Stonehenge dead tell their stories

Quite why the child left central Europe around 1500 BCE and travelled to the southern chalklands of England will be forever unknown, but perhaps the reason he stayed can be guessed with a bit more certainty.

There was better food in what is these days known as the county of Wiltshire. In Europe, the boy had suffered anaemia so severe that it forever marked his bones. Also, there was also a role to fill.

What that role was is also unknown, although it seems like he was still an outsider when he died at about the age of 30. The reason for his continued presence, though, is likely uncontroversial.

When he arrived, the area was arguably the centre of Europe’s Bronze Age world. For generations already, the site had been the focus of intense activity – work, labour, and ritual. There was a monument just completed, a geographically vast and spiritually complex collection of massive standing stones and enclosures. Today it’s called Stonehenge.

The tentative tale of the unknown boy is one of four deduced biographies of ancient skeletons unearthed from the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. They arise from comprehensive analyses of the remains, including archaeological interpretation and bone and tooth examinations using radiocarbon dating, stable isotope measurements and other forms of biomolecular interrogation.

The skeletons were all excavated in in 2015, but the long, slow process of investigating them – conducted by a team led by skeletal biologist Simon May of conservation body Historic England – has only now been completed. The results are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

The four skeletons comprise the central European incomer (dubbed 8102), a local man who may well have been his friend (8101), a baby – who died probably during their lifetimes, but three kilometres distant (8201) – and another man (8301), who died much earlier, around 3000 BCE, before the construction of Stonehenge began.

For the three Middle Bronze Age skeletons, the very fact that they were found at all marks them as unusual. Mays and his colleagues point out that during the period cremation was the norm and burial very rare.

Mr 8301, dating from the Middle Neolithic, is also unusual. By the time he died the earlier practice of burying the dead in earthen mounds known as barrows had ceased. By then, the dead were either cremated, or dismembered and thrown into pits. He is the only full skeleton from that period ever discovered at Stonehenge.

The critical question of why these four were treated differently in death to their contemporaries will forever be a matter for speculation. But the researchers’ results serve to at least constrain the possibilities.

Mr 8102 and 8101, for instance, were buried very close together, and positioned, curled up, in very similar positions (indeed, they may have been identically posed, their limbs perhaps tied, their remains moving later in response to decay). Dating evidence suggests that Mr 8101, who had spent his entire life in the area, died very shortly after 8102, aged about 40.

Perhaps the pair were friends, perhaps not. Certainly, they were interred adjacent to each other – although Mays and colleagues note that burial is the final act of funerary practice, and their corpses may have been treated differently before being placed in their pits. On available evidence, however, it seems that their ethnicities did not make a difference when it came to interment.

But why were they interred rather than cremated like most of those who lived, toiled and worshipped at Stonehenge? May and colleagues, of course, do not know the answer, but they point out that burial itself means that they must have been “sufficiently removed from most others in Middle Bronze Age society that they merited this fundamental difference in mortuary treatment”.

Both men, perhaps, were inlanders and outsiders. Evidence from bone and tooth analysis supports both contentions. Neither ever enjoyed a source of marine protein, but both consumed milk from sheep and cows. Mr 8101 also ate cereal and legume plants – whether grown, gathered or traded is unknown – and was of significantly heavier build than Mr 8102. At some point early in life he suffered a broken back, but recovered.

Bone analysis revealed that both men walked a lot, and were thus likely highly mobile. Perhaps their lives were transient, and separate to those of the families or clans or other networks around Stonehenge. May and team note that both were buried at field boundaries, which may be significant.

He notes previous research that suggests “that field boundaries in this area during the Middle Bronze Age may have been a place of deposition for those whose social identities led to them being regarded as occupying liminal positions in society”.

The baby, 8201, was possibly stillborn, and was also buried in a boundary ditch. Although in some ancient societies, May and colleagues point out, babies were considered to be outsiders because they were not yet incorporated into society, there is evidence that in Middle Bronze Age England the very young were cremated in the same manner as adults. Something about this little one, then, marked him or her as different.

“The burial treatment of this infant may reflect the marginal position of his immediate family or of the wider kin or social group to which he belonged,” the researchers write.

Mr 8301, who lived and died about 1500 years before the others, was also likely a migrant. The researchers suggest he may have originally come from Ireland. His diet contained no marine protein, and analysis suggests much of food came from species found in heavily wooded areas – a finding which accords with Wiltshire being tree-covered before the Stonehenge-related land clearances began.

Later in life – before his death around the age of 40 – he ate very little cow meat or milk, but did enjoy pig flesh, freshwater fish and hazelnuts.

The fact that he migrated across the Irish Sea to the southern chalklands before the construction of Stonehenge began, the researchers suggest, indicates that Neolithic people were perhaps much more mobile than previously assumed.

It also suggests that there was something about the location that was significant centuries before people started dragging monoliths hewn from Welsh quarries towards it.

“A monument undergoing active construction or alteration may not have been the only ‘pull’ factor drawing people to this landscape in later prehistory,” the scientists conclude.

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