Burials and builders of Stonehenge: social identities in Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic Britain
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The identity of the people who built Stonehenge has long been a mystery. Fifty years ago, archaeologists speculated that it was built by Mediterranean or Egyptian architects directing local barbarians. The results of current research indicate that the influences behind its architecture can all be traced to pre-existing British traditions of monument building in Wales and Wessex.
Preliminary results of osteological research are demonstrating that, of the estimated 150 people buried at Stonehenge, the 64 that have been excavated were drawn from a restricted section of society. Whereas two of them were adult women and two or three were children, the remainder may have been adult males.
The few grave goods found with these cremation burials suggest that these may have been individuals with political and religious authority. They were buried at Stonehenge in the period 3000–2300 cal BC and may have formed one or more dynasties of rulers.
Stonehenge’s first stage of construction (3000–2920 cal BC) was at a time of growing unity in material culture across Britain, in terms of ceramic style, henge monuments and house forms. Its construction may have been designed to unify different regions of Britain, specifically the sarsen stone region of Wessex with the bluestone region of Wales.
Stonehenge’s second stage of construction (2620–2480 cal BC),when the monument largely took the form that it has today, was associated with a large village at nearby Durrington Walls which was later monumentalized as a henge. Inspiration for Stonehenge’s stone architecture – shaped stones, lintels and mortice-and-tenon jointing – can be found in the indigenous timber architecture of Britain. Specifically, its form derives from the timber circles of Wessex and elsewhere in Britain, while the horseshoe arrangement of the trilithons derives from the D-shaped plans of timber public buildings excavated in Wales as well as at Durrington Walls and Stonehenge. In conclusion, Stonehenge can be understood as a monumental representation in stone of building styles normally built in timber – a meeting house for the ancestors.