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Analysis of 63 ancient human remains rewrites the story of Stonehenge

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For centuries scientists and historians have argued over the meaning and purpose of Stonehenge. Now a research team led by the world-renowned archaeologist Professor Mike Parker Pearson believes it has finally solved many of the mysteries surrounding our greatest prehistoric monument, overturning the accepted view on what happened when Stonehenge was built, and what it was built for.

Professor Parker Pearson’s team was granted exclusive permission to analyse - for the first time - the ancient remains of 63 bodies buried at Stonehenge. This latest investigation is a continuation of a research project conducted by Parker Pearson in 2008 when he carried out radiocarbon tests on only three sets of cremated remains.

The results of his latest investigation:

  • reveal that the first stones at Stonehenge were put up 500 years earlier than previously thought at around 3000 BC. The monument we see today was not the original Stonehenge;
  • prove that Stonehenge as it looks today was built 200 years earlier than previously thought, around 2500 BC;
  • explain the choice of the site on Salisbury Plain;
  • prove that Stonehenge was once the site of vast communal feasts attended by some 4000 people, a substantial proportion of the British population (then estimated at only tens of thousands), with people coming from as far afield as highland Scotland to celebrate the solstice.

Professor Parker Pearson believes his findings provide compelling evidence that Stonehenge once united the people of Britain. And his analysis of the bodies and grave goods found on and around the site and around it also offers an answer to the mystery of Stonehenge’s decline.

These new findings, revealed for the first time in a special Channel 4 documentary to be screened tomorrow night (8pm 10 March), completely rewrite the story of Stonehenge.

The team has now confirmed:

  • There were two Stonehenges. The original Stonehenge was a large circular structure built 500 years before the Stonehenge we know today (the original was built 5000 years ago; the Stonehenge we now know was built 4500 years ago). The research team believes that the first Stonehenge was originally a graveyard for a community of elite families, whose remains were brought to Stonehenge and buried over a period of 200 years. The remains of many of the cremated bodies were originally marked by the bluestones of Stonehenge, meaning that the monument began its life as a huge graveyard.
  • Feasting on a grand scale at the Stonehenge complex occurred around the Mid-Winter solstice. Professor Mike Parker Pearson and his team have tested cattle and pig teeth found among 80,000 animal bones from the huge henge of Durrington Walls near Stonehenge and the film reveals that the animals were slaughtered in Winter, nine months after their spring birth. This evidence points to the Mid-Winter Solstice gatherings at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls being a time for feasting on an unprecedented scale.

  • Stonehenge was a monument that brought Britain together. Mike and his team prove through further isotope testing of the teeth of animals that people came with their animals to feast at Stonehenge from all corners of Britain - as far afield as highland Scotland. Stonehenge, the most important monument in Britain, attracted and unified people from all over the country soon after the emergence of the first true pan-British culture, in Parker Pearson’s view.
  • Why our ancestors chose Salisbury Plain. We’ve long known that Stonehenge, like many Stone Age structures, was aligned with the rising and setting of the sun on the Mid-Winter and Mid-Summer solstices; these marked key times in the annual Neolithic calendar. What we haven’t known until now, is why Stonehenge was built in the middle of Salisbury Plain. Professor Parker Pearson believes that the site was chosen because of a pair of naturally-occurring parallel ridges in the landscape – the result of Ice Age meltwater - which coincidentally point directly at the Mid-Winter Sunset in one direction and the Mid-Summer sunrise in the other. To our ancestors, this must have seemed an uncanny and auspicious sign – and we now know that they chose to build their cemetery at the end of them.
  • An answer to the mystery of Stonehenge’s decline. Once completed, Stonehenge flourished for just a few centuries. For years, this decline has been a mystery. But Professor Parker Pearson believes that it is explained by the culture of the ‘Beaker People’, known to have arrived in these isles around the same time. He believes that their greater individualism and new material goods (including the first metal goods seen in Britain) put an end to the communal culture for which the monument had originally been created.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, of UCL Institute of Archaeology, says:

“Although we finished digging at Stonehenge in 2009, the most surprising results have come out only now because of the detailed and painstaking laboratory work that has taken years to complete. Even now, more still remains to be done and there will no doubt be future surprises in store. It’s a very exciting time for scientific developments in archaeology.”

Notes to Editors

  • Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons is an Oxford Scientific Films/Terra Mater Factual Studios Co Production for Channel 4. Transmission: 8pm on 10 March on Channel 4
  • The research team included Dr Josh Pollard (University of Southampton), Professor Colin Richards (University of Manchester, Professor Julian Thomas (University of Manchester) , Dr Kate Welham (University of Bournemouth), Umberto Albarella (University of Sheffield), Professor Jane Evans (British Geological Survey), Christie Willis (University College London), Sarah Viner (University of Sheffield), Dr. Oliver Craig (University of York) and Dr. Janet Montgomery (Durham University) .
  • To view the programme please contact: Lisa Garratt lgarratt@channel4.co.uk
  • For stills please go to: www.channel4.com/info/press

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