The mysterious collection of 25-ton stones in Stonehenge usually steals the show. But even the ground under the stones holds secrets – 5,000 years ago, this piece of land in Wiltshire in southern England was a tomb. And some of the ancient human remains found in Stonehenge have unusually distant origins, according to a new archaeological study on cremated bones, published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.
The remains provide another line of evidence between Stonehenge and Wales, 140 miles away. A stone quarry in Wales is probably the source of Stonehenge bluestones, which are called because of their blue hue when wet or broken. It is possible, say the authors of the new study, that people who were buried on the slopes came from the same Welsh region.
Christophe Snoeck, a researcher at the Vrije University in Belgium, specializing in archeology and chemistry, helped in the research of 25 people were buried in Stonehenge and found that they came from distant lands. "Forty percent of the people we analyzed could not live in Stonehenge in the last decade of their lives," Snoeck said.
A chemical analysis of their bones shows that 1
The beginnings of this study date back to the 1920s, when archaeologists first launched pits in Stonehenge named Aubrey Holes 17th century natural philosopher John Aubrey. The archaeologists identified 58 Neolithic individuals in 56 Aubrey holes. But these archaeologists wrapped bone fragments in a single hole and created a mess that Snoeck compared to a pile of ribs charred in a barbecue fire.
After a team unearthed the remains in 2008, co-author Christie Willis, at the Department of Archeology at University College London, began the daunting task of identifying individuals from the mess. She was successful in 25 cases.
Snoeck, meanwhile, developed a technique to identify the element strontium, a metal that was deposited in prehistoric rock within cremated remains. Plants pick up strontium from the ground. It accumulates in bones when people eat plants.
Archaeologists can preserve different versions of strontium, called isotopes, in enamel. This gives researchers a sense of where dead people lived. "The strontium is usually associated with the underlying geology," said Jane A. Evans, an archaeologist at the British Geological Survey who was not involved in this research, "and that gives us geographic information." Evans had previously mapped various strontium isotopes to the UK for this purpose.
But cremated remains were generally regarded as an archaeological impasse, too damaged to obtain information. Teeth have a bad habit of exploding when bodies are burned, Snoeck said.
But he refused to accept that cremated remains were completely unfathomable. "Being able to extract information from them left too many blank pages in our history, in our past," said Snoeck.
For his PhD thesis, he developed a way to identify strontium in cremated bones from Northern Ireland. "Many people have told me that it will never work," he said. But burned out bones crystallize and become compact like teeth. And, as Sneck discovered, they also catch strontium.
Work on cremated bones "opens up a whole new field of adult migration that was not possible before," Evans said. Strontium accumulates in enamel formed during childhood; Strontium in Bones should give a snapshot of the last 10 to 15 years of a person's life.
When archaeologists sent stonehenge remains to Snoeck's lab for another project, he took the opportunity to apply his technique to them. The Wessex Cretaceous under Stonehenge, which extends at least 9 miles in each direction, has a very specific strontium profile. Ten of the people did not agree with this guy.
These neolithic bones, however, were similar to the strontium isotopes found in Wales. The analysis can not prove that Welsh people built the monument. But the archaeological data of the remains are close to the period of the early Stonehenge construction.
"This suggests it wasnt just the stones brought to Wiltshire," said Evans, "but it could have had an ongoing link between that two spheres."
Snoeck said he doubt the people near Wiltshire would be cremated. The archaeologists who first dug up the Aubrey holes identified imprints of organic containers – probably leather bags – in the ground. It is more likely that travelers brought their deceased to this place and brought them back miles from home.
The archaeologist plans to study cremated remains in other countries. "They were somehow forgotten and set aside, and I found that pretty sad because huge parts of the world" – especially in prehistoric Europe, but not only there – "were cremated," he said.
His next project, called CRUMBEL, will go through the burning story in Belgium, from ancient practices to his task under the influence of the Catholic Church, which in 1963 only loosened its rules against cremation.