“How did Welsh people wind up buried at the iconic English landmark Stonehenge? Janine Lamontagne/E+/Getty Images
Let’s face it: We know very little about Stonehenge. There’s evidence the Neolithic people who built and maintained the iconic site used it as a place to cremate and bury their dead for a period of about 500 years. Aside from that, what went on at that pile of rocks is pretty mysterious. But thanks to some new technology, inroads are being made into the question of who exactly is buried at Stonehenge. And it’s not who you’d think.
New analysis of the cremated remains of those buried in the "Aubrey holes" — 56 pits situated around the outside of Stonehenge’s circle of stone monoliths — has found not everybody buried there was a local. The research, published Aug. 2, 2018, in the journal Scientific Reports finds at least 10 of 25 cremated individuals interred in Aubrey Hole 7 (which is a medley of remains dug up from other holes in the 1920s and reburied together) were not from southern England, but had spent the last years of their lives about 124 miles (200 kilometers) to the west in Wales.
Strange, but there is a connection between the two places. In 2015, a quarry in the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, Wales, was identified as the site where the smaller bluestones of Stonehenge originated. Although the monument’s larger sandstone pieces were brought in from around 12 miles (20 kilometers) away, the shorter (yet still massive) bluestones — named for their blueish tint when wet or broken — were somehow wrangled to Stonehenge from Wales, by sea or land, no one knows.
Strontium isotope analysis is the technology that allowed the research team to figure out that some adventurous souls were traipsing around the British Isles 5,000 years ago, possibly dragging enormous boulders behind them. Although genetic material is destroyed during the cremation process, the element strontium, which is found in rocks and soil, and which builds up in human bones when humans eat plants, is not. Different strontium isotopes can be found in different geographic locations, so the researchers were able to tell from the cremated bones where the people buried at Stonehenge lived for the last decade of their lives. And 40 percent of the people they analyzed were from the same area as the bluestones.
It’s possible that the Welsh people interred at Stonehenge never saw it with their own eyes. Lt. Col. William Hawley, the archaeologist who initially excavated the Aubrey holes in the 1920s, mentioned in his notes that some of the cremated remains were found in leather bags, suggesting they were brought there from some other place.
Maybe they were part of luggage that included about 60 bluestones.
Now That’s Interesting
Medieval historian Geoffrey of Monmouth insisted the Stonehenge bluestones were flown there by the magic of the wizard Merlin.