(Photo : Creative Commons/Erik Derr)
Stonehenge --- the pre-historic, mysteriously-placed set of giant stone blocks in the southern region of England long suspected of being an ancient burial site, a staging area for pagan and religious ceremonies or even a possible gateway for alien visitors from other planets and dimensions --- started off around 3,000 B.C. as a community gathering area where the elite of the period also placed their dead.
So say researchers from more than a dozen British universities, who announced they've not only unearthed cremated human remains at the site, but also indications that about 500 years before the Stonehenge we know today a larger stone circle stood as a community graveyard.
That earlier circular structure measured an estimated 300 feet across and could have been the burial ground for upwards of 300 people, said University College London professor Mike Parker Pearson, who led the research effort
"We'd thought that maybe it was a place where a dynasty of kings was buried, but this seemed to be much more of a community, a different kind of power structure," Parker Pearson said. "These were men, women, children, so presumably family groups."
Parker Pearson said archaeologists studied the cremated bones of 63 individuals, all believed to have been buried sometime around 3,000 B.C. The locations of many of the cremated bodies were originally marked by bluestones --- rocks not indigenous to the region.
The study team also concluded the second Stonehenge, the monument standing in the country today, most likely served as a gathering spot where people from throughout Britain united --- and less place of worship.
The analysis of remains discovered at a Neolithic-era settlement near the monument revealed thousands of people traveled to the site from as far as Scotland, with their families and livestock in tow. There was evidence of huge feasts and celebrations during the winter and summer solstices.
"We don't think (the builders) were living there all the time. We could tell that by when they were killing the pigs -- they were there for the solstices," he said.
Parker Pearson said data collected at an encampment believed used by the builders of Stonehenge also suggested much if not all of the work on the giant monument was done periodically, during those great solstice gatherings.
However, Parker Pearson continued, the last construction work at Stonehenge occurred sometime between 2,000-1,500 B.C., which was the age of the "Beaker People," a culture that apparently originated in Spain, immigrated throughout Europe and the British Isles and was distinguished for its unique pottery.