Tomb of Stonehenge builder found?

A prehistoric tomb discovered in Wales may be the grave of one of the builders of Stonehenge.

Archaeologists found the tomb at the Carn Menyn site in Wales, generally thought to be the quarry for the so-called “bluestones” used for the inner circle of Stonehenge in 2300 BC.

The tomb is a passage grave, a cigar-shaped enclosure of stone that was once covered in earth. The tomb is in ruins and was looted in antiquity. Some organic material has been found and this will be carbon dated. Passage graves were common for elite members of society in the Neolithic.

Stonehenge, bluestonesThe tomb was set atop a henge, a circular ditch and embankment that had a pair of bluestones are set upright at one end, reminiscent of the pairs of bluestones at Stonehenge.

It’s a mystery why the builders of Stonehenge would choose to drag stones weighing two to four tons more than 150 miles. One of the archaeologists investigating the site suggests that Carn Menyn, shown to the right, had religious significance because of the many natural springs in the area. The presence of the henge and tomb suggest the place did indeed have religious and cultural importance.

The excavation continues.

[Photo of Stonehenge courtesy Bernard Gagnon. Photo of bluestones courtesy Geograph]

Druid loses fight to have Stonehenge burials reinterred

Stonehenge, druidA druid named King Arthur Pendragon has lost a legal bid to have human remains discovered at Stonehenge reinterred.

The cremated remains of more than forty individuals found at the stone circle in 2008 are currently being studied at Sheffield University. They’re due to remain there until 2015, at which point they’re supposed to be returned to Stonehenge. King Arthur stated in a BBC interview that the authorities have no plans to return the remains and he was fighting to have them reburied at once. The court rejected his claim, stating there was no evidence that the university and courts have acted outside the law.

King Arthur Uther Pendragon, shown here holding a staff and praying while celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge, is a prominent druid who often appears on British media. He had his name legally changed after he realized he was the reincarnation of King Arthur, his website says. King Arthur was one of the driving forces behind getting full public access for solstice celebrations at Stonehenge. He has also successfully campaigned for Druids to wear their traditional white robes while incarcerated, as he himself has been several times after political protests.

OK, I can practically hear the eyes rolling. Yes, this modern King Arthur is an eccentric like only an Englishman can be, but he’s bringing up a valid issue, and one that is contentiously debated in many nations. In the U.S., Native American groups have successfully lobbied to have human remains returned to them so they can be reburied in the traditional manner, rather than being left in museums to be studied. Native peoples in other nations have had varying levels of success.

One might also bring up the objection that the Celtic druids came long after the Neolithic, when Stonehenge was built, so that the stone circle isn’t a religious monument for them. But the fact is modern druids feel the site is sacred, and if we are to have freedom of religion, that means we have to accept not only Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, but also Druids, Mithraists, and Satanists. Freedom takes us outside our comfort zone.

In the past twenty years, public and academic opinion has generally shifted towards granting Native Peoples the rights to their remains, but the issue is less clear when it comes to prehistoric remains unrelated to any existing ethnic group. After 5,000 years, can the English really say they’re related to the people who built Stonehenge? The modern King Arthur says yes, but scientific opinion differs. This question has led to a lot of legal battles, especially in the U.S. with tribes claiming remains that archaeologists say don’t belong to them.

What do you think should be done with humans remains? “Don’t dig them up in the first place” isn’t always an option, since many remains come to light during modern construction or natural erosion. Tell us what you think in the comments section!

[Image courtesy Ann Wuyts]

Prehistoric stone circle discovered in Yorkshire

cairn, stone circleA stone circle that was once part of a prehistoric cairn has been discovered by a group of amateur archaeologists on Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire, England.

A cairn is a large pile of stones that marked the grave of an important individual in prehistoric times. These stones were often taken away by later farmers for building walls or cottages, and sometimes all that’s left is a circle of stones from the base, as is the case here. The team says the cairn measures 27 by 24 feet. It would have been pretty high back in its glory days.

One stone had a man-made circular impression archaeologists call a cup mark. These are found all over prehistoric Europe singly or in groups, but nobody knows what they mean.

The UK countryside is full of ancient remains. When I was hiking along Hadrian’s Wall and the East Highland Way I brought along Ordnance Survey maps not only to find my way but because many prehistoric sites are marked on them. I passed stone circles, Anglo-Saxon ring forts, crumbled castles, and much more. Take these maps along to make your walk through the countryside a walk through history.

The Yorkshire team has made numerous discoveries in recent months. Archaeology is understaffed and underfunded, and dedicated groups of amateurs help take up the slack. Archaeological societies exist in many towns throughout the world and are a great way to learn about the past. While members are amateur in the sense that they don’t make their living as archaeologists, they’re often well trained and knowledgeable. This is important so that when they make their discoveries they don’t harm the very sites they are trying to study and preserve.

[Photo of Mölndal cairn in Sweden courtesy Wikimedia Commons. No image of the Ilkley Moor cairn is available. It’s not as well preserved as the Mölndal cairn.]

Prehistoric balls may have built Stonehenge

Stonehenge, stonehenge, archaeology, archeology
There have been a lot of theories over the years about how Stonehenge was built. Moving massive stones ranging from 4 to 45 tons over hundreds of miles isn’t easy in modern times, and certainly was a challenge 4,500 years ago. The two leading theories–log rollers and wooden sledges greased with animal fat–both have detractors. Many archaeologists believe rollers would have left deep scars in the landscape and one can be found, while reenactments with sledges have shown it would take hundreds of people to move the largest stones.

Now National Geographic reports a new theory. British graduate student Andrew Young thinks grooved wooden rails fitted with stone balls would have made an easy surface on which to move the stones. The balls acted like ball bearings and giant stones could have been pulled along on top. He tried it out with a team of seven people and found they could easily move a load of four tons. Only a relatively short length of track would be needed because the rails and balls could be pulled up once the stone passed and placed at the front.

He got the idea by studying mysterious stone balls found near stone circles in Scotland. They didn’t appear to have any purpose until he noticed they’re all exactly 70mm (3 inches) in diameter, suggesting they were part of some greater mechanism.

It’s an interesting idea, but this former archaeologist isn’t convinced yet. No stone balls have been found in England. Young says old-growth wood could have worked just as well and wouldn’t have survived, and that’s possible, but civil engineer Mark Whitby told National Geographic that the biggest stones in Stonehenge would have crushed the balls into the tracks. A larger-scale demonstration is being planned to study this issue.

Generally the KISS method (Keep It Simple, Stupid) points to the most probable solution. Wood was plentiful and making smooth rollers out of tree trunks would have been the easiest solution. Rollers and a bunch of strong prehistoric Britons, helped by teams of oxen, would have been the cheapest and least technologically demanding way to move the stones. While this would have left marks on the land, it’s an open question whether they’d still be visible after 4,500 years of weathering.

The KISS method also explains why aliens didn’t build Stonehenge.

The balls idea is still worth investigating, and considering that Young has come up with such an innovative and perhaps correct answer to a major archaeological mystery while still a PhD student in biosciences hints that I’ll be writing more about him in the future.

[Photo courtesy Mister Rad via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Archaeologists solve mystery of Silbury Hill (maybe)

It is one of England’s most mysterious monuments. Just a short walk from the massive stone circle complex of Avebury, Silbury Hill is a giant, flat-topped mound rising 120 feet above the surrounding countryside. Researchers have proposed dozens of theories over the years to explain its purpose, suggesting everything from a giant burial mound to a platform for religious music.

Now new research by English Heritage has revealed that Silbury Hill was constructed relatively quickly–in about hundred years–and finished around 2300 B.C. Previous researchers thought the mound took centuries to build. Archaeologists Jim Leary and David Field dug a cross-section tunnel into it in 2007 and found it was made up of 15 layers. The monument started as a circular ditch and embankment but soon grew into a giant hill. The researchers suggest that there was no final plan, no purpose. It was the building of it that mattered, the bringing together of various groups for the common purpose of a “continuous storytelling ritual”.

“Our Neolithic ancestors display an almost obsessive desire to constantly change the monument – to rearrange, tweak and adjust it. It’s as if the final form of the Hill did not matter – it was the construction process that was important,” Leary said.

“The most intriguing discovery is the repeated occurrence of antler picks, gravel, chalk and stones in different kinds of layering, in ways that suggest that these materials and their different combinations had symbolic meanings. We don’t know what myths they were representing but they must have meant something quite compelling and personal,” he said.

Leary and Field’s new book, The Story of Silbury Hill, explains their findings.

Of course archaeology isn’t a hard science, and this theory will be debated for years to come. Future excavations may refine or even overturn what Leary and Field have found. Silbury HIll hasn’t given up all its mysteries.