British researchers on Saturday unveiled a new theory for the origins of Stonehenge, saying the ancient stone circle was originally a graveyard and venue for mass celebrations.
The findings would overturn the long-held belief that Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain in southwestern England, was created as a Stone Age astronomical calendar or observatory.
A team led by University College London professor Mike Parker Pearson said Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is both older and had a different function than previously thought.
“In many ways, our findings are rewriting the established story of Stonehenge,” Parker Pearson said.
The archeologists carried out a decade of research that included excavations, laboratory work and the analysis of 63 sets of ancient human remains.
They said the original Stonehenge appeared to have been a graveyard for elite families built in about 3000 BC, 500 years earlier than the site that is famous today.
The remains of many cremated bodies were marked by the bluestones of Stonehenge, Pearson said.
Further analysis of cattle teeth from 80,000 animal bones excavated from the site also suggest that at about 2500 BC, Stonehenge was the site of vast communal feasts.
These would have been attended by up to one-tenth of the British population at one time in what Parker Pearson said resembled “Glastonbury Festival and a motorway building scheme at the same time.”
It seemed that ancient people traveled to celebrate the winter and summer solstices, but also to build the monument, he said.
“Stonehenge was a monument that brought ancient Britain together,” he said. “What we’ve found is that people came with their animals to feast at Stonehenge from all corners of Britain — as far afield as Scotland.”
He said it appeared to be the “only time in prehistory that the people of Britain were unified.”
UNESCO describes Stonehenge as the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world.