Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Stonehenge Skeleton Mystery Volume 53 Number 5, September/October 2000
by Chris Hellier

A skeleton recently rediscovered in London's Natural History Museum provides the first evidence that a ritual sacrifice may have taken place at Stonehenge. The remains, which show evidence of beheading, may also throw light on the continuing importance of the megalithic monument, built in three phases between 3050 and 1600 B.C. Radiocarbon analysis indicates that the execution took place in the second half of the seventh century A.D., shortly after the local Anglo-Saxon nobility had converted to Christianity, says David Miles, chief archaeologist at English Heritage, the public agency responsible for the monument's upkeep.

"The beheading suggests that a political or ritual act was taking place at Stonehenge at a time when the henge is thought to have been abandoned and no longer considered a place of significance," says Miles. "Stonehenge is relatively isolated, and a single execution is likely to have been an important symbolic event."

Originally unearthed at Stonehenge in 1923, the male skeleton was believed to have been destroyed during the German bombing of the Royal College of Surgeons in World War II. While researching a book, however, British archaeologist Mike Pitts, a former curator of Avebury Museum in southwest England, found that many skeletons considered lost at the Royal College had, in fact, survived.

When the remains were originally found, scientists assumed the man, aged about 35, had died from natural causes. Recent examination, however, revealed an ancient wound to one of his neck vertebrae, suggesting that he had been beheaded. Pitts believes he may have been a prominent figure, perhaps a king who transgressed the accepted boundaries of religious or political behavior.

Three other skeletons have been discovered at Stonehenge, including the well-preserved remains of a muscular man, aged 25-30, excavated in 1978. This man died from multiple arrow wounds in the third millennium B.C., about the time the Stonehenge megaliths were erected.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America