Ancient Welshmen helped build Stonehenge using vast ‘bluestones’

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Ancient Welshmen are buried at Stonehenge, new analysis of cremated remains discovered at the prehistoric monument has revealed.

It is now believed the Welshmen helped to build Stonehenge more than 5,000 years ago after helping to drag the stones from the Preseli Mountains of Wales, some 140 miles (225km) from the Wiltshire monument.

Until now, little was known about the origin of the people who built the ancient stone circle, although the origin of the stones was already known.

According to the University of Oxford research, 10 of the 25 cremated skull bones found at Stonehenge belong to people from ‘western Britain’, most likely Wales.


Because the older ‘bluestones’ used to start building Stonehenge also come from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, it raises the possibility the dead people either helped to transport the building blocks, or were taken to the site from there to be buried.

Stonehenge was built in several stages, with construction completed around 3,500 years ago. 

Researchers from Oxford University examined the strontium isotope composition in the cremated bones buried at the site between 3,180 and 2,380 BC to reveal where the ancient people spend most of their lives.

In 10 of the fragments of skull, they found chemicals in the remains were consistent with people from western Britain, a region that includes west Wales – the known source of Stonehenge’s ‘bluestones’. 

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An analysis of 25 skull bones left at the site between 3180 to 2380 BC revealed that at least 10 did not live near Stonehenge prior to their death. Pictured are three of the cremated cranial fragments used in the study

An analysis of 25 skull bones left at the site between 3180 to 2380 BC revealed that at least 10 did not live near Stonehenge prior to their death. Pictured are three of the cremated cranial fragments used in the study

Stonehenge is one of the most intensely studied prehistoric monuments.

Historians believe it was built in several stages, with the first completed around 5,000 years ago by Neolithic Britons using primitive tools, possibly made from deer antlers.

Construction of the prehistoric monument was not completed around 3,500 years ago. 

Over the years there has been much speculation around how and why Stonehenge was built, but the question of ‘who’ was behind the mysterious structure has received far less attention.

These bone fragments come from cremated human bone from an early phase of the site’s history at around 3000BC.

The earliest cremation dates are very close to the date when the first bluestones were brought over, leading researchers to believe the bones could belong to this pioneering group.

Scientists claim that Stonehenge may have been used as a graveyard – as some of the remains were found in leather bags – suggesting they may have been brought to the site from far away for religious purposes. 


Part of the reason for this neglect is that the majority of the human remains discovered at the site were cremated, making it difficult for scientists to extract much useful information.

However, scientists have now combined radiocarbon-dating with new developments in archaeological analysis pioneered by Christophe Snoeck during his doctoral research in the School of Archaeology at Oxford University.  

Ancient Welshmen helped build Stonehenge more than 5,000 years ago, according to a new study. It was already known that some of the stones in the prehistoric monument (pictured) were sourced from the Preseli Mountains of Wales, some 140 miles (225km) away from its location in Wiltshire

Ancient Welshmen helped build Stonehenge more than 5,000 years ago, according to a new study. It was already known that some of the stones in the prehistoric monument (pictured) were sourced from the Preseli Mountains of Wales, some 140 miles (225km) away from its location in Wiltshire

New research into cremated remains at the site has revealed a number of people moved to England with the Welsh 'bluestones' used in the early stages of construction. Pictured is their probable route from the Preseli Mountains

New research into cremated remains at the site has revealed a number of people moved to England with the Welsh ‘bluestones’ used in the early stages of construction. Pictured is their probable route from the Preseli Mountains

He carried out his study with an international team of researchers from UCL, Université Libre de Bruxelles & Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle de Paris.

Dr Snoeck demonstrated that looking at strontium isotope composition in cremated bones can reveal where people spent their lives.

Strontium is absorbed by plants from the ground where they grow. 

So someone eating food gathered from the Stonehenge area, which is mostly chalkland, would have a different ‘signature’ in their bones from someone in west Wales – where the highest strontium readings are found.  

Pictured are excavations at a bluestone quarries in Pembrokeshore. New research on cremated remains at the site has revealed that a number of people moved with these Welsh 'bluestones' used in the early stages of construction

Pictured are excavations at a bluestone quarries in Pembrokeshore. New research on cremated remains at the site has revealed that a number of people moved with these Welsh ‘bluestones’ used in the early stages of construction

Stonehenge’s bluestones made up the entirety of the monument’s monoliths during one stage of construction. ‘Bluehenge’ featured a path that led worshippers to Stonehenge from the nearby river Avon. Ancient Britons later added other stones to the monument, and the bluestones now make up just the largest of the site’s monoliths

WHAT EVIDENCE DO WE HAVE THAT WELSHMEN HELPED BUILD STONEHENGE? 

It was already known some of the stones in the prehistoric monument were sourced from the Preseli Mountains of Wales, some 140 miles (225km) away from the Wiltshire monument.

Now, new research on cremated remains at the site has revealed a number of people moved with these Welsh ‘bluestones’ used in the early stages of construction.

Scientists found that looking at strontium isotope composition in cremated bones can reveal where people spent their lives. 

Analysis of 25 skull bones left at the site between 3,180 to 2,380 BC revealed that at least 10 did not live near Stonehenge prior to their death.

Instead, they found the highest strontium isotope ratios in the remains were consistent with living in western Britain, a region that includes west Wales – the known source of Stonehenge’s stones. 

The individuals with a ‘local’ strontium signal had also been burned in different conditions that those having a ‘non-local’ signal.

Although strontium isotope ratios alone cannot distinguish between places with similar values, experts believe west Wales is the most likely origin of at least some of these people.

While the Welsh connection was known for the stones, the study shows that people were also moving between west Wales and Wessex in the Late Neolithic period.

The results emphasise the importance of inter-regional connections involved in the movement of both materials and people in the construction and use of Stonehenge.

‘The strontium isotopes measured in the bones originate from the food we eat and in particular the plants,’ Dr Snoeck told MailOnline. 

‘They take their strontium from the soil and that strontium is then incorporated into our bones, reflecting the place where the plants grew.

‘The values we measured on several individuals from Stonehenge were consistent with plants we analysed from Wales,’ he said.

Researchers analysed skull bones from 25 individuals, according to the paper published in Scientific Reports.

These remains were originally excavated from a network of 56 pits in the 1920s, placed around the inner circumference and ditch of Stonehenge, known as ‘Aubrey Holes’. 

Researchers found that at least 10 of the 25 people did not live near Stonehenge prior to their death.

The individuals with a ‘local’ strontium signal had also been burned in different conditions than those having a ‘non-local’ signal.

‘Furthermore, the report for the archaeologists excavating the site in the early 1920s suggest the cremated remains in the Aubrey Holes appeared to have been deposited in organic containers such as leather bags, leading them to suggest that they “had apparently been brought from a distant place for interment”,’ said Dr Snoeck.

‘Together, this suggests indeed, that some individuals were cremated away from Stonehenge (possibly in west Wales) and then, their cremated remains brought to the site.’

Although strontium isotope ratios alone cannot distinguish between places with similar values, experts believe west Wales is the most likely origin of at least some of these people. 

These remains were originally excavated from a network of 56 pits in the 1920s, placed around the inner circumference and ditch of Stonehenge, known as 'Aubrey Holes' (pictured)

These remains were originally excavated from a network of 56 pits in the 1920s, placed around the inner circumference and ditch of Stonehenge, known as ‘Aubrey Holes’ (pictured)


The bone fragments in the Aubrey Holes come from cremated human bone from an early phase of the site's history around 3000BC when it was mainly used as a cemetery

The bone fragments in the Aubrey Holes come from cremated human bone from an early phase of the site’s history around 3000BC when it was mainly used as a cemetery

The individuals with a 'local' strontium signal had also been burned in different conditions that those having a 'non-local' signal. Pictured is an experimental pyre

The individuals with a ‘local’ strontium signal had also been burned in different conditions that those having a ‘non-local’ signal. Pictured is an experimental pyre

‘The powerful combination of stable isotopes and spatial technology gives us a new insight into the communities who built Stonehenge,’ said John Pouncett, a lead author on the paper and Spatial Technology Officer at Oxford’s School of Archaeology.

‘The cremated remains from the enigmatic Aubrey Holes and updated mapping of the biosphere suggest that people from the Preseli Mountains not only supplied the bluestones used to build the stone circle, but moved with the stones and were buried there too.’ 

Professor Pouncett added that the people buried at Stonehenge were likely to be ‘high status’.

He said that evidence from the quarrying site shows the bluestones were cut 500 years before they were erected in Wiltshire. 

While the Welsh connection was known for the stones, the study shows that people were also moving between west Wales and Wessex in the Late Neolithic time.

The large standing stones at Stonehenge are made of local sandstone, but the smaller ones, known as 'bluestones', come from a quarry in west Wales (pictured)

The large standing stones at Stonehenge are made of local sandstone, but the smaller ones, known as ‘bluestones’, come from a quarry in west Wales (pictured)

Researchers believe ancient Britons used a complex system of logs and rope pulleys to drag the monument's bluestones from west Wales. Pictured is a reconstruction of the practice

Researchers believe ancient Britons used a complex system of logs and rope pulleys to drag the monument’s bluestones from west Wales. Pictured is a reconstruction of the practice

WHO BUILT STONEHENGE?

Stonehenge was built thousands of years before machinery was invented. 

The heavy rocks weigh upwards of several tonnes each.

Some of the stones are believed to have originated from a quarry in Wales, some 140 miles (225km) away from the Wiltshire monument.

To do this would have required a high degree of ingenuity, and experts believe the ancient engineers used a pulley system over a shifting conveyor-belt of logs.

Historians now think that the ring of stones was built in several different stages, with the first completed around 5,000 years ago by Neolithic Britons who used primitive tools, possibly made from deer antlers.

Modern scientists now widely believe that Stonehenge was created by several different tribes over time.

After the Neolithic Britons – likely natives of the British Isles – started the construction, it was continued centuries later by their descendants. 

Over time, the descendants developed a more communal way of life and better tools which helped in the erection of the stones. 

Bones, tools and other artefacts found on the site seem to support this hypothesis.

The results emphasise the importance of inter-regional connections involved in the movement of both materials and people in the construction and use of Stonehenge.

‘The recent discovery that some biological information survives the high temperatures reached during cremation (up to 1000 degrees Celsius) offered us the exciting possibility to finally study the origin of those buried at Stonehenge,’ said Dr Snoeck.

‘To me the really remarkable thing about our study is the ability of new developments in archaeological science to extract so much new information from such small and unpromising fragments of burnt bone,’ said Rick Schulting, a lead author on the research and Associate Professor in Scientific and Prehistoric Archaeology at Oxford.

‘Some of the people’s remains showed strontium isotope signals consistent with west Wales, the source of the bluestones that are now being seen as marking the earliest monumental phase of the site.’

The technique could be used to improve our understanding of the past using previously excavated ancient collections.

Stonehenge has been used as a centre for ceremonies throughout its 5,000-year-history. Pictured is an artist's impression of a Neolithic ceremony at the site circa 3,000 BC, when the monument was just a series of ditches without the monoliths it is known for today

Stonehenge has been used as a centre for ceremonies throughout its 5,000-year-history. Pictured is an artist’s impression of a Neolithic ceremony at the site circa 3,000 BC, when the monument was just a series of ditches without the monoliths it is known for today

HOW WAS STONEHENGE BUILT?

Stonehenge is one of the most prominent prehistoric monuments in Britain. The Stonehenge that can be seen today is the final stage that was completed about 3,500 years ago. 

According to the monument’s website, Stonehenge was built in four stages:   

First stage: The first version of Stonehenge was a large earthwork or Henge, comprising a ditch, bank and the Aubrey holes, all probably built around 3100 BC. 

The Aubrey  holes are round pits in the chalk, about one metre (3.3 feet) wide and deep, with steep sides and flat bottoms. 

They form a circle about 86.6 metres (284 feet) in diameter. 

Excavations revealed cremated human bones in some of the chalk filling, but the holes themselves were likely not made to be used as graves, but as part of a religious ceremony.

After this first stage, Stonehenge was abandoned and left untouched for more than 1,000 years. 

Second stage: The second and most dramatic stage of Stonehenge started around 2150 years BC, when about 82 bluestones from the Preseli mountains in south-west Wales were transported to the site. It’s thought that the stones, some of which weigh four tonnes each, were dragged on rollers and sledges to the waters at Milford Haven, where they were loaded onto rafts.

They were carried on water along the south coast of Wales and up the rivers Avon and Frome, before being dragged overland again near Warminster and Wiltshire.

The final stage of the journey was mainly by water, down the river Wylye to Salisbury, then the Salisbury Avon to west Amesbury. 

The journey spanned nearly 240 miles, and once at the site, the stones were set up in the centre to form an incomplete double circle. 

During the same period, the original entrance was widened and a pair of Heel Stones were erected. The nearer part of the Avenue, connecting Stonehenge with the River Avon, was built aligned with the midsummer sunrise. 

Third stage: The third stage of Stonehenge, which took place about 2000 years BC, saw the arrival of the sarsen stones (a type of sandstone), which were larger than the bluestones.

They were likely brought from the Marlborough Downs (40 kilometres, or 25 miles, north of Stonehenge). 

The largest of the sarsen stones transported to Stonehenge weighs 50 tonnes, and transportation by water would not have been possible, so it’s suspected that they were transported using sledges and ropes. 

Calculations have shown that it would have taken 500 men using leather ropes to pull one stone, with an extra 100 men needed to lay the rollers in front of the sledge.

These stones were arranged in an outer circle with a continuous run of lintels – horizontal supports. 

Inside the circle, five trilithons – structures consisting of two upright stones and a third across the top as a lintel – were placed in a horseshoe arrangement, which can still be seen today. 

Final stage: The fourth and final stage took place just after 1500 years BC, when the smaller bluestones were rearranged in the horseshoe and circle that can be seen today.

The original number of stones in the bluestone circle was probably around 60, but these have since been removed or broken up. Some remain as stumps below ground level. 

Source: Stonehenge.co.uk 

 


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