The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Stonehenge and sky burial

Friday, 21 February 2014



 Posted by Ken West

The archaeology at Stonehenge is all about digging up funerary artefacts so is it possible to consider how those funerals occurred? Stonehenge is unique, the only certain stone circle in Britain aligned to the solstices. Forget the Druids, as they did not exist in the Neolithic period and never had any involvement with Stonehenge.

The people, a loose federation of tribes called the Durotriges when the Romans arrived, were initially hunter gatherers. The first date we have is 8,000BC when three posts, totem poles, perhaps, were erected at Stonehenge. We have no burials from that period so we might assume, as with most early mobile societies, that bodies were exposed to birds and/or animals. The people could retain the large bones and then carry them back to a homeland location, perhaps the sacred River Avon. Burial had little to commend it, the graves being scattered over a wide area and requiring the digging of a shallow grave with antler picks, which would then be dug up by foraging wolves and bears. We then jump 4,000 years to when these people built communal stone chambered tombs. Early assumptions were that bodies were placed in the chamber and allowed to decompose. This was never feasible as decomposition would be slow, neither are full skeletons found, nor are there sufficient chambers. The chambers were probably used for the storage of the bones of the elite. Around 3,700BC, they built causewayed enclosures, which are banked and ditched circles broken by paths, or causeways, leading inside. Sometime between 4,000 – 3,000BC, the use of the chambered tombs ceased, or at least was infrequent, and cremation/burial began, which neatly brings us to Stonehenge.

Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson’s book “Stonehenge,” summarises the Stonehenge Riverside Project 2003 – 2009, in which he theorised that Stonehenge was part of a much wider ritual area, with Durrington Walls, a nearby henge, suggested as the Stonehenge builder’s camp, and the River Avon linking this henge downriver to the avenue from Stonehenge. The project proved that this was the case, but these ritual components were put in place over 500 years, so let’s consider the sequence of construction.

Both Durrington Walls and the sarsen Stonehenge we see today, date to 2,500BC, and are about two miles apart. The project proved Durrington Walls to be the largest Neolithic encampment in Europe and that it was the builder’s camp, over a 40 year period. No human remains were found but their cattle bones suggested that some of the builders travelled from Devon, West Wales and Scotland. It appears that between 2,000 – 4,000 people met each autumn, and, say, hauled two sarsens from near Avebury, to Stonehenge, dressed them on site, and erected them together with a couple of bluestones. In just 40 years they erected the 82 sarsens with the pre-existing 80 bluestones in four concentric rings, with no human burials involved. The project suggested that 56 of these bluestones had previously formed a larger, outer circle built 500 years earlier, around 3,000BC, these stones hauled from Preseli, in Pembrokeshire. The circle was entered at the Heel Stone, a natural sarsen erected to mark the sunrise. Each of the bluestones sat on human cremated remains, which the project referred to as the Chieftains Cemetery, with 63 bodies, mostly identified through small ear bones. Some were women and children, and if these were double or triple funerals, as it were, it may be that precisely 56 inhumations took place under the 56 bluestones. The remains were placed beneath each stone, and crushed into the chalk that formed the socket. The burials took place over 200 years, from 3,000 BC to 2,800 BC. 

The only grave goods found were one mace head, which implied a warrior, and an incense burner, which implied a religious leader or shaman. But the presence of women and children’s bones denied the circle as a warrior or religious burial area, as women did not participate in either, as far as we know. Mike Parker Pearson’s conclusion was that they were an elite, perhaps an aristocracy.

The project also confirmed the existence of a second bluestone circle at the end of the avenue from Stonehenge, where it meets the River Avon. This was constructed at the same time as the Stonehenge bluestone circle, using 25 stones, none with cremated remains. The ritual importance of this second circle is its riverside location. Upon disembarking from a boat, one was immediately into the bluestone circle, which was banked and ditched in glaring white chalk. The mile long avenue headed north, then west on the 450 metre straight stretch to Stonehenge, entering at the Heel Stone. The avenue is 22 metres wide, and had a glistening white chalk bank and external ditch on either side, but little can now be seen. The straight section of the avenue follows three parallel natural chalk ridges, which always marked the sunrise from Stonehenge. Some consider that this is the reason why Stonehenge is where it is; that the Gods put in place this natural feature marking the sunrise. The bluestones in the riverside circle were removed around 2,400BC, the same date as the present sarsen circle and Durrington Walls were constructed. The henge was retained so the ritual possibilities remained in place. Was the funeral ritual to carry the ashes for the 63 bodies by boat to the riverside circle, then create a cortege up the avenue to the Stonehenge bluestone circle, and then inter the remains under a bluestone?

Why did they choose cremation? Was it because the solstice orientation was a form of Sun God worship, which supports the use of fire? Or was it a means of purifying the dead? If so, it is unlikely that burying the ashes, and effectively de-purifying them has any merit. Was the cremation a sacrifice, perhaps related to fertility rites, with the ashes scattered on fields, yet no bone fragments are found in soil? Perhaps the most obvious reason, not suggested by the project, is that cremation reduces a body to a small, peripatetic, pile of bones, which are readily placed under a stone.

The chalk downs were never heavily wooded so creating a pyre would be onerous. None have been found at Stonehenge or anywhere nearby. Currently, a modern cremator would produce about two kilos of bone ash. Although Neolithic people might be smaller than ourselves, they would possess higher bone density due to heavy labour, walking, even running, and the opposite of modern people experiencing an epidemic of osteoporosis. Yet the archaeologists find only one kilo of cremated bone so were the smaller bones left in the pyre ash? Even now, many cultures are quite content to collect only the larger bones after cremation and ignore the smaller.

The project concluded that Durrington Walls was the place of the living, and Stonehenge the place of the dead, but is 63 burials sufficient to reach this conclusion? Clearly, these burials took place at Stonehenge but I would suggest that watching one would be like watching a burial at Westminster Abbey or Princess Diana’s funeral: yes, it’s happening but how representative is it? Isn’t Stonehenge identical to the earlier chambered tombs, all about Stone Age grandiosity; a place for the elite. If we reckon that archaeology has located less than one percent of deaths in the area and no cemeteries have been found, we might ask where the anticipated 12,000 other bodies are? The project used the term cremation/burial to suggest that the cremation and burial were integrated; that the word cremation on its own is not sufficient. Was cremation/burial, like chamber burial, only permitted to chieftains or others of rank because of the massive labour it requires to create the pyres? That sounds remarkably similar to Tibet and Mongolia, where cremation is reserved for high lamas and dignitaries because the ground is rocky or frozen, or there is little wood. 

So what happened to the common people? The conclusion is simple, the one in which nature does all the hard work instead of the exhausted humans; sky burial. The excess of Stonehenge blinds us to reality. Life was hard, many children died, people lived short lives, proven by the arthritis found in the bones of the spine, even of some of the elite interred at Stonehenge. Seasonal work meant that the period March to September was a struggle to find food, care for the young animals born each spring, store food, cut wood for fuel, and have enough excess to survive the winter. The work parties building Stonehenge clearly did so in the quiet autumn period, when the people were at their healthiest and strongest. In the summer, there was no possibility of building funeral pyres, week in, week out? 

What evidence is there for sky burial? On the banks of the River Avon near Durrington Walls, project excavations found three sets of postholes, each of four posts forming a square, the whole surrounded by a palisade. The biggest posts were 50 centimetres across, and estimated at over 5 metres high. The conclusion is that they were towers, looking out over the river, and presumed to be holding platforms. This is not such a surprise because there have been suggestions that the earlier causewayed enclosures could have been designed to expose bodies to birds or animals. Perhaps they progressed to towers as they created more efficient flint axes to cut timber, or did not want animals feeding on the body.

If you think sky towers a flight of fancy, consider that in Tibet, where it may have persisted from the Stone Age, they revere the vulture as a form of angel. This fact reminds me that few, if any, bird bones are found in UK excavations. Is that because the Neolithic people and birds had a spiritual relationship? Imagine, eagles, buzzards, kites, ravens and carrion crows could have fed on the bodies, and probably European vultures, at least in summer. Even in 2013 over one hundred vulture sitings were made over the south of Britain. It is evident that the larger eagles and vultures swallow small fleshed bones so feet, hands and ribs would disappear as well as all the soft tissue. That fits with the overall finding that full skeletons are rare and disarticulated skull fragments and large bones are found scattered about sites. Once the bones were cleaned off, they could be deposited in the sacred Avon. Sky burial is also faster than modern cremation based on an incident in 2013 when a female walker in the Pyrenees fell to her death. Two friends, walking with her, called the police and they took 50 minutes to locate her body. Initially the rescuers could not see the body from their helicopter until they realised that it was covered by gorging Griffon vultures. By the time they got to her the birds had stripped her body of all flesh and only a few bones remained; and she had been clothed.

The birds strip the flesh, free the spirit, remove the potential for infection and reduce the weight to a handful of bones; a peripatetic body, just like cremation. Perhaps it was these bones, of the elect, that were cremated, and not full bodies, which would reduce the need for huge pyres. Perhaps a bone or two from every body, whether sky burial or cremated, was carried to Stonehenge, at some point, for a ceremony, and then deposited in the sacred Avon. 

It might be concluded that Stonehenge is neither a cemetery nor the abode of the dead; that the burials were more a form of dedication for each bluestone placement. Stonehenge is more a theatre of dreams, a ritual space; a stage, cathedral and town hall, in which they could ritualise everything in society. Even the solstice celebrations, just two each year, sounds reasonable in that one imagines that they could create the necessary resources whilst also providing for their own needs. The enigma continues.

See the full article as a download on my website


Sky Burial from Matthew Hirt on Vimeo.

3 comments on “Stonehenge and sky burial

  1. S.L. McInnis

    Tuesday 25th March 2014 at 4:45 pm

    This was absolutely fascinating, Ken. I had no idea about sky burials. I’m writing a novel that involves Stonehenge and stumbled upon this website. The idea of sky burial seems to explain some of the mysteries around Stonehenge’s purpose. Especially since you point out there may not have been a lot of trees in the chalky ground for cremation. If you have a chance, do you think the bodies were somehow placed on the stones? Or simply among them? Until the scavengers did their work. Thanks so much!

  2. Monday 17th March 2014 at 11:23 pm

    […] this apt  name was conceived  by Mr KenWest whose ideas on these mysterious structures are here .It appears that some of these sky towers  were left to decay in situ , which immediately  brings […]

  3. Tuesday 25th February 2014 at 2:49 pm

    Fascinating piece Ken, once again highlighting the paucity of our modern crematory rituals.

  4. Monday 24th February 2014 at 11:28 am

    A fascinating idea…and certainly not inherently unlikely!

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