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Can this 2000-year-old skull solve the riddle of Stonehenge?


By Peter Lewis


Date: Wed Jun 21, 2000 7:14 pm

Subject: Can this 2000-year-old skull solve the riddle of Stonehenge?


Yesterday, experts unveiled a skeleton called Arthur, victim of a grisly murder, who could be crucial to the amazing story of Britain's greatest monument


A skeleton known as Arthur came out of the distant past to meet the Press in London yesterday. Arthur is the latest of the teasing mysteries from that most baffling of prehistoric monuments, Stonehenge.


The skeleton was rediscovered last year - not in the ground at Stonehenge but in the basement of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.


For almost 50 years it had been presumed destroyed on the worst night of the London Blitz, May 10, 1941. That night the Royal College of Surgeons, where Arthur was stored, was flattened.


Amazingly, some of the college's collection of medical specimens was salvaged from the basement beneath the rubble, evacuated to the country and, after the war, handed as a gift to the Natural History Museum.


Last year archaeologist Mike Pitts, who has been studying the past 100 years of Stonehenge excavation, had a hunch. He asked the museum if among the remains they had a skeleton catalogued as '4-10-4'.


They looked and there it was. Pitts was able to identify it as the body which was disinterred from the foot of the circle of great standing stones on Salisbury Plain back in 1923. The bones were marked 'Stonehenge'. It fitted the excavator's description exactly.


Only four complete skeletons have been unearthed at Stonehenge in the past 100 years and two of these have since been lost. So this was a rare specimen.


What was more unexpected was that when the neck bones and skull were re-assembled, the fourth cervical vertebrae bore unmistakable marks of being sliced in two by a sharp metal blade. 'Arthur' had been beheaded - with a sword.


Murder will out only in this case it has taken almost 2,000 years. But was it murder, execution or human sacrifice?


The victim was 5ft 5in and 30 to 40 years of age. Who could he have been?

When was he done to death and why?


The skeleton was catalogued as 'Roman - British' and allotted a provisional date of 'about 150 AD'. It now awaits much more precise dating by the radiocarbon method. But whatever this shows, 'Arthur' was a latecomer on the Stonehenge scene.


He cannot have been present during the building of the monument, as that took place before the use of metal and swords began.


Indeed the people who built Stonehenge, who raised the circles of standing stones called megaliths and trilithons - two upright stones with a third laid across the top - lived around 4,300 years ago.


That is 2,300 years before the Romans invaded. Yet we are at last beginning to know something about them.


The only other remaining skeleton from Stonehenge comes from the period when it was built. This one was dug out in 1978. He too was a robust, fit man, and an archer.


Beside his left arm lay his bowstring wrist-guard and among his rib cage lay three lethal arrowheads made of barbed flint. One of them was still embedded in his ribs; another was sticking into his breastbone. Another violent death? Was it ritual murder or execution? What was going on?


It is remarkable that the only two fun skeletons we have were both deliberately killed, one by a shower of arrows, the other by having had his head sliced off.


They must have been important men to have received the rare privilege of burial within the monument's boundary. Were they vanquished kings chieftains or warriors selected for human sacrifice?


Generations have tried to understand the meaning of this amazing monument. It is unique - there is nothing like it anywhere else in Europe - yet till now no one has been able to say with any confidence what it was for.


Archaeologists have been curiously and cautiously silent on the subject. The last archeological survey was published over 45 years ago. Since then our conception of Stonehenge has been altered completely thanks to modern dating techniques and at last a reliable expert, Mike Pitts, who has excavated there, has written an up-to-date eye-opening book on our greatest prehistoric monument 'because it needs to be totally reinvented'.


Pitts's book is called Hengeworld. Stonehenge is by no means the only 'henge' we know of. The word, one of the oldest in English, means 'hanging-stones', from the gallows-like shape of the trilithons.


The word henge is used for an circular earthworks and monuments with an outer-bank and ditch. For about 1,000 years in prehistoric Britain they were legion. More than 300 of them were known at the last count most unexcavated and seen beneath the fields only by aerial photography.


Some of them super henges are much bigger than Stonehenge, which is about 100 metres across. Near Avebury, 20 miles north, there are two measuring 500 and 600 metres in diameter.


The latest discovery in 1997 was at Stanton Drew in Somerset, 35 miles west, where a sensationally large stone circle -filled with rings with holes intended for wooden posts which have long since disappeared - was found.


Stonehenge has three rings like this. It used to be assumed that the posts inside henges supported thatched roofs round the outer circle, leaving the centre open like The Shakespearean Globe Theatre.


Nowadays archaeologists doubt whether the henges were roofed at all. Some suggest the posts were just decorated, possibly with sacrificial animal heads. But what makes Stonehenge unique is the expert shaping of its standing stones and trilithons.


Most stone circles are just rough boulders set on end. At Stonehenge the ground is full of stone splinters where the builders hacked away at this tough material - a Wiltshire sandstone locally known as 'sarsen' - with their stone axes. It must have taken years of patient effort.


But this is nothing compared to the struggle of transporting the sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs near Avebury, nearly 20 miles away.


The stones weigh around 20 tons each and as much as 35 tons in one case. A total of 1,500 tons of stone was used.


We can guess that they moved them with ropes, timber sledges and possibly wooden rollers. This would have required an immense amount of labour.


According to Pitts, it was a 'tremendous feat of organisation. Hundreds of men, gathered from far and wide, all needing food, shelter and medical attention month after month'.


Even this pales beside the feat of bringing to the site the 'bluestones' which stand in their own inner circle and horseshoe.


Bluestones are bluish volcanic rocks of spotted dolerite found in West Wales. It was not until 1923 that a geologist finally identified those at Stonehenge with similar stones found lying on the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire.


They are smaller than the sarsens, weighing three to five tons apiece, but how did they get them to Salisbury Plain? By boat along the south coast of Wales, up the Bristol Channel and then by a combination of three rivers to Wiltshire, it is suggested.


'They had adequate boats for the task' said Pitts, 'possibly three lashed together with the stone on the middle one.'


Now it is time to broach the vital question: what were all these stones for? And this is where the mystical quality of Stonehenge comes in. Most archaeologists agree the stones have something to do with ancestor worship. Pitts goes further.


He suggests that the bluestones from the far west were the ancestors in the minds of the men who erected them. Why did they go all the way to West Wales? How did they know they were there?


They believed that was where their ancestors had originally come from. Possibly it is where men landed on the islands after the end of the Ice Age.


We do not know what ceremonies were performed in the henges, but they were magical circles where the spirits of the ancestors were supposed to join with the world of the living. In parts of Africa, especially in Madagascar, where Pitts has studied burial customs, they stir venerate their ancestors in the form of megaliths that are strikingly similar to ours.


A visiting Madagascan archaeologist immediately recognised Stonehenge:

'This is all for the ancestors!' he exclaimed.


Pitts visualises that Woodhenge, which lies two miles up the Avon and might be Stonehenge's twin made of wood, is closely connected. Both are on the same axis to the sun. Both places incorporate avenues leading to the river. Woodhenge was for the living Stonehenge for the dead.


Pitts imagines that on special occasions, especially midsummer, when the sun's rays would shine along the avenue through the entrance to both circles, people would gather at Woodhenge and proceed down river to Stonehenge.


Perhaps they took their recently dead relatives on the journey. It was a journey from east to west, from the domain of the living to the domain of the ancestors.


On the longest day, the sun both rises and sets at its most northerly point - sunrise and sunset are closest together, symbolising the closeness of the living and the dead. What better time to join the two together symbolically in ceremony?


So who were these very Ancient Britons? When did they live? Radiocarbon dating has altered our ideas considerably. The megaliths are now dated 500 years earlier than previously thought, at around 2300 BC (or 4,300 years ago). The bluestones were put up around 200 years later-in other words, 4,100 years ago.


You may ask what difference 500 years makes in such a long time span, but it is vital. Previously Stonehenge was thought to be a Bronze Age monument. Just to confuse us, some Bronze Age joker carved a picture of his dagger on one of the sarsen stones.


Now the building is known to be Neolithic, a product of the late Stone Age when all the other henges were built. Their builders had no metal.


Intriguingly, this was the same time pyramids were being built in Egypt. The earliest pyramids predate the stones of Stonehenge but are contemporary with its earliest phase, when the great circular mound and ditch enclosing the henge were dug in approximately 3000 BC.


At this stage the site was mainly used for cremation-burials. When the Bronze Age began about 1,000 years later, families began to build small round mounds, known as barrows, for burial and ranged them in hundreds all around the monument, which stood as a kind of cenotaph in the centre.


Changing uses of Stonehenge and its frequent rebuilding are what make the site so complex and difficult to interpret. When we picture these very Ancient Britons we are not talking of cavemen but of clever people who pulled off feats of engineering that we still cannot emulate.


We know they were farmers, raising cattle and sheep, growing wheat and barley, making bread and beer, wearing woollen cloth and leather. We know they feasted especially on pigs, whose bones have been found in great quantities at henges like Woodhenge and Avebury.


They did not feast at Stonehenge - the bones there are of large cattle, oxen and the auroch, a great buffalo-like beast long extinct. Some of these skulls are centuries older than the pits they were found in, suggesting they had been hanging up as trophies.


Their bows and arrows have been demonstrated to be just as efficient and capable of piercing metal as those used at Agincourt.


We know they were artistic because their pottery is decorated with abstract patterns, which often look psychedelic to our eyes. This raises the question of whether our predecessors used drugs. The answer is that it is more than possible.


Native mind-altering plants were available, such as fly agaric mushrooms and henbane.


Even without ingesting such substances, primitive peoples achieved altered states of consciousness through dancing, singing, banging drums and drinking.


All in all says Mike Pitts, they were people very like us, looking like us, with a developed language. However, they had no means of writing and thus no written language neither did they have metal tools, weapons or utensils.


Their stunning achievements in building the henges show how important these giant stones were to them - the most important thing in their lives.


Millennia passed and Stonehenge changed its function. When the Romans invaded in 43 BC, they conquered the Brits with the sword. They must have seen a place like Stonehenge as a revered popular icon, perhaps as a centre of resistance.


Which is when and where the Druids may have come into it. There is no archeological evidence that Stonehenge was ever a Druid temple.


Druids built their own square shrines of wood. But the skeleton found beheaded at Stonehenge could have been a Druid executed by the Romans on the holy spot as an example to the local resistance.


Or, if its date proves later, it could be a chieftain or king from the period of Arthurian legend - King Arthur, if he existed, is supposed to have lived around 500 AD. There were plenty of local kings, local wars and, therefore, many executions of those who lost.


Could the skeleton have been King Arthur himself? No - none of the legends about Arthur suggests he was beheaded. But Stonehenge became associated with him because Geoffrey of Monmouth, a highly unreliable chronicler who wrote a history of Britain in 1135 alleged that Merlin built Stonehenge with stones that he 'magicked' from Ireland.


Geoffrey also claimed that Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon was buried there after defeating Hengist, the Saxon invader, who was executed.


Geoffrey was romancing as usual, but his legends spread. They led, in due course, to an obsessed Arthurian enthusiast, a dentist called Wystan Peach, claiming that skeleton 4-10-4 was that of King Arthur. Nobody believed him but in the museum store somebody chalked 'Arthur' on the box which held his bones.


He came out of it yesterday to tease us. One day, perhaps quite soon, we will find out exactly when he lived and when he died.


• HENGEWORLD by Mike Pitts will be published on June 22 by Century, £17.99.

(c) Mike Pitts 2000. For more information contact:


Extracted from the "Daily Mail", Saturday, June 10th 2000



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