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Stonehenge Rituals & People

The Stonehenge People

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Who were the Stonehenge and Avebury people and how did they live? The early Wessex farmers chose the dry chalk uplands because it was easier to clear the forests with their stone axes and work the light soil with their simple wooden ploughs or 'ards'. We know what they ate from the remains of numerous feasts, such as those found in the Coneybury pit about 1km from Stonehenge - bones of cattle and roe deer, with some red deer, beaver and fish. Elsewhere there is evidence of for sheep, always a success on cleared downland, and goats. The area's soil has now been cultivated for over 5000 years and has lost most of its humus and loess content. In Neolithic times it would have been much more fertile, producing such nutrious crops as pulses and beans. Actual plant remains and textile fragments from the Bronze age have been found at a unique location the Stonehenge area: the damp conditions at the bottom of a 30m well known as Wilsford shaft.

Using new techniques we now know the broad effects on the environment of the prehistoric activities. Most of the earliest Wessex farming was pastoral, with cultivation restricted to small plots In early Neolithic times the forest clearings around Stonehenge expanded rapidly to exploit the rich soil. But by the later Neolithic period the dwindling woodland needed careful management. By the early Bronze age sheep grazed large areas of established pasture. In fact the tree cover became so sparse that the landscape of 2000 BC was beginning to assume the open appearance of today.

The Stonehenge Rituals

As a result of the Roman propaganda against the Celtic Druids, human sacrifice in ancient Britain has often been taken for granted. Now the excavators have provided proof. Among many examples are cases from both Stonehenge and Avebury areas. In the open space at the centre of Woodhenge, an interesting site with open access, 3km north-east of Stonehenge, was found the shallow grave of a 31/2 year old girl, facing the entrance and the rising sun. Her skull was neatly split in two by an axe. Another foundation sacrifice turnesd up at Avebury's Sanctuary: the body of an adolescent youth, aged 14 years, emphasised an important barrow alignment, when the temple was last rebuilt. Perhaps we condemn these practises too easily. 'Human Sacrifice' should not be equated to our modern attitude to murder', says Aubrey Burl in Rites of the Gods. 'It symbolised some need in society, whose urgency and necessity was more keenly stated if the chosen symbol was a human being.'

Another famous death is the 'Stonehenge murder': In 1978 the body of a tall strong man, aged about 27 years and dating from the earlier Bronze age, was found in the ditch of the henge. There were three arrow-heads with the corpse, one buried in his sternum, and another in his rib. The victim had been shot from close range and then treated with contempt, being thrown into a hastily dug pit with the arrow shafts still protruding from his body. When found he was still wearing his slate wrist guard and so was presumably an archer himself.

 The Stonehenge environs have now yielded many ceremonial symbols to intrigue us. The chieftain buried under the Bush Barrow, for example, took with him to the Otherworld the symbols of his earthly power - a macehead of rare limestone, its shaft enriched by bone mounts, a bronze axe, and three copper and bronze daggers, one with a handle inlaid with thousands of minute gold pins - not to mention his earthly wealth expressed by hammered gold belt ornaments. Maceheads and ceremonial axeheads of semiprecious stone, such as Jadeite, played a central role in the priests' authority and rites. Carved on one of the trilithons are a clear dagger and axehead. Buried in the Aubrey holes of early henge were chalk balls and flint rods, understood by Burl to be phallic symbols. Less obvious are cups, which may be symbols of female sexuality.