Saturday, May 31, 2008

The mystery of Stonehenge deepens

Archaeologists excavating sites around Stonehenge in England are uncovering some fascinating new material.

Stonehenge may have been a burial ground for an ancient royal family, British archaeologists said yesterday.

The original purpose of the stone monument in Wiltshire is one of archaeology’s most enduring enigmas. Previous theories have suggested that it was an astronomical observatory or a religious centre.

But radiocarbon analysis of human remains excavated from the site have revealed that it was used as a cemetery from its inception just after 3000BC until well after the largest circle of stones went up in about 2500BC. Previously, archaeologists had believed people were buried at Stonehenge only between 2700 and 2600BC.

Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield, who is leading an excavation of the site, said: “The hypothesis we are working on is that Stonehenge represents a place of the dead.

“A further twist is that the people buried at Stonehenge may have been the elite of their society, an ancient royal British dynasty, perhaps.”

Last year the same researchers found evidence of a large settlement of houses near by.

Professor Parker Pearson said that the latest findings reinforced his belief that the settlement and Stonehenge formed part of a larger ancient ceremonial complex along the River Avon. “What we suspect is that the river is the conduit between the two realms of the living and the dead. It was the prehistoric version of the River Styx.”

This is the first time that any of the cremation burials from Stonehenge have been radiocarbon-dated. The remains were excavated in the 1950s and have been kept at Salisbury Museum. Another 49 cremation burials were dug up at Stonehenge during the 1920s, but all were put back in the ground because they were thought to be of no scientific value.

The new research provides clues about the original purpose of the monument and shows that its use as a cemetery extended for more than 500 years. The earliest cremation burial dated – a small pile of burnt bones and teeth – came from one of the pits around Stonehenge’s edge known as the Aubrey Holes and dates to 3030-2880 BC, roughly the time when Stonehenge’s ditch-and-bank monument was cut into Salisbury Plain.

The most recent cremation comes from the ditch’s northern side and was of a 25-year-old woman; it dates to 2570-2340 BC, about the time that the first arrangements of sarsen stones appeared at Stonehenge. The team estimates that between 150 and 240 men, women and children were buried at Stonehenge over a 600-year period.

Earlier digs have revealed that there were at least two more formations like Stonehenge nearby, although they've long since disappeared.

One of the megalithic finds is a sandstone formation that marked a ritual burial mound; the other, a group of stones at the site of an ancient timber circle.

The new discoveries suggest that many similar monuments may have been erected in the shadow of Stonehenge, possibly forming part of a much larger complex, experts say.

National Geographic is a co-sponsor of the current excavations, and released this snippet of a forthcoming program on YouTube.

Of even greater interest (to me, at any rate) is the flood of discoveries of sites seemingly similar to Stonehenge in eastern Europe. So far, British archaeologists seem to be downplaying any possibility of a link between them: but there's enough smoke to convince me that there's a fire somewhere.

In 2004 Russian archaeologists found the first similar site.

Russian archaeologists have announced that they have found the remains of a 4,000-year-old structure that they compare to England's Stonehenge, according to recent reports issued by Pravda and Novosti, two Russian news services.

If the comparison holds true, the finding suggests that both ancient European and Russian populations held similar pagan beliefs that wove celestial cycles with human and animal life.

Since devotional objects and symbols are at the Russian site in the region of Ryazan, their meanings might shed light on pagan ceremonies that likely also took place at Stonehenge.

Just as the location of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, appeared to be significant for the megalith's creators, so too did Ryazan for the Russian builders. The site overlooks the junction of two rivers, the Oka and Pronya. It was highly traveled by numerous cultures in ancient times.

Ilya Ahmedov, lead archaeologist of the Ryazan excavation and a researcher in the State History Museum of Russia's department of archaeological monuments, described the remains of the structure to Novosti.

Ahmedov said he and his team found ground holes indicating a monument with a 22.97-feet diameter circle consisting of 1.6-foot thick wooden poles spaced at equal distances from each other. Inside the circle is a large rectangular hole with evidence that four posts once stood in that spot.

In 2005 Pravda announced that many similar discoveries had recently been made, with some startling common features.

Not amateurs but rather experienced researchers discovered these ancient observatories. As a rule, all of these constructions are based upon the same principle: on the day of the summer and winter solstice the sunrays fall upon some definite spot of a sanctuary made of megalith stones or wood. This is strange that none of the researchers has made an attempt to compare these discovered observatories and find out their common principles.

In June 2005, a new expedition of astronomers headed by journalist and orientalist Andrey Polyakov left for Staraya Ryazan. The researcher is known for his expeditions to Ararat and Nakhichevan in search of Noah’s Ark.

The sanctuary near Staraya Ryazan is situated on the highest hill in the junction of the rivers Oka and Pronya. The area is unique for the great variety of cultures presented there: from the upper paleolith to the early Middle Ages. The previous expedition in 1979 was very close to discovering the sanctuary but failed to find it.

The construction is a circle of seven meters in diameter hedged in with wooden columns each is half a meter thick, at the same distance from each other. There is a large rectangular hole in the center of the circle and a pole. The wooden columns were destroyed but one can clearly see the round holes where they used to stand.

Ilya Akhmedov says that there are two more holes with poles on the ends of the ground. Two more holes of this type situated eastward and in the south were discovered around the area, the researcher says.

Within the circle, two couples of the poles form some type of gates through which one can see the sunset in the summer. Another pole outside the circle points at the sunrise. Archeologists discovered a small ceramic vessel with a delicate design on it: short lines make a zigzag resembling sunrays and wavy lines on the top symbolize water. The vessel belongs to the bronze epoch. In 2003, archeologists made a conclusion that the pagan temple was connected with astronomy; there were no settlements close to the place, all inhabited places were located some distance away from the discovery.

Andrey Polyakov says that it is bad for health to get settled at the junction of rivers. But at the same time, this place situated away from settlements suited well for rituals and observatories. Indeed, no settlement was discovered close to Ryazan’s Stonehenge, at the time when discoveries of everyday articles such as ceramics and adornments were abundant in the area.

This fascinates me. Is it possible that groups of early humans, devoid of all contact with one another and seemingly from completely different 'root' communities, separated by thousands of miles, developed similar superstitions and primitive religious practices?

I look forward to finding out more as the excavations in England and Russia reveal more of our distant forefathers and how they lived.


1 comment:

Peter (NOGH) said...

This might be related to either the spread of farming or the spread of the Indo-European language family. Or both, depending on your perspective.

The people in Russia and England were undoubtably unaware of each other in real time, but the ritual structures and burial practices might suggest a diffusion of a much older tradition that traveled along with either farming or language.

In terms of language, I was struck by the name of the river Pronya. Clearly this is where 'Avtomat Kalashnikova Pronya' was invented, such that we in America can now enjoy such things as AR pr0n, Mauser pr0n, and gun pr0n in general. :)