- Diggers in England unearthed two 4,500-year-old graves near Stonehenge.
- Archaeologists are surveying the area before a car tunnel gets built under the 5,000-year-old monument.
- The graves contained remains of a young woman and a baby.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
British archaeologists have found two ancient graves near Stonehenge.
The discovery was the result of a survey of a 2-mile-long area just south of the monument. It’s a required step before a new highway tunnel can be constructed under Stonehenge; government officials approved the tunnel last year but stipulated that the land must first be searched for artifacts.
The surveyors found the grave of a young woman and another with bones from a baby about a mile southwest of the monument. Both graves date back roughly 4,500 years, which is roughly the age of the bluestones that make up Stonehenge’s inner circle.
According to Matt Leivers, an archaeologist with Wessex Archaeology who is helping to survey the area, the woman and baby were likely related to the people who erected the monument.
“The later arrangements of bluestones would have been built around the time these people lived and died – if they weren’t the builders then they might have been their relatives, or perhaps their children or grandchildren,” he told Insider.
The land around Stonehenge has yielded graves, pottery, and animal bones
The baby’s grave contained tiny ear bones, while the young woman’s skeleton suggests she died in her 20s or 30s. According to Leivers, both individuals were part of the Beaker culture, a group of people who lived in Europe between about 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.
The Beaker people are named after the pottery vessels they were typically buried with, which serve as markers of their identity, Leivers said. The infant was buried near a plain beaker, the woman was curled around an ornate one.
The woman’s grave also contained an object made from shale, pictured below.
“It may have been a ceremonial cup purposefully damaged before it was laid in the grave, or it may be the cap off the end of a staff or club,” Leivers said in a press release.
In addition to the two graves, the archaeologists unearthed two pots filled with cremated remains in the land surrounding Stonehenge. They also found pottery fragments, animal bones, and used flints.
To the southeast of the monument, they found ditches that might have been part of a 2,500-year-old Iron Age fort, as well as other older ditches from the late Bronze Age, 3,500 years ago.
An 18-month survey of the area is about to start
Stonehenge sits on England’s Salisbury Plain. The land near the monument is empty of buildings, but one of the main roads from London to southwestern England, A303, passes right by it. The new tunnel is meant to eliminate the sounds, smells, and sights of that road traffic.
The project is slated to cost £1.7 billion ($2.4 billion US), with construction starting in 2023. But first, Wessex archaeologists are hunting for anything buried near the tunnel’s proposed location.
The full survey of the area hasn’t begun in earnest yet; it’s slated to start this spring, with between 100 and 150 archaeologists, and last 18 months. The Beaker graves are among the very first findings.
“It is very unlikely, almost impossible, that we’ll find anything that would stop the road now,” Leivers said. The goal is to find a route for the road and tunnel that “avoids as much archaeology as possible,” he added.
“It’s only where the road enters into and exits from the tunnels, and along the approach roads and new junctions that the archaeology will be impacted,” he explained, since most artifacts and graves are found near the surface, whereas the tunnel will be bored much deeper.
Stonehenge was like ‘Washington DC with a big dollop of religion’
Stonehenge was built in two waves of flurried construction 5,000 and 4,500 years ago. Archaeologists have determined that some of the monument’s stones came from Wales, and others from a woodland area nearby. But Stonehenge’s purpose is still a mystery.
David Nash, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, previously told Insider that it might have been a ground for burials and cremation, or perhaps a place of ancient healing. Leivers, meanwhile, thinks Stonehenge was the ceremonial center of southern England, a place of spiritual and political power.
“Think of Washington DC with a big dollop of religion,” he said.
That’s likely why the Beaker people wanted to be buried there, Leivers added: “By the Beaker period, it had been a place of importance for many many centuries and its fame meant that people wanted to visit it.”