The Stonehenge site has perplexed and intrigued archaeologists, poets, historians, educators, and religious leaders for decades, as they attempt to uncover the history of the land around Britain’s famous ancient monument in its entirety.
To date, we know almost nothing about who built the site and why, which makes it one of the most mysterious places in the world. The set of stones on the empty Salisbury plain have been lying out in concentric rings and horseshoe shapes for 4,000 years, making it one of the oldest and best preserved ancient stone structures on Earth.
Though nothing is certain, many archaeologists believe the ring of stones may have functioned in part as a cemetery for notable people. While it has been known for around 100 years that there were human remains under Stonehenge, it wasn’t until 2013 that researchers discovered the remains of dozens of individuals buried under and surrounding the stone ring.
A mace head, a high-status object resembling a sceptre, and a little bowl burnt on one side thought to have held incense, all found close to the cremated bone fragments, suggest the dead could have been religious and political leaders and their immediate families.
For decades, archeologists thought only men were buried at the site, which in turn provoked the notion that those buried here were prominent people in the neolithic world. But it seems about half of the high status people buried under Stonehenge were women. In fact, earlier this year, researchers excavated the remains of 14 more women (and nine men). The women, like the rest of the remains found at the site, were buried between 3100 and 2140 B.C.
Though the findings don’t reveal exactly what this means about women in the Stone Age, it does suggest that they may have been leaders in society, family members of high status men, and even had equal social standing in society.
“The archaeology now shows that as far as the burials go, women were as prominent there as men. This contrasts with the earlier burial mounds, where men seem to be more prominent,” explained archeologist Mike Pitts. This sort of discovery opens up so many questions about gender equality, though more than anything, shows that it has never been a straight line, but more a road of ups and downs. “Historical evidence has shown that women’s status has gone up and down quite noticeably at different times in the past,” Pitts said.
According to Pitts, almost every depiction of the site by artists and TV re-enactors shows a man in charge, with little to no women seen. But he says the latest discovery may change all of this.
Though men headed the majority of early agricultural societies, some research supports the possibility of gender equality amongst hunter-gatherer communities before farming took over. And in Western culture, traditional gender roles were less defined and enforced before the Victorian period.
If the most recent findings at Stonehenge can tell us anything, it is that the Stone Age may not have been as regressive as once that. To date, we can hold on to the knowledge that the ancient site is a monument to men AND women, who lived together and worked together.
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