The first excavation of Stonehenge in more than 40 years has uncovered evidence that the stone circle drew ailing pilgrims from around Europe for what they believed to be its healing properties, archeologists said Monday.
Archaeologists Geoff Wainwright and Timothy Darvill said the content of graves scattered around the monument and the ancient chipping of its rocks to produce amulets indicated that Stonehenge was the prehistoric equivalent of Lourdes, the French shrine venerated because the sick are supposedly cured there.
An unusual number of skeletons recovered from the Stonehenge area showed signs of serious disease or injury. Analysis of their dental records showed that about half were from outside the Stonehenge area.
“People were in a state of distress, if I can put it as politely as that, when they came to the Stonehenge monument,” Darvill told journalists assembled at London's Society of Antiquaries.
He pointed out that experts near Stonehenge have found two skulls that showed evidence of primitive surgery, some of just a few known cases of operations in prehistoric Britain.
“Even today, that's the pretty serious end of medicine,” he said. Also found near Stonehenge was the body of a man known as the Amesbury Archer, who had a damaged skull and badly hurt knee and died around the time the stones were being installed. Analysis of the Archer's bones showed he was from the Alps.
Darvill cautioned, however, that the new evidence did not rule out other uses for Stonehenge.
“It could have been a temple, even as it was a healing center,” Darvill said. “Just as Lourdes, for example, is still a religious center.”
The archaeologists managed to date the construction of the stone monument to about 2,300 B.C., a couple of centuries younger than was previously thought. It was at that time that bluestones – a rare rock known to geologists as spotted dolomite – were shipped by hand or by raft from Pembrokeshire in Wales to Salisbury Plain in southern England to create the inner circle of Stonehenge.
The outer circle, composed of much larger sandstone slabs, is what most people associate with the monument today, particularly since only about a third of the 80 or so bluestones remain.
Today, the bluestones are now largely invisible, dwarfed by the huge sandstone monoliths – or “hanging stones” – that were erected later and still make up Stonehenge's iconic profile.