Scientists at Stonehenge made a startling discovery about the ancient megaliths, published by a leading archaeological journal this month, that changes the way historians view the mysterious ancient societies in what is now England, societies that made Stonehenge the center of their religious and social lives.
“In almost every depiction of Stonehenge by artists and TV re-enactors we see lots of men,” said Mike Pitts, editor of the journal British Archaeology, which published the new findings. “A man in charge, and few or no women.”
But what archaeologists found, according a report by Discovery News, is a burial site containing cremated remains of 14 women — women who, due to the place and method that they were buried, the scientists believe, occupied positions of extreme status and respect in ancient Stonehenge society, at least equal if not superior to their male counterparts.
The archaeologists found about 100 pounds of cremated bones, which they determined came from 23 different individuals. Of those ancient people, 14 were women and only nine were men, or at least male because some of the remains were found to belong to children.
“By definition, cemeteries are rare, Stonehenge exceptional,” Pitts told Discovery News. “Anyone buried at Stonehenge is likely to have been special in some way: high status families, possessors of special skills or knowledge, ritual or political leaders.”
Because archaeologists agree that only the most important and powerful members of the ancient society were deemed worthy of burial at the sacred site of Stonehenge, the newly discovered remains appear to indicate the prominent and respected position of women in that society, almost 5,000 years ago.
The following CNN video report explores several of the mysteries still surrounding the Stonehenge monument.
The remains were buried as early as 3,100 B.C., around the time that construction on the Stonehenge complex had just begun. The structure took the ancient builders approximately 1,500 years to complete. But the earliest burials there indicate that women did not hold the prominence that they later assumed, according to the experts.
“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,” Pitts said.
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The remains were found in a series of burial pits around Stonehenge referred to by archaeologists as “Aubrey Holes,” 56 different chalk pits first discovered by 17th-century antiquarian John Aubrey. But excavation of the Aubrey Holes did not begin until nearly 300 years later, in the 1920s.
The current excavation project that resulted in the new findings about the prominent place of women in Stonehenge society began in 2008, but because the 1920s-era scientists lacked the tools to identify the remains, sorting them out by 21st century researchers has been a laborious process.
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“These were dug up and reburied in Aubrey Hole seven with the hope that one day there would be a breakthrough to allow them to be analyzed,” University College of London expert Christie Willis told the BBC. “Because of this, the fragments have become co-mingled — or mixed up — which is why the work has taken so long.”
But beyond the technical details of the research itself, the significance of the new findings about the role of ancient women, according to one prominent writer, could be revolutionary.
“It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the news that gender equality existed in Britain as late as the Third Millennium B.C.,” wrote author and BBC presenter Amanda Foreman on Wednesday.
“It means that a thousand years after agriculture reached the islands, the sexes were still living and functioning together along egalitarian lines. It means that many of our modern notions about the primacy of men, about women being the second sex, and inequality being intrinsic to the human condition, are just dead wrong,” she wrote.
According to Pitts, however, the prominence of women in ancient Stonehenge society eventually declined, saying, “women’s status has gone up and down quite noticeably at different times in the past.”
[Featured Photo By Matt Cardy / Getty Images]