The Women of Stonehenge

Stonehenge—the ancient Neolithic monument in Wiltshire, England—was built approximately 4,000 – 5,000 years ago. The modern configuration of the henge was built over a span of nearly 2,000 years—from the initial shaping of the land, to construction of a timber structure, the transition to the first stone structure, and finally to the transport and configuration of the massive twenty-five ton sandstone blocks and their associated blue stones that remain on-site today.

Stonehenge was built and used during a time before history was documented in written records. While word of mouth passed down stories for generations, this many millennia after its creation, some of the purposes of Stonehenge have been lost to the ages. However, modern research proposes a number of uses for the site, including that it may be one of the oldest recorded organized burial grounds of both human and animal remains. It also served as an astronomical calendar, arranged to align with sunset at the winter solstice and sunrise at the summer solstice with a precision that is almost unbelievable considering the knowledge and tools of the time. It was used for religious ceremonies, and it has also been suggested Stonehenge was used as a place of healing based on the condition and associated traumas of the remains discovered on site.

Computer rendering of the completed Stonehenge

Computer rendering of the completed Stonehenge

Stone Age human remains were recovered from Stonehenge in 2008 and have been studied by researchers at University College London. The original find revealed over two hundred cremated individuals in a chalk pit. From this, fourteen females and nine males were definitively identified using CT scans and radiocarbon dating to determine not only the sex but the age and date of burial of the remains.

It was the proportion of females to males that most impacted researchers. In today’s society where North American women still experience the resistance of the glass ceiling and many women internationally are simply fighting for autonomy and the right to vote, researchers were impressed by the clear acceptance of women in positions of power. Only the most influential members of society would be buried in such an important spiritual place, so this is a clear indication of a gender-equal society a full five thousand years ago.

In many modern depictions of Stonehenge’s history, ritual and rite are only conducted for men and by men, but science shows that Stone Age society was perhaps more advanced than we previously believed. Sometimes it’s good to look to the past to inform our modern lives, and this might be a good example of when lessons can be learned from those who have gone before us.

Photo credit: Peter Trimming and Wikimedia Commons