Researchers from the University of Reading have discovered what they call the ‘House of the Dead’ in Wiltshire, near the iconic prehistoric arrangement of Stonehenge. And what may seem like a ‘sinister’ find, might actually prove to be quite invaluable to the field of archaeology. To that end, the Neolithic burial chamber, investigated by the University’s staff, students and even local volunteers, possibly contains human remains that date back to 3600 BC. The structure in itself, known as the Cat’s Brain long barrow, comprised an earthen mound that predated the Marden Henge (the prehistoric 40-acre ceremonial complex contemporary to the Stonehenge) by a millennium.
The structure was originally identified by aerial photography that was further complemented by geophysical survey imagery. The location in itself (in the middle of a farmer’s field) is highly interesting, since the long barrow is situated halfway between the famous prehistoric monuments of Avebury and Stonehenge. In a rough scale, the ‘complex’ – originally comprising a mound made of earth, is around 85 ft (26 meters) long and about 65 ft (20 m) wide, flanked by the two ditches. But after centuries of disparate farming in the area, the roundish bearing of the structure has now been plowed flat.
The question can be raised – why exactly are the archaeologists expecting to find human remains inside the prehistoric arrangement? Well the answer relates to how researchers previously have been able to find barrows (along with myriad other ancient monuments) in the Salisbury plain of England. According to Dr Jim Leary, director of the Archaeology Field School at the University of Reading, the Neolithic custom prevalent in this region pertained to leaving the bodies of the select few (possibly elites) on giant platforms for birds to peck and pick clean. The skeletal remains were then arranged inside long yet typically rectangular structures that looked like houses, and they were finally ‘buried’ with soil, thus resulting in earthen mounds.
As for the historical side of affairs, the particular period of 4th millennium BC in Britain was crucial for the populace, since the epoch marked the transition of the hunter-gatherer groups into agricultural communities. In essence, the momentous ‘switch’ to agriculture allowed the local population to invest their time and energy on construction of monumental projects like the Avebury and Stonehenge. The shift to the domestic scope is also reflected by the cow skulls that were used as burial objects, thus hinting at the symbolic importance of domesticated cows.
Finally, this time around, the researchers have still not dated any of the items found in the vicinity of the structure, based on the preliminary nature of their investigation. However the good news for history enthusiasts is that the archaeologists have decided to hold an ‘Open Day’ at the Marden Henge on Saturday (15th June). This will allow members of the public to view the live excavation process, as researchers look for evidences of human remains and other related artifacts. Dr Leary said –
Opportunities to fully investigate long barrows are virtually unknown in recent times, and this represents a fantastic chance to carefully excavate one using the very latest techniques and technology. Members of the public now have the chance to visit us and see prehistory being unearthed as we search for human remains on the site. Discovering the buried remains of what could be the ancestors of those who lived around Stonehenge would be the cherry on the cake of an amazing project.
Source / Images Credit: University of Reading