Buried under the ancient monument of Stonehenge, a team of archaeologists have stumbled upon a cache of human skeletons, fascinating relics from the region’s mysterious past. But when they take a closer look, they realize that one is hiding an incredible secret. Tucked inside the mouth of a dead man for thousands of years, they find an artifact that could change everything we think we know about this historic site.
As a student at the University of Bradford in northern England, Jackie McKinley developed a passion for the study of human remains. And after graduating, her interest in the long-dead inhabitants of this world continued. For decades, she has spent her time analyzing some of Britain’s oldest archaeological sites – including the iconic monoliths of Stonehenge.
A bone specialist with Wessex Archaeology, McKinley worked in the shadow of the famous stones, piecing together the stories of people buried at the strange site. And in February 2018, she appeared in a documentary by Discovery UK. In it, she detailed an incredible find that could completely change the narrative of Stonehenge.
Located some eight miles to the north of the English city of Salisbury, the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge is famous around the world. But while its distinctive shape might be instantly recognizable, the origins of this monument remain shrouded in mystery. And to this day, we still do not know for certain who built it, or why.
Originally, experts believed that Stonehenge was constructed by the Druids, an ancient people first recorded in Britain during the third century B.C. However, later scholars have determined that construction began as far back as 3,000 B.C. And it wasn’t until 1,520 B.C., almost 1,500 years later, that the project was finally complete.
Thought to have been constructed in six stages, Stonehenge consists of a series of sandstone slabs, known as sarsen stones. Scattered amongst these are smaller rocks, called bluestones thanks to their distinctive tinge. And while some are arranged in an upright manner, others have been placed horizontally, creating what is known as a post-and-lintel formation.
When Stonehenge was built, experts believe, the sarsen stones were sourced from the surrounding countryside, likely from the Marlborough Downs some 20 miles away. However, the heaviest of these slabs, known as the Heel Stone, weighs more than 30 tons. So how did these ancient people, lacking the machinery that we have today, heft these rocks into place?
Indeed, and the mystery only deepens when one considers that the bluestones came from South Wales – a distance of up to 150 miles away. In fact, there are some who believe that these rocks could only have made it to Stonehenge by way of melting glaciers that carried them across the country. However, most experts accept that human innovation, rather than a natural occurrence, was behind this impressive feat.
Today, one of the most widely accepted theories is that the stones were placed on sledges and rolled along felled trees onto waiting rafts. And from there, they were floated up the river to their new home in Salisbury. However, no evidence has ever been uncovered to support these claims, and the truth behind the construction of this great monument remains a mystery.
And just as they do not know exactly how Stonehenge was built, historians are equally unclear on why. According to some, the monument was intended to serve an astronomical purpose, perhaps predicting occurrences such as eclipses. Certainly, it has been observed that the stones align with sunrise and sunset during the solstices. However, many experts have dismissed these theories as little more than New Age fantasy.
More recently, some archaeologists have proposed that Stonehenge may once have marked the point where two different territories intersected, serving as a gathering place. Meanwhile, others have suggested that the monument may have been a place where ailing people came to heal. And while this theory is unproven, there is plenty of evidence linking the circle with the cycle of life and death.
In fact, over the years experts have uncovered numerous human remains in and around Stonehenge. For example, in 2002 a team from Wessex Archaeology discovered the grave of a man who would come to be known as the Amesbury Archer. Dating back to around 2,300 B.C., it was a relic like nothing that had ever been seen before.
Located just a few miles away from Stonehenge, the grave was the richest Bronze Age burial site ever discovered in Britain. Over the course of the excavation, archaeologists recovered some 100 artifacts from the site, including gold hair accessories dating back to around 2,470 B.C.
Furthermore, the gold found at this grave site was the earliest example of this precious metal ever uncovered on British soil. And that wasn’t all. Buried alongside the male skeleton archaeologists discovered a number of copper utensils, and a collection of ancient ceramic pots. Additionally, there were arrowheads and wristguards, suggesting that the man had been an archer in life.
On closer investigation, researchers were able to learn even more about the life of the Amesbury Archer. Most interestingly, perhaps, was that he was not a local to Stonehenge. According to studies of his tooth enamel, he had spent his childhood in the Alps in Europe before making his way to Britain.
For some reason, the Amesbury Archer had traveled hundreds of miles to arrive at Stonehenge during the time the great monument was being built. But why? Because of the artifacts found in his grave, experts believe that he was a metalworker, perhaps one of the first in Britain to craft with gold. So might he have had a hand in the construction of Stonehenge itself?
Whether the Amesbury Archer was involved in the building of Stonehenge – or simply drawn to the attraction of the new circle – we may never know. However, the discovery of his rich grave shed a new light on one of the least understood monuments in Britain. And this Bronze Age metalworker was far from the only person laid to rest in and around these strange megaliths.
In fact, since the 1920s archaeologists have been recovering cremated human remains from Stonehenge and the surrounding area. For instance, the remains of 56 people were found in pits lining the inner circumference of Stonehenge itself. And while these relics were initially dismissed as unimportant, modern researchers have since returned to examine them.
Then, in 2018, archaeologists published a study of the remains of 25 men, women and children, originally buried at Stonehenge. Dating to around 3,000 B.C., they would also have been interred at the monument around the time of its creation. And like the Amesbury Archer, some of them had traveled far to get there.
Using a technique known as strontium isotope analysis, the researchers determined that while 15 sets of remains belonged to local people, ten did not. In fact, it’s believed they came from Western Britain – potentially the same place as the source of the bluestones in Wales.
Moreover, archaeologists discovered that some of the remains had been stored in special bags, suggesting that they had died elsewhere before being brought to Stonehenge. But who would carry them for more than 100 miles across the British countryside? And why? For the moment, that mystery remains unsolved.
As well as cremated remains, there has been a scattering of more complete skeletons recovered from in and around Stonehenge. In fact, one was unearthed as far back as 1923, although it was long believed to have been lost during the Blitz of World War II. However, in 1999, the historic remains were rediscovered languishing in London’s Natural History Museum.
About 35 years old when he died between 100 B.C. and 1,000 A.D., this man had a fascinating story to tell. And the woman who uncovered him was McKinley, an osteoarchaeologist working on a Wessex Archaeology dig. For she discovered markings on the skeleton’s vertebra and jaw, suggesting that the individual had been decapitated with a sword.
Now, this story of a violent execution represented a new twist in the tale of Stonehenge. But it would not be the last that McKinley would uncover. Almost two decades later, in 2018, the expert appeared in a documentary produced by Discovery UK, the British arm of the Discovery Channel. And in it, she discussed a skeleton discovered close to that of the Amesbury Archer.
According to McKinley, experts know there are as many as 400 burials in the area immediately surrounding Stonehenge. And by studying the human remains, she believes, we can learn more about them – and why these people came here. In the documentary, The Secret Skeletons Beneath Stonehenge, she explains, “A lot of the time the dead are buried in certain positions, postures, or have certain materials with them.”
“So there are a whole variety of things that I go to look for,” McKinley continues, “because that can tell me something about their life, but also about Stonehenge.” In fact, the osteoarchaeologist has long been suspicious of the theory that the site was only used for a few days every year. And now, she believes that she has the evidence to support this claim.
In the documentary, McKinley focuses on her findings from one set of remains buried beneath Stonehenge. “From the skeleton, I can tell this was probably a young, adult male – probably in his early 20s,” she explains. However, the most fascinating thing about this individual was a strange artifact that archaeologists found within his grave.
“This is a pair of gold ornaments that were found rolled together inside the mouth,” McKinley explains. “They’re tucked together against the right hand side of the inner jaw. Which means they were either placed in the mouth at the time of death, or certainly before burial.” Of course, it is not particularly unusual to discover precious objects alongside human remains – but this was something else.
“These are really rare,” McKinley continues. “There are only about eight pairs known from the country.” But what could such an unusual artifact mean? According to experts, prehistoric people were often laid to rest with items that reflected their profession or status in life. So was there a connection between the man and the finely-wrought gold?
At the time of the burial, metalworking in Britain was still in its infancy. However, the items recovered from the skeleton at Stonehenge are of a remarkably high quality. And according to McKinley, it would have taken a great level of skill to forge them – perhaps marking this individual out as a craftsman of unusual talents.
“These are very finely worked items, and to be able to have the… not just the technology, but the skill to have learned how to change something which was essentially a lump of rock into something that delicate and that beautifully worked, would really have been seen as something quite magical,” McKinley explains.
But while McKinley believes that the mystery man was a metalworker himself, she doesn’t think he was responsible for the ornaments found in his own grave. Instead, she suggests the gold ornaments were crafted by another individual, buried just ten feet away. “I think he was the person who worked the magic,” she explains. “I think he was the person who could make those changes from pieces of rock to items of beauty.”
Interestingly, this second man was the Amesbury Archer – the skeleton first discovered by Wessex Archaeology back in 2002. As mentioned earlier, he too was also buried alongside gold ornaments, as well as metalworking tools. But what were these two skilled individuals doing at Stonehenge? According to McKinley, they had likely traveled to the monument in order to sell their wares.
For McKinley, the presence of these artisans at Stonehenge is a clear indicator that her theory is correct. And that rather than an occasional place of worship, the site was actually a bustling hub of commerce and trade. Amazingly, that wasn’t the only revelation that was gleaned from the skeletons buried beneath the stone circle.
No, because In the documentary McKinley goes into further detail about the analysis that originally traced the Amesbury Archer to the European Alps. Now, they have apparently narrowed that down to a region in what is now Germany – a distance of some 700 miles. And when she ran the same tests on the younger individual, she found equally surprising results.
This time, the analysis showed that the man had been born in the area around Stonehenge. However, it also revealed that he had spent his teenage years living in central Europe – suggesting multiple long-distance journeys. According to McKinley, it’s a startling revelation that sheds a new light on life in prehistoric Britain.
“The fact that we’ve been able to demonstrate that people might have moved several times in their lifetime, between quite long distances, is fascinating,” McKinley explains. “What you’ve got is a connection between people, over a large geographic area… and whether they kept that connection because of trade, or because of family, or probably a combination of the two, that is just so modern, in many ways.”
In the documentary, the narrator highlights the significance of McKinley’s findings. “This discovery rewrites our understanding of the natural world,” he says. “Four-thousand years ago these two men traveled vast distances over land and sea. They were part of a complex web of connections, perhaps with the marketplace of Stonehenge at its core.”
Remarkably, this isn’t the only evidence that Stonehenge was frequented by a surprisingly well-traveled demographic. In fact, the documentary reveals a number of fascinating artifacts uncovered from graves in the region. In one, archaeologists discovered a necklace made from Danish amber, while another yielded an axe head of Italian jade. Elsewhere, the team uncovered a dagger crafted from a mixture of Welsh copper, Cornish tin and Scandinavian whalebone.
Today, researchers are still striving to understand the many mysteries of Stonehenge, and to learn more about who built it and why. And while the work of people like McKinley is helping to unravel the monument’s past, many questions remain. In fact, we may never know the whole story of how these strange monoliths came to be.