Secret Stonehenge: Mounds, Artifacts, and Intrigue
Stonehenge stands within a vast ritual landscape. Encircling the towering stones, over 800 round mounds once added to the temple’s splendour. From within these enigmatic mounds some of the finest artifacts have been unearthed. They are the archaeological Holy Grail to understanding the spirituality and daily life of a culture long gone. Monuments like Stonehenge preserve their mathematical, astronomical, and engineering capabilities like a megalithic library. Written in stone they are a legacy of their incredible achievements.
Bronze Age (c2500-750 BC orthodox dating) burial goods, such as jet from the Baltic, beads form Egypt, and delicate and intricately designed gold artifacts reveal international trade and artistic craftsmanship. Such finds adorn several British museums, attracting publicity and attention.
Yet, some of the mound artifacts are very intriguing and challenge our understanding of ancient Britain. My research has located documented evidence of an entire skeleton of a giant unearthed just one mile from Stonehenge, which was ‘13 feet and 10 inches tall’, strange metal objects and curious chalk plaques all of which were found in the round mounds of Salisbury Plain. Interestingly, the old English name for Stonehenge was The Giant’s Dance perhaps the medieval name was derived from the large skeletons that have been found in and around Salisbury Plain.
The Giant’s Dance - The old name for Stonehenge. Image courtesy of Maria Wheatley
Stonehenge stands like a guardian overlooking the vast Salisbury Plain. The area is managed by the MoD (Military of Defence) and it contains numerous prehistoric monuments. I liken it to Area 51 in the USA as it contains military ‘no-go’ zones. The armed services use it to practice manoeuvres, to launch laser guided weapons and as an intense firing range.
Round mounds are plentiful in and around the Plain, some of which housed burials, although not all are so easily explained. One fascinating find came from a Plain barrow that was excavated in 1955. The excavated skull showed signs of surgery. Initially, a blanket explanation was given – the skull had been trepanned. Trepanning is a surgical technique of scraping out a deep round groove in part of the skull. It was thought that prehistoric trepanning may have been applied to relieve epilepsy, serve headaches, and even cataracts. Archaeologists say our ancestors thought these illnesses were caused by evil-spirits.
Thus, in one particular view, trepanning was partly a shamanic response to alleviate symptoms. One image portrays a shabby looking caveman hacking away at a skull of an uncomfortable patient which implies a primitive and superstitious people that did not fully understand the implications of their surgical actions. Such a Dark Age medieval association is, I believe, at insult to our prehistoric forefathers.
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Example of art depicting prehistoric trepanation. Was it really so primitive? (CC BY SA 4.0)
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According to archaeological dating, the surgery occurred between c. 2000 and 1600 BC. Roger Watson, a Documentation Officer of finds, Devizes Museum, Wiltshire postulat es that the young man underwent a major surgical operation for ‘a brain tumour that involved the cutting away of a disk of bone measuring 32 mm in diameter from his cranium. The cut was probably made with a blade made of flint which is razor sharp. What was used for an anaesthetic or to sterilize, to close the wound we don't know at all.’
Around the Stonehenge environs, numerous Bronze Age patients survived this type of repeated operation. Flint is razor sharp and an ideal medium for fine cutting and scraping. However, the young man whose skull was investigated by Watson lived in an era when copper was widely available. There is evidence that copper metal may have been used to make surgical instruments that supported the surgeon’s flint knife. We know that a surgeon’s operational kit is far more than just knives.
Whilst the skull is defiantly an artifact unearthed by an antiquarian centuries ago, it has only recently been re-examined by Watson, who, incidentally, has pushed the boundaries of prehistoric medical awareness away from superstition into an objective surgical dimension. Thankfully, we are now eroding the restrictions of intellectual arrogance and beginning to see prehistory in a new light.
Compared to other regional monumental sites, such as the nearby Avebury Henge, or sites further afield such as megalithic sites in Scotland, the Stonehenge mounds have a statistically higher proportion of trepanned skulls. Stonehenge may have been England’s first surgical capital.
Let us consider another unusual artifact that may have been associated with prehistoric surgery, which is worthy of our scholarly attention. Not far from Stonehenge, was an extraordinary ‘round barrow cemetery’- labelled as such by archaeologists in the 1950s - yet only a few of the mounds actually contained burials. Centuries ago, this was recognized by an antiquarian who observed: I cannot help remarking of having found so many empty cists [barrows].
Round mound on Salisbury Plain. Image courtesy of Maria Wheatley
One of the larger mounds, sadly removed by the plow, was the exact dimension of Stonehenge and cannot be coincidental. Standing out from the other barrows due to its exalted elevation, it gained the attraction of antiquarian enquiry. Deep within the mound was a cremation and a wooden box, inside of which was a wooden sheaf lined with fabric ‘the web of which could still be distinguished’ some 4200 years later – so well preserved was the artifact within the confines of the mound. When opened they saw a copper (or brass) instrument which is shown below (left). Its corroded dimensions are similar to a pair of household scissors some 6.75 inches (17.15 cm) long.
The instrument found within the mound (left). Image courtesy of Maria Wheatley
Instantly it was explained as an ‘article of ornament rather than utility’ – an idea which has stuck for centuries. The latest theory purports it to be a scarf or cloak pin; yet intriguingly it appears similar to past surgical instruments that were commonly used in the medieval period (see right image above). Similarities like this should not be dismissed.
In addition, whilst it may be a scarf pin, it must be noted that it was found in close proximity to an actual trepanned skull, which is of little consequence to the archaeological analysis of the object. By expanding the limitations of orthodox interpretation, we potentially have evidence of surgical procedures preserved in bone and brass, located close to one another amid one of the most unusual mound complexes in England. The patient went on to live for many years after his surgery, as testified by his perfectly healed bone.
Artifacts and Strange Mound Burials
When it comes to artifacts, the most widely documented finds in the Stonehenge environ come from the famous Bush Barrow. This is because the skeleton of ‘a stout man’ was accompanied with exquisite gold burial goods. Most books and websites on Stonehenge have written of this remarkable find.
However, we will focus on some more unusual and thitherto unreported finds. The following illustrations that accompany my research were taken from Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine. The extensive volumes can be easily accessed at the UK’s National Monuments Records Office, Wiltshire, UK.
A few miles south of Stonehenge and gracing the Salisbury Plain was another exceptionally large barrow that instantly aroused the attention of early excavators. Village rumors had hinted that the ancient round barrows housed gold, and so shepherds, farmers and small landowners believing they were about to hit a golden jackpot reached for their shovels. Previously, the mounds had stood virtually unmolested for nearly 4000 years.
Reconstruction of the bush barrow burial and the artifacts found within it. Credit: Kevin Wilson
If these early gravediggers did not find gold they simply threw away the artifacts. However, a few were kept and later passed on to antiquarians that were more serious.
Within one mound an extraordinary burial of an ‘extremely large man’ was unearthed and at his feet there was ‘a massive hammer of dark-coloured stone’. Other curious finds accompanied him, one of which was an object of twisted copper or brass. Theories abound as to what it was - from a dog collar to a bucket handle! Whilst the giant skeleton and the massive hammer may be far more interesting than the brass object, all have seemingly vanished into the ethers.
Other artifacts that were commonly found in Plain barrows were circular shaped pieces of perfectly crafted copper. Once again, we are promptly informed that they were ‘ornamental’ or ‘ritualistic’. Yet, they may have been a part of a much larger object or instrument that was ambiguously described. Long since lost, the real meaning behind these well-made metallic objects remains elusive.
I must point out that the mounds from whence these artifacts came were very different from other mound burials. Unusual artifacts were housed in unusual mounds. Mounds which were larger in elevation were often coined king or monarch mounds by antiquarians who instantly observed their distinctive traits.
See for yourself how different the finds are. Most Bronze Age mounds are attributed to the Beaker people - said to be European migrants entering the British Isles from c. 2000 BC onwards. Within these Beaker mounds, it was commonplace to have cremated bones interned in a cup or vase shaped object - called a Beaker - and often with spear like objects or beads. Rarely are beakers found alongside the more unusual artifacts.
We are looking at two different eras of burial - one of which precedes the other - and unlike archaeologists, I suggest the more complex finds are earlier.
During the Bronze Age, the Stonehenge surrounds were a peaceful place. Numerous mounds were constructed that crowned the hilltop and eternally gazed towards Stonehenge. Undisturbed, some mounds await excavation, their secrets still held tight. Deep pits and old settlements were long gone by the Bronze Age. Undoubtedly, inherited memories bestowed meaning and serenity to all that visited for they knew the meaning of this evocative landscape that time has lost.
Top image: The ancient site of Stonehenge. Source: hnphotography /Adobe Stock
Maria is an international lecturer and an accomplished author. Maria also leads tours of ancient sites as well as one-day workshops exploring locations such as Avebury Henge, Stonehenge, and Glastonbury. www.theaveburyexperience.co.uk
Updated on November 18, 2021.