Skeleton at Stonehenge poses mysteries: Who was he, why was he executed?
By Erica Michelstein, Associated Press, 06/09/00
LONDON - He could have been a Roman enemy, or an Anglo-Saxon king. He may have lived among the Druids. Archaeologists know he was executed at Stonehenge centuries ago, but virtually nothing about who he was.
They hope new scientific techniques will help them determine the identity of a man whose skeleton was unearthed at Stonehenge in 1923 and then overlooked in storage until recently.
The skeleton, unveiled Friday, provides the first indication of an execution taking place at Stonehenge, according to English Heritage, the agency responsible for the upkeep of many historic monuments.
Other remains found there were of people believed to have been killed in battle or killed elsewhere and buried at the site, Britain's greatest prehistoric monument.
The male skeleton dates anywhere from 100 B.C. to A.D. 1000. Nicks in the jaw and neck vertebrae indicate the man was decapitated from behind by a sharp sword, archaeologists said at a news conference.
When the remains were found in 1923, scientists assumed the man died of natural causes. It was only after they were located in May 1999 in storage at London's Natural History Museum that archaeologists realized he'd been killed.
But while the manner of death is clear, the circumstances surrounding it remain a mystery, they said.
Archaeologist Mike Pitts -- who helped relocate the skeleton -- speculated the man could have been a Druid killed by the Roman army or the victim of a judicial execution.
"Could our man have been a wrongdoer executed for his actions which, as is so often the case for deeds meriting a death sentence, at that time would likely have been a political or religious infringement?" Pitts asked.
The bones had been believed destroyed along with other artifacts during the Blitz in World War II. The skeleton was shipped out of London during the war to keep it safe and was returned without ribs, hands and feet.
It was rediscovered when Pitts started doing research for a book and found a letter in an archive suggesting the skeleton was still in London. On a hunch, he called the Natural History Museum and was told the skeleton was in storage there.
On display Friday, the reddish-yellow bones appeared strong and resembled sandstone, barely showing the nicks that revealed the man's cause of death.
A bone sample is being analyzed using carbon-dating techniques at Oxford University and a tooth is being studied to determine where the man was born.
Only three other complete skeletons have been unearthed at Stonehenge.
David Miles, chief archaeologist at English Heritage, said the skeleton serves as an important reminder that the artifacts some museums hold in storage "are as much of a treasure as what's in the galleries themselves."