Thou noblest monument of Albion's isle!
Whether by Merlin's aid, from Scythia's shore,
To Amber's fatal plain Pendragon bore,
Huge frame of giant-hands, the mighty pile
T' entomb his Britons slain by Hengist's guile 21
Execution at Stonehenge in the Anglo-Saxon Period
In the 'Historia Regium Britanniae' (History of the Kings of Britain) c.1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that the British kings Aurelius, Utherpendragon and Constantine son of Cador Duke of Cornwall, were buried within the circle of Stonehenge. Recent archaeology has indicated that the monument may have been a cemetery for an elite group of priest-kings, in concordance with Geoffrey's claims.
Stonehenge was host to many prehistoric cremation burials placed mainly in the Aubrey Holes and the ditch, but there have only been four articulated burials found at the site. Of those only one can be classified as a Dark Age burial, though it must be noted that only the eastern side of Stonehenge has been excavated to date. The skeleton, allocated number 4.10.4 in 1938 by the Royal College of Surgeons, was excavated at Stonehenge in 1923, then lost, believed destroyed in the London bombing of 1941, but relocated in 1999.
On investigating the human remains at Stonehenge Mike Pitts found that much of the Royal College of Surgeons' ancient collection, perhaps as many as 800 individuals, had survived the bombings of the Second World War. Many had been removed from London for safe keeping during the war and then given to the Natural History Museum once hostilities ceased. 22
The grave of 4.10.4, uncovered by chance when Colonel Hawley noticed a hollow sounding patch beneath the turf, during excavations between 1919 and 1926, is one of three more or less complete human skeletons found at Stonehenge by Hawley and all thought lost. The first was found March 1922 in the ring ditch but was discarded by the excavator who felt that 'obviously it was a modern interment' although modern archaeologists might not agree. The third, lying across the central axis inside the stone circle, a significant placing, was found in August 1926, and subsequently lost.
Only one other articulated skeleton has been found at Stonehenge, when in 1978, a man who apparently died from a hail of flint-tipped arrows around 2,300 BC, was found in the ditch. Known today as the Stonehenge Archer, he was buried with a stone 'bracer' or archer's wristguard, and three flint arrowheads. It appears he did not die peacefully; the arrowheads were embedded in his ribs and breastbone. Debate continues as to whether he was a ritual sacrifice or a murder victim. 23
The excavator, William Hawley, initially believed the skeleton 4.10.4 to be of Neolithic date owing to the grave fill, described as 'earthy' which contained no artefacts or stone fragments. Hawley had identified a horizon of debris which he considered was the result of stone dressing, which blanketed most of the site. Anything found beneath this 'Stonehenge Layer' he ascribed to a date before the stones arrived. However, skeleton 4.10.4 had initially been dated to about 150 AD, the Romano-British period. Richard Atkinson favoured a later date due the nature of the body's extended attitude and the somewhat casual disposal that, he argued, indicated a date not earlier than the Romano-British period. 24
In 'Stonehenge in its Landscape', a study of 20th century excavations, the authors' reverted to Hawley's original argument; the lack of debris in the grave fill indicating an early date in the site's history, i.e. before the interior became littered with Stone fragments.25 However, there appear to be two major periods of stone wrecking which probably started in prehistory up to the Roman period and then from the Middle Ages, c.1250 AD to the 20th century. The lack of stone debris in the grave fill suggests the burial was during a hiatus between these times, post-Roman but pre-Conquest. 26
A second test returned a date of about 760 AD, the mid Anglo-Saxon period. Recent study of the bones confirms they represent a man from the Anglo-Saxon era. Re-testing of samples from the remains has resulted in a revised date range of 640–690 AD. 27
Execution or Sacrifice?
An initial examination of the skeletal remains identified traumatic spinal lesions. Later, a full examination revealed a cut through the fourth cervical vertebra which had clipped the left mandible: the man had been decapitated; the blow intended to remove the head with a single cut from the rear-right side. The single, clean cut must have been made with a sharp, narrow but relatively robust blade, cutting through the right handside of the spinal column. The assailant must have been standing behind the victim. Although the single blow does not appear to have removed the head completely the victim would have died instantly in what appears to have been an act of execution rather than as a sacrifice.
The absence of grave goods suggests that the Stonehenge corpse was stripped before burial as is often the case with executions. The position of the hands is not recorded, but some decapitations from later Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries have the hands tied, either behind the back or to the front. He was between 28 – 32 years of age and about about 5ft 4 inches tall. Analysis of isotopes from a tooth revealed he was not an ethnic Anglo-Saxon but born in central southern England.
The corpse had been forced into a shallow pit not quite long enough to accommodate it, forcing the partially attached head forward on top of the chest. The grave aligned east north-east/west south-west with the head thought to be at the easterly end, although Hawley did not record its position. The grave was sited on the south-east side of the stone circle, near the South Barrow, between the ditch and the sarsen circle, close to 'Y' Hole 9. 28 Hawley noted that circular sides of postholes at either end of the grave which were probably responsible for the restricted size of the pit. Hawley thought these may have formed part of a gallows, supporting a cross-beam, but they appear to align with a series of timber post holes coming in from the southern entrance to the monument and therefore are probably prehistoric in origin.29
Furthermore, if the victim had been hung by the neck until dead on a gallows then why perform decapitation post-mortem? Ten per cent of Roman burials have been found with the head removed, the skull often found between the legs or feet. Theories vary, but decapitation may have been performed to prevent their spirit walking the earth. In such cases the head seems to have been cut off from the front with a sharp blade in a sawing motion. The Stonehenge skeleton had been struck from behind whilst standing, or more likely kneeling, with one single blow, probably from a Saxon broadsword.
Execution by decapitation was rare in the late Anglo-Saxon period. The earliest West Saxon laws of King Ine of Wessex (688-725) prescribe hanging and the striking off of hands and feet for various offences. A further clause notes that a person 'travelling off the highway' might be slain; a term better suited to the sword rather than the gallows. However, drawings from Late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts show decapitation scenes and in each case the instrument used is a sword. 30
The Stonehenge execution burial is significant as one of the earliest known located both at a prehistoric monument and in a boundary zone. Apart from the Stonehenge example, decapitations are not recorded from Wiltshire between the 5th and 7th centuries; this may in part be due to the limited number excavated. However, it is known that prehistoric monuments were re-used or funerary purposes as early as the 5th century, becoming widespread by the 7th century. Execution burials are known at Sutton Hoo from 7th century origins, but their relationship to prehistoric remains there is uncertain. Several barrows have been found to possess secondary internments from the Saxon era and the attraction of Stonehenge is obvious. Yet, despite one or two 9th or even 10th century AD occurrences the practice is very rare beyond the late 7th and early 8th centuries.
The Stonehenge victim seems a rare execution, and indeed unique at the monument. Was he someone special?
It would have been quite fitting for the legendary Saxon leader Hengist to have been beheaded at the Giant's Dance, the very place he had the British princes murdered, but Geoffrey of Monmouth records his execution further north. On Aurelius's return from exile in Brittany with a force of Armorican Britons the Saxon's retreated across the Humber. Hengist marched to meet Aurelius at the field called Maisbeli; Geoffrey does not offer a location. On being routed by the British and Armorican forces, Hengist fled to the castle of 'Kaerconan,' which Geoffrey states is now called 'Cunungeburg', identified as Conisbrough, 5 miles south-west of Doncaster, South Yorkshire. The present 13th century castle, situated on on the summit of a circular hill with walls 15 feet thick, is said to be of British origin. A detachment of Armorican cavalry ensured the Britons victory. Hengist was captured and beheaded by Eldol, Duke of Gloucester outside the city where a mound was raised over his body. A tumulus at Conisbrough has long been believed to mark Hengest's grave.31
At one time it was thought that Hengist was buried at the Bronze Age barrow cemetery on the promontory at Hengistbury Head, at Christchurch harbour, the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Stour on the south coast near Bourenmouth. However, the tumuli at Hengistbury Head have been dated to the Bronze Age. Excavations of eleven of the barrows failed to reveal any Anglo-Saxon era intrusions.
|Murder at Stonehenge|
As we saw in the introduction, Henry of Huntingdon provided the earliest written reference to Stonehenge in his History of the English, 'Historia Anglorum', c.1130 AD, calling the monument “Stanenges,” usually interpreted as a description of hanging or suspended stones, or possibly derived from the the Saxon word 'hengen' meaning a gallows.
However, the late 16th century English antiquarian William Camden informs us that the true Saxon name appears to be “Stan-Hengest,” the Stones of Hengist, and not 'Stan-henge,' as in hanging stones.33
It is argued that “hanging-stones” would have been expressed by the Saxon word "Hengestanas.” Indeed, Stonehenge is called "Stanhengest" by Simon of Abingdon, in his 12th century Chronicle of the Monastery, and that it was so designated, not because Hengist slaughtered the British Nobles there; but because he ended his days there, “......solemnly immolated to the vengeance of the successors of the Druids." 34
Evidently, Geoffrey was not aware of the Saxon execution at Stonehenge and it was omitted from his story; no doubt he would have maximised the tale of Hengist being executed at the Giant's Dance in revenge for the slaughter of the British nobles had he known of it. But as we have seen he has Hengist beheaded and buried near Conisbrough, not far from Doncaster in South Yorkshire.
Yet again we seem to be treading on a remarkable series of coincidences. But, as to Stonehenge, it appears Geoffrey was unaware of a Dark Age execution at the monument, as is the folklore of the monument; but as for the Giant's Dance cemetery, incredibly, he must have been following a much older tradition; a survival from prehistoric times?
Copyright © 2013 Edward Watson
Notes & References:
21. Written at Stonehenge by Thomas Warton the younger, 1777
22. Mike Pitts, Hengeworld, Arrow, 2001.
23. Mike Pitts et al, An Anglo-Saxon Decapitation and Burial at Stonehenge, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine, vol. 95 (2002), pp. 131-46.
24. Richard Atkinson, Stonehenge, Penguin, revised edition, 1990.
25. Cleal et al, Stonehenge in its Landscape, English Heirtage 1995, pp.267-8.
26. Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, Stonehenge Excavations 2008, The Antiquaries Journal, 89, 2009, pp.1–19.
27. D Hamilton, M Pitts and A Reynolds, A revised date for the early medieval execution at Stonehenge. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine (Wiltshire Studies, 2007) 100, pp.202 – 203.
28. The Y and Z Holes are two rings of concentric (though irregular) circuits of near identical pits cut around the outside of the Sarsen Circle at Stonehenge. It is thought that the holes had never held uprights of either stone or timber. Richard Atkinson suggested that they had been intended to house bluestones. They appear to be the last construction activity at the site.
29. Mike Pitts et al, op.cit.
31. Historia Regium Britanniae, Book VIII, Chp 7.
Lewis Thorpe, Introduction and Translator, The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Penguin Classics, 1973.
32. Stuart Piggott,The Sources of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Antiquity 15, 1941, pp.305-19.
33. William Camden, on Wiltshire in Britannia, 1610.
34. William Long, Stonehenge and its Barrows, published by Devizes in 1876 from the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, vol. Xvi.
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