An analysis of rocks and bones unearthed around Stonehenge supports the claim that the mysterious ancient landmark served as a kind of "Neolithic Lourdes," drawing prehistoric pilgrims from around Europe, two researchers reported Monday.
Professors Geoffrey Wainwright and Timothy Darvill have long suspected that Stonehenge was viewed as a place of healing thousands of years ago, and they said their recent excavation at the site provided new evidence for their hypothesis.
"We found several reasons to believe that the stones were built as part of a belief in a healing process," Wainwright told journalists assembled at London's Society of Antiquaries.
Other researchers have said the stone circle apparently started out as a burial site for ancient kings or chieftains — although they acknowledge that Stonehenge could have taken on additional significance through the centuries, as a sacred place as well as an ancient astronomical observatory. Such a scenario wouldn't necessarily rule out the "healing hypothesis" set forth by Wainwright and Darvill.
The two researchers, who were the first to conduct an excavation at Stonehenge in more than 40 years, said the key to their theory was the site's double circle of bluestones — a rare rock known to geologists as spotted dolomite — which lie at the center of the monument.
Dragged or floated on rafts from Pembrokeshire in Wales to Salisbury Plain in southern England, the bluestones were prized for their healing properties — as evidenced by the small mountain of flakes the scientists uncovered during their dig, Wainwright said.
Pieces of bluestone ended up buried in tombs across the area, a testament to people's fascination with the rocks, Wainwright said.
Proof in the bones
The researchers said the proof was not only in the stones, but also in the bones found around Stonehenge. Skeletons recovered from the area showed signs of serious disease or injury.
"People were in a state of distress, if I can put it as politely as that, when they came to the Stonehenge monument," Darvill said.
The evidence, they said, pointed to a kind of shrine where people from across the Europe would go to seek healing. But they cautioned that that did not rule out alternative theories for Stonehenge's uses.
"It could have been a temple, even as it was a healing center," Darvill said. "Just as Lourdes, for example, is still a religious center."
Indeed, their findings indicated that the Stonehenge site may have been inhabited as long ago as 7200 B.C. Past excavations have indicated that a wooden circle was erected around 3000 B.C., and earlier this year, a different research group reported that remains were buried at the site starting in that same time frame.
‘Amesbury Archer’: A test case
The bluestones came later, however: The latest round of radioisotope dating indicated that the holes for the stones were dug around the year 2300 B.C., which is slightly later than previous estimates.
The BBC noted that the new estimate tied in closely with the date for the burial of the "Amesbury Archer," whose tomb was discovered six years ago near Amesbury, 3 miles (5 kilometers) from Stonehenge.
The Amesbury grave contained arrowheads, gold ornaments, copper knives and other artifacts hinting that the person buried there held high social status. Tests on the remains indicated that he came from the Alps region of continental Europe, that he was between 35 and 45 years old, and that he had suffered from a knee injury and an infected jaw before he died.
Wainwright and Darvill speculated that the Amesbury Archer came to Stonehenge to be healed.
"It's quite extraordinary that the date of the Amesbury Archer is identical with our new date for the bluestones of Stonehenge," Darvill told the BBC. "These two things happening within living memory of each other for sure is something very, very important."
This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.