Fresh archeological evidence suggests Britain's most famous ancient monument, Stonehenge, was used for executions or religious rituals 1,500 years or more after the site was thought to have been abandoned.
The discovery suggests the 4,500-year-old Stone Age temple may have retained some of its religious or symbolic importance for twice as long as archeologists have previously thought.
Until now, Stonehenge's link with the ancient Iron Age Celtic priesthood, the Druids, has been dismissed by scholars. But new evidence announced by a British archeologist yesterday suggests the Druids may well have been active at the temple. Alternatively, the place may have evolved into an Anglo-Saxon execution ground.
The reassessment follows the discovery that Stonehenge was used for human execution or sacrifice some time in the first millennium, more than 1,500 years later than the temple was thought to have gone out of use.
The skeletal remains of an apparent victim have been examined by a leading Stonehenge expert, Michael Pitts, who reveals his discoveries in a new book, Hengeworld, to be published later this month.
The bones, which date from between 100 BC and 1000 AD, were first unearthed in 1923 and stored in London's British Museum, where they were thought to have been destroyed in the Nazi Blitz in 1941.
Nearly 60 years later, Mr. Pitts rediscovered the skeleton in London's Natural History Museum. It was not clear when or how the remains were transferred between museums, or why they had gone unnoticed for so long.
Forensic research on the bones revealed the male victim was about 35 years old and 1.6 metres tall, and was beheaded by a sharp sword.
"Why he was executed is not known," the government conservation body English Heritage said in a statement yesterday.
There are at least three possible scenarios as to the victim's identity. Carbon dating of the bones, the results of which are expected in about a month, will help determine which is correct.
One possibility is that the man was a native British Celt, perhaps a Druid, who was executed by the Romans for resisting their conquest and occupation, in or after the Romans landed in 43 AD.
The second scenario sees the beheaded individual as a sacrificial victim, killed by Druids after the Roman invasion to appease the gods and bring victory to the Britons. Or the skeleton might be that of an Anglo-Saxon criminal, probably executed some time in the eighth to 10th centuries.