LONDON (Reuters) - Stonehenge may have been a burial ground for an ancient royal family, British researchers said on Thursday.
New radiocarbon dates of human remains excavated from the ancient stone monument in southwest England suggest it was used as a cemetery from its inception just after 3000 BC until well after the larger circle of stones went up around 2500 BC.
Previously, archaeologists had believed people were buried at Stonehenge between 2700 and 2600 B.C.
"The hypothesis we are working on is that Stonehenge represents a place of the dead," said Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield, who is leading an excavation of the site. "That seems to be very clear."
"A further twist is that the people buried at Stonehenge may have been the elite of their society, an ancient royal British dynasty, perhaps."
Built between 3000 and 1600 BC as a temple, burial ground, astronomical calendar or all three, the stone circle is sometimes called "Britain's pyramids".
Tourists are drawn to Stonehenge throughout the year and on the summer solstice -- the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere -- up to 30,000 revelers and druids converge on the stones for a night of celebration.
Who built Stonehenge and why is debated among scientists, although growing evidence points to the monument's use as a burial place, Parker Pearson told reporters.
Last year the same researchers found evidence of a large settlement of houses nearby. They said the latest findings reinforced their belief that the settlement and Stonehenge form part of a larger ancient ceremonial complex along the nearby River Avon.
"What we suspect is that the river is the conduit between the two realms of the living and the dead," Parker Pearson said. "It was the prehistoric version of the river Styx."
The team estimates that between 150 to 240 men, women and children were buried at Stonehenge over a 600-year period, making it likely that the relatively low figure over such a long points to a single elite family.
A clue is the few burials in Stonehenge's earliest phase, a number that grows larger in following centuries as offspring would have multiplied, said Andrew Chamberlain, a specialist in ancient demography at the University of Sheffield.
Placement of the graves and artifacts such as a small stone mace are evidence the site was reserved as a "domain of the dead" for the elite, Parker Pearson added.
"I don't think it was the common people getting buried at Stonehenge -- it was clearly a special place at the time," he said. "One has to assume anyone buried there had some good credentials."
Reporting by Michael Kahn; editing by Maggie Fox and Andrew Roche