A SKELETON, which has been on prominent display in Salisbury Museum for nearly a decade, could hold the secret to Stonehenge's mysterious past and show the site to be an arena of gladiatorial combat, an archaeological expert has claimed.

The skeleton, that of a man who had been killed by arrows in 2,300 BC, was discovered in the ditch surrounding the stones during excavation work, carried out by Professor Richard Atkinson and J.G Evans in 1978.

After being analysed, the skeleton was donated to Salisbury museum, where it has been on display as a key part of the museum's Stonehenge exhibit under the title of "the body from the ditch".

However, Stonehenge expert and former archaeologist with Wessex Archaeology, Dennis Price, believes the skeleton's inauspicious title belies the fact the remains offer tangible proof the site was once used as an ancient arena hosting violent combat sports.

He said: "There is firm evidence of a long-standing tradition of sentinels at Stonehenge going back to when it was originally built in 2,600 BC - and possibly before.

"The function of these individuals was to symbolically guard the temple, but I think they could only be replaced by someone who physically defeated them in a ritual combat.

"I think that remains of one of these Stonehenge Sentinels is on display at Salisbury Museum, where he's currently known as 'the body from the ditch'."

As evidence for this claim, Mr Price points to the fact many of the burial plots found at the site contain a variety of ancient weaponry.

He added: "Many of the barrows surrounding Stonehenge contained weapons such as daggers and maces, and these were extremely violent times.

"Many of the human remains found in the Stonehenge landscape suffered crippling wounds, especially the Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowmen, or other builders of Stonehenge."

Mr Price also points to evidence from a site similar to Stonehenge, located in Italy, as further evidence for his argument gladiatorial combat once took place in south Wiltshire.

He said: "There was a well-recorded murderous ritual at the temple of Diana, at Nemi, in Italy, in Roman times, where a man could become a priest of Diana's temple only by fighting and killing the resident priest.

"There is a striking resemblance between what we know of Stonehenge and Nemi - both sites regularly witnessed the violent death of individual humans, both were linked with archery and with gods or goddesses who were archers, and both have an obvious religious significance."

Director of Salisbury and south Wiltshire Museum, Adrian Green, added: "What I love about Stonehenge is the endless number of stories surrounding the evidence that has been found there.

"Dennis Price's idea that there was a sentinel or guardian of Stonehenge, who could only be replaced through combat to the death, conjures up a harsh image of life more than 4,000 years ago, but it also has a certain romantic quality to it."

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