for National Geographic News
A major prehistoric village has been unearthed near Stonehenge in southern England.
The settlement likely housed the builders of the famous monument, archaeologists say, and was an important ceremonial site in its own right, hosting great "feasts and parties" (see a photo gallery of the Stonehenge village).
Excavations also offer new evidence that a timber circle and a vast earthwork where the village once stood were linked to Stonehenge—via road, river, and ritual. Together, the sites were part of a much larger religious complex, the archaeologists suggest.
(See also: "Stonehenge Didn't Stand Alone, Excavations Show" [January 12, 2007].)
"Stonehenge isn't a monument in isolation. It is actually one of a pair—one in stone, one in timber [animated map showing the sites]," said Mike Parker Pearson, leader of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, a joint initiative run by six English universities and partially funded by the National Geographic Society. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)
The Late Stone Age village—the largest ever found in Britain—was excavated in September 2006 at Durrington Walls, the world's largest known "henge," a type of circular earthwork. A giant timber circle (photo) once stood at Durrington, which is 1.75 miles (2.8 kilometers) from the celebrated circle of standing stones on Salisbury Plain.
At Durrington the archaeologists discovered foundations of houses dating back to 4,600 years ago (photo)—around the time construction began on Stonehenge.
Excavations revealed the remains of eight wooden buildings. Surveys of the landscape have identified up to 30 more dwellings, Parker Pearson said.
"We could have many hundreds of houses here," he added.
The initial stone circle at Stonehenge—the so-called sarsen stones—has been radiocarbon-dated to between 2600 and 2500 B.C.
The dates for the village are "exactly the same time, in radiocarbon terms, as for the building of the sarsens," Parker Pearson said.
Six of the houses so far unearthed measured about 250 square feet (23 square meters) each and had wooden walls and clay floors. Fireplaces and furniture—such as cupboards and beds—could be discerned from their outlines in the earth, Parker Pearson said.
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