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Stonehenge Settlement Found: Builders' Homes, "Cult Houses"

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
January 30, 2007
 
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.

Two more dwellings were uncovered away from the main settlement, to the western end of the henge.

Found by Julian Thomas of Manchester University, these additional buildings were surrounded by a timber fence and a substantial ditch.

There is evidence for at least three other such structures in the same area, Thomas said.

"Cult Houses"

The project team says these imposing buildings to the west may have been the homes of chiefs or priests (photo) who lived separately from the rest of the community.

Another theory is that the buildings were used only for rituals, as hardly any trace of household waste has been found inside them.

"They may have been more like shrines or cult houses," Thomas said. People may have gone to them "to invoke the spirits of ancestors" or "to have out-of-body or trance experiences."

The main group of houses were clustered along an impressive stone avenue discovered by the team in 2005.

Measuring some 90 feet (27 meters) wide and 560 feet (170 meters) long, the avenue linked the site of the former massive timber circle at Durrington to the River Avon. The road mirrors a similar avenue at Stonehenge that connects to the Avon downriver of Durrington.

The team says this and other parallels between the two monuments indicate that they formed a much larger religious complex. People moved between the two sites via the river during important ceremonies, the archaeologists suggest.

Stonehenge's avenue, the team notes, is aligned with the summer solstice sunrise. Durrington's avenue lines up with the summer solstice sunset.

Likewise, Stonehenge is aligned with the winter solstice sunset, whereas Durrington's large timber circle was lined up with the winter solstice sunrise.

"Durrington is almost a mirror image of its stone counterpart at Stonehenge," Parker Pearson said. "You can pretty much overlie the plan of Stonehenge on the timber circle and see they're the same dimensions."

After the initial construction of Stonehenge, the Late Stone Age, or Neolithic, village became a place where people stayed during ritual feasts, Parker Pearson believes.

Describing the settlement as a "consumer site," he says its residents weren't involved in usual day-to-day activities.

"There are a few tools for scraping hides and that sort of thing. But it's completely different from any other Neolithic settlement assemblage we've ever looked at before," he said.

Large quantities of pottery fragments and animal bones found at Durrington appear to support this idea. Prehistoric pigs' teeth from the site suggest the animals were slaughtered when they were nine months old, which would put their butchering during the winter solstice period—perhaps just in time for feasting.

Stone Age Party

People came from all over southern Britain "to feast and party," Parker Pearson said.

Ongoing isotope analysis of human teeth recovered from the settlement may show that visitors traveled from even farther afield, he added.

Tests carried out in 2002 on nearby buried human remains from around 2300 B.C. suggested that people from the foothills of European Alps also came to the Stonehenge area.

Parker Pearson says that the latest finds indicate that Durrington and Stonehenge represent the domains of the living and the dead, respectively—Durrington's temporary wooden circle symbolizing life, and Stonehenge's permanent megaliths symbolizing death.

After big feasts at Durrington, he theorizes, worshippers proceeded down the avenue there, depositing human remains in the River Avon. The river then carried the remains downstream to Stonehenge.

"My guess as to what's being thrown in is cremation ashes or human bones or perhaps even whole bodies in cases," Parker Pearson said.

"We think the river is acting like a conduit to the underworld."

Evidence of prehistoric pyres has been found along the course of the river. This suggests that worshippers traveled on foot or by boat to Stonehenge, perhaps to bury their dead, Parker Pearson adds.

"The theory is that Stonehenge is a kind of spirit home to the ancestors," he said.

Stonehenge archaeologist Joshua Pollard, of Bristol University, agrees that there does appear to be a strong link between Neolithic standing stones and the human dead.

"Stonehenge is remarkable for the sheer quantity of human remains buried there," Pollard said.

Manchester University's Thomas is less sure about the exact nature of the ritualistic connection between Durrington and Stonehenge. But he said that their complementary relationship and connection to the River Avon is "immensely important."

"Rather than just focusing on Stonehenge as something in isolation," he said, "we're seeing the way in which it relates to a whole landscape."

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