Excavations supported by National Geographic at Durrington Walls in the Stonehenge World Heritage site have revealed an enormous ancient settlement that once housed hundreds of people. Archaeologists believe the houses were constructed and occupied by the builders of nearby Stonehenge, the legendary monument on England's Salisbury Plain.
"English Heritage's magnetometry survey had detected dozens of hearths -- the whole valley appears full of houses," said archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson of the U.K.'s Sheffield University. "In what were houses, we have excavated the outlines on the floors of box beds and wooden dressers or cupboards."
The houses have been radiocarbon dated to 2600-2500 B.C., the same period Stonehenge was built -- one of the facts that leads the archaeologists to conclude that the people who lived in the Durrington Walls houses were responsible for constructing Stonehenge. The houses form the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain; a few similar Neolithic houses have been found in the Orkney Islands off Scotland.
Parker Pearson said the discoveries this season help confirm a theory that Stonehenge did not stand in isolation but was part of a much larger religious complex used for funerary ritual.
The complex's Durrington Walls is the world's largest known henge -- an enclosure with a bank outside it and a ditch inside, usually thought to be ceremonial. It is some 1,400 feet across and encloses a series of concentric rings of huge timber posts. Only small areas of Durrington Walls, located less than two miles from better-known Stonehenge, have been investigated by archaeologists.
Eight of the houses' remains were excavated in September 2006 in the Stonehenge Riverside Project, led by Parker Pearson and five other archaeologists from Britain. Six of the floors were found well-preserved. Each house once measured about 16 feet square and had a clay floor and central hearth. The team found 4,600-year-old debris strewn across floors, postholes and slots that once anchored wooden furniture that had disintegrated long ago.
In a separate area inside the western part of Durrington henge, team member Julian Thomas of Manchester University discovered two other Neolithic houses, each surrounded by a timber fence and a substantial ditch; at least three other such structures probably exist in the same area. Isolated from the others, these houses may have been dwellings of community leaders, chiefs or priests living separately from the rest of the community, Thomas theorized. Or, because of the nearly complete lack of household trash typically found in such houses, he speculates that they may have been shrines or cult houses used for ritual, unoccupied except for a fire kept burning inside.
The rest of the houses are clustered on both sides of an imposing stone-surfaced avenue some 90 feet wide and 560 feet long, found in 2005 and further excavated by the team in 2006. The avenue connects remains of a colossal timber circle with the River Avon. Existence of the avenue, which mirrors one at nearby Stonehenge, indicates people once moved between the two monuments via the river. Discovery of the avenue has helped the team piece together the purpose of the entire Stonehenge complex.
Parker Pearson now believes that Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were intimately connected: Durrington's purpose was to celebrate life and deposit the dead in the river for transport to the afterlife, while Stonehenge was a memorial and even final resting place for some of the dead. Stonehenge's avenue, discovered in the 18th century, is aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise, while the Durrington avenue lines up with midsummer solstice sunset. Similarly, the Durrington timber circle was aligned with midwinter solstice sunrise, while Stonehenge's giant stone trilithon framed the midwinter solstice sunset.
Durrington, he believes, drew Neolithic people from all over the region, who came for massive midwinter feasts, where prodigious quantities of food were consumed. Abundant animal bones and pottery, in quantities unparalleled elsewhere in Britain at the time, are testament to this idea. Examination of pig teeth from the site showed the animals to be about nine months old when they were killed, suggesting that the feasts took place in midwinter.
After feasting, Parker Pearson theorizes, the people traveled down the avenue to deposit their dead in the River Avon flowing towards Stonehenge. They then moved along Stonehenge Avenue to the monument, where they would cremate and bury a selected few of their dead. Stonehenge was a place for these people, who worshipped their ancestors, to commune with the spirits of those who had died.
The Durrington avenue leads to a cliff over the river. "My guess is that they were throwing ashes, human bones and perhaps even whole bodies into the water, a practice seen in other river settings," Parker Pearson said.
Parker Pearson and Thomas believe Durrington Walls was built in wood because, both symbolically and practically, it was deliberately intended to gradually rot away. Stone was chosen for Stonehenge, however, as a lasting monument to the ancestors.
Durrington appears "very much a place of the living," Parker Pearson said. In contrast, no one ever lived at the stone circle at Stonehenge, which was the largest cemetery in Britain of its time: Stonehenge is thought to contain 250 cremations.
Work in 2006 at nearby Woodhenge, immediately south of Durrington Walls, by team member Joshua Pollard of Bristol University, revealed that original wood posts within the henge had been replaced by stone after the posts decayed. Simultaneous investigations by Colin Richards of Manchester University into stoneworking debris northwest of Stonehenge helped pave the way for future work there.
Directors of the Stonehenge Riverside Project are Mike Parker Pearson (Sheffield), Julian Thomas (Manchester), Joshua Pollard (Bristol), Colin Richards (Manchester), Chris Tilley of University College London and Kate Welham of the University of Bournemouth. The project is run by the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Bournemouth, Bristol, University College London and Cambridge.
It is funded by the National Geographic Society and the Arts & Humanities Research Council, with support from English Heritage and Wessex Archaeology.
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