Thursday, February 01, 2007
Neolithic Settlement of Stonehenge Builders Found (+Video)
Archaeology: Archaeologists at the University of Sheffield have unearthed a huge settlement at Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge, confirming that the Stonehenge monument was part of a larger ritual centre [center].
The excavations reveal 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 Salisbury Plain.
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 or new stone age village ever found in Britain.
The discoveries help confirm a theory that Stonehenge did not stand in isolation but was part of a much larger religious complex used for funerary ritual. 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 450 metres 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 the Stonehenge Riverside Project, led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson  from the University of Sheffield and five other archaeologists from the UK. Six of the floors were found well-preserved. Each house once measured about 5 metres square and had a clay floor and central hearth. The team found 4,600-year-old debris strewn across floors, postholes and slots, which once anchored wooden furniture that had disintegrated long ago.
In a separate area inside the western part of Durrington henge, the team discovered two other Neolithic houses, each surrounded by a timber fence and a substantial ditch. Isolated from the others, these houses may have been dwellings of community leaders, chiefs or priests living separately from the rest of the community. Or, because of the nearly complete lack of household waste typically found in such houses, the archaeologists speculate that they may have been shrines or cult houses used for rituals, 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 30 metres wide and 170 metres 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.
Professor Parker Pearson now believes that Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were intimately connected. He said: "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."
He added: "This discovery at Durrington Walls sheds light on the actual purpose of Stonehenge and shows that it wasn't a monument in isolation but part of a larger complex.
"It is vital in our understanding of Stonehenge and paves the way for further investigation at the site in the summer and hopefully more remarkable finds."
Source: University of Sheffield News Release "Sheffield archaeologists unearth huge settlement at Stonehenge" 31 January 2007
Mike Parker Pearson ("These are people who knew how to party!") is interviewed for CNN/National Geographic:
The full National Geographic report can be seen at "Video: Stonehenge Builders' Village -- An Inside Look"
 From Mike Parker Pearson's homepage:
"In 1998 my Malagasy colleague Ramilisonina and I visited Stonehenge and Avebury and developed a new theory about the purpose of these and other stone circles in Britain. Our story is told in Mike Pitts' book Hengeworld (Arrow Books 2000) and Francis Pryor's book Britain BC (Harper Collins 2003). The theory has a number of implications which can be investigated through fieldwork; one of these is that Stonehenge was linked via 'avenues' and the River Avon to a Neolithic monument with timber circles at Durrington Walls (and Woodhenge) as part of a larger complex in which the passage from wood to stone acted as a metaphor for the conduct of funerary rites and ancestor ceremonies along the axis of the river."
Also see the 2004 and 2005 Stonehenge Riverside Project Interim Reports via the Research/Stonehenge link on Mike Parker Pearson's homepage. Excerpt from the 2005 Report:
An unexpected discovery came with the investigation of a prone sarsen stone at Bulford (SU 175 431), just 2 miles to the east on the other bank of the Avon. The 2.8m-long Bulford stone lies within a ring ditch just north of a large cemetery of round barrows. Resistivity survey identified the course of the ring ditch and located further anomalies within it. The ring ditch's eastern half was excavated to reveal the base of a hole in which the sarsen had once stood. On its west side, the stone hole was flanked by a line of small post holes which are interpreted as having held anti-friction posts to enable the stone to be erected from the east side with minimal difficulty. Such posts are well known from excavations of stone holes at Avebury (Video - read info on how to rotate the view). To the immediate east of this stone hole there was a shallow pit filled with a cairn of broken flint nodules and sarsen flakes. The shape of the pit mirrors that of the stone and is most likely the base of the hole from which the sarsen was extracted in prehistory and raised vertically in the adjacent stone hole just 2m away. This would indicate that sarsens were distributed over Salisbury Plain as well as the Marlborough Downs 20 miles to the north.
Issue 73 of British Archaeology (November 2003) contains "The Stonehenge Lasershow":
Laser technology might not be the first thing that pops into one's mind when thinking about archaeology. However, an increasing number of archaeologists are adopting lasers as efficient measuring devices. It is still early days, but already one process known as 'laser scanning' enables the recording of sensitive objects from our past more accurately than ever before, without physical contact. The results are high-resolution, digital 3-dimensional (3D) models for analysis, interpretation and display.
Last summer, late evening passers-by at Stonehenge might have seen a group of people carrying a strange array of futuristic-looking boxes, cables and computer equipment towards the monument. One onlooker peering through the fence, perhaps noticing the number of long-haired archaeologists, asked if the Stonehenge festival rock band Hawkwind would be playing amongst the stones.
The first discovered and best-known Bronze Age carvings at the site are the dagger and axehead found by Richard Atkinson in 1953, on the inner face of Stone 53, one of the imposing Trilithon sarsens. Existing records show about 13 other axes on the same stone, some very hard to see. About 26 axes have been claimed on the outer face of sarsen Stone 4, and three on the outer face of Stone 3, both in the stone circle. Known axes vary from 8 to 36 cm long. (Continued)
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