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Huge settlement unearthed near Stonehenge

Jan. 30, 2007
Courtesy National Geographic
and World Science staff

Ex­ca­va­tions near Eng­land’s vast Stone­henge rock mon­u­ment have re­vealed an enor­mous an­cient set­tle­ment that once housed hun­dreds, ar­chae­o­lo­gists said Tue­day. They say the hous­es were prob­ab­ly con­structed and oc­cu­pied by the builders of near­by Stone­henge—the leg­end­ary, mys­ter­ious circle of mas­sive stones on Eng­land’s Salis­bury Plain. 

The Sun shin­ing through the Stone­henge mon­u­ment. Sun­rise and sun­set on the sum­mer and win­ter sol­stices—the long­est and short­est days of the year res­pect­ively—were the key times when the Sun would shine through the mon­u­ment. (Cour­te­sy centennialofflight.gov)


“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 were dat­ed to 2600-2500 B.C., the same pe­ri­od Stone­henge rose—one rea­son the re­search­ers con­cluded the occu­pants erec­ted Stone­henge. The homes would form the larg­est Neo­lithic, or late-Stone Age, vil­lage ev­er found in Brit­ain; a few si­m­i­lar Ne­o­lith­ic hous­es have been found in the Ork­ney Is­lands off Scot­land. 

Par­ker Pear­son said the dis­cov­er­ies help con­firm a the­o­ry that Stone­henge didn’t stand alone but was part of a much larg­er re­li­gious com­plex used for fu­ner­ary rit­u­al. The set­tle­ment was found at Dur­ring­ton Walls, a part of this com­plex that is some 1,400 feet across and en­closes a se­ries of con­cen­tric rings of huge tim­ber posts, he said. On­ly small ar­eas of Dur­ring­ton Walls, lo­cat­ed less than two miles from better-known Stone­henge, have been in­ves­t­i­gated by ar­chae­o­lo­gists.

Par­ker Pear­son ar­gues 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, arch­aeo­lo­gists said, while Stone­henge’s gi­ant tri­lith­on—a struc­ture of three stones—framed the mid­win­ter sol­stice sun­set. 

Eight of the hous­es’ re­mains were ex­ca­vat­ed in Sep­tem­ber in the Stone­henge Riv­er­side Proj­ect, led by Par­ker Pear­son and five oth­er U.K. ar­chae­o­lo­gists. 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, long since dis­in­te­grat­ed.

Dur­ring­ton, Par­ker Pear­son be­lieves, drew peo­ple from all over the re­gion. They 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, at­test to this idea, he said.

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 re­search­ers pro­posed.

Dur­ring­ton ap­pears “very much a place of the liv­ing,” said Par­ker Pear­son. 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. The find­ings of the new re­search, fund­ed by the Na­tion­al Geo­graphic So­ciety, were an­nounced in a te­le­con­f­er­ence on Tues­day.


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Excavations near England’s vast Stonehenge rock monument have revealed an enormous ancient settlement that once housed hundreds, archaeo logists reported Tueday. They believe the houses were constructed and occupied by the builders of nearby Stonehenge, the legendary monument on England’s Salisbury Plain. “The whole valley appears full of houses,” said archaeo logist 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 thing that led the researchers to conclude that the people who lived in the houses, also built 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 settlement was found at Durrington Walls, a part of this complex that 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 invest igated by archaeo logists. Parker Pearson argues 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. Eight of the houses’ remains were excavated in September in the Stonehenge Riverside Project, led by Parker Pearson and five other U.K. archaeo logists. 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. Durrington, Parker Pearson 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, attest to this idea, he said. 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. 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.