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Ancient complex discovered near Stonehenge
Ancient complex discovered near Stonehenge
By Thomas H. Maugh II, Times Staff Writer
3:02 PM PST, January 30, 2007
New DiscoveryArcheologists working near Stonehenge in England have
discovered an ancient religious complex containing a treasure trove
of artifacts that may finally illuminate the lives and religious
practices of the people who built the mysterious monument 4,600 years
ago, British archeologists said Tuesday.
The circle of massive stone blocks on England's Salisbury Plain,
southwest of London, is one of the best known archeological sites in
the world, but researchers know surprisingly little about the people
who built it and who lived in the region.
The new finds, reported at a teleconference organized by the National
Geographic Society, vastly increase our knowledge of these early
Britons, said archeologist Mary Ann Owoc, of Mercyhurst College in
Erie, Penn., who was not involved in the research.
"To see the everyday lives of these people, to see people living in
their houses, is filling in really important gaps in the record," she
said. "We had some evidence, but this is so much richer."
The discoveries are also destined to change the view of how the
ancient people used the site. Stonehenge is typically thought of as a
cemetery and an astronomical observatory that was the site of pagan
celebrations at the summer solstice.
The new finds at Durrington Walls, two miles northeast of the stone
circle, indicate that the entire region was a large religious complex
where the early Britons gathered in midwinter for raucous feasts and
solemn ceremonies before sending their deceased on a voyage to the
While Stonehenge was a monument to the dead, the village at
Durrington Walls was "very much a place of the living," said
archeologist Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, who led the
team along with archeologist Julian Thomas of Manchester University.
Archeologists already knew there was a henge a circular banked
enclosure with an internal ditch at Durrington Walls, but the wide
excavations carried out in 2006 throw it in a completely new light.
"Such intensive sub-surface research has never been attempted on this
scale before" near Stonehenge, said archeologist Ruth Tringham of UC
The henge, about 1,400 feet in diameter, enclosed a series of
concentric rings of huge timber posts. The team now knows that the
posts mimicked Stonehenge in all particulars save one its
Stonehenge is aligned with sunrise at the summer solstice and sunset
at the winter solstice. The henge at Durrington Walls is the exact
opposite, aligned with sunrise at the winter solstice and sunset at
the summer solstice.
The evidence from the houses indicates that there was a massive mid-
winter celebration marking the solstice to complement the summer
celebration at Stonehenge.
The team excavated eight houses at the site and magnetic anomalies
indicate that there are at least 25 more nearby, Pearson said. "My
guess is that there are many more than that," he said. In fact, the
entire valley appears to have been densely populated, he said.
The relatively flimsy wattle and daub walls of the houses are long
gone. What remains are the densely packed clay floors. "These are the
first ones we have found with intact clay floors from this period,"
"The houses are virtually square, no bigger than the average sitting
room about 14 feet by 14 feet," he said.
They feature a central fireplace, an oval hearth sunk into the floor.
Slight indentations around the walls mark the location of timber
fittings for box beds and a dresser that stood opposite the door.
The houses are virtually identical, he said, to a few houses
previously discovered at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands off the
northern tip of Scotland. Those houses, from the same period, were
constructed of stone because the islands had been deforested.
Durrington Walls "is either the richest site or the filthiest that we
have ever found for this period," Pearson said. "It's absolutely
stuffed full of trash or rubbish: broken pots, chips, flints, burned
stones used for cooking and animal bones. Many were thrown away half
eaten, a sign of conspicuous consumption. This is an enormous
feasting assemblage. People were here to have a really good time."
Significantly, there was no evidence for the processing of grain or
baking it and little evidence of crafts. "This was not a full-time,
year-round community, but one for specialized activities."
Owoc noted that people during this period tended to move from place
to place as the seasons changed. It was not until the period 1700 BC
to 1200 BC that they began to settle down in walled towns.
Teeth from pigs found at the site indicated that the animals were
about 9-months-old when they were slaughtered. Assuming the animals
were farrowed in the spring, that would place the celebration near
the winter solstice. Arrowheads embedded in the pigs suggested that
there were archery and other competitions before the feast.
Farther out toward the rims of the henge on a terrace overlooking it,
the team found more buildings. These were the same size as the
others, but were not as closely packed and each was surrounded by its
own bank and ditch. Most important, they were swept clean.
"These may have been special people, perhaps chiefs, living in
seclusion," Thomas said. Or maybe the cleanliness suggests that these
were not houses at all, but shrines or cult centers, he said. "The
contrast is really fascinating."
As the timber posts in the henge rotted away, he added, people dug
out the holes and placed deposits of animal bones, pottery and stone
tools. "They were creating an architecture of memory, a commemoration
of what had been there. This was clearly a place of enormous
importance that was remembered over a long period of time."
Finally, the team unearthed a broad roadway or avenue that led from
the settlement to the Avon River. The avenue was 90 feet wide and 510
feet long and virtually identical to an avenue at Stonehenge, except
for the length. At the river, however, there was a near-vertical drop
of about 12 feet.
"This is some kind of ceremonial roadway, and we know many people
used it because it was flattened by the trampling of many feet,"
He speculated that after the feasting, the gathered crowd would
proceed down the avenue and drop the bodies of the deceased, or their
ashes, into the river. Especially important people were cremated and
their remains taken down the river and buried at Stonehenge. At least
250 burials are known to have occurred there.
That religious interpretation "is more speculative, but pretty
interesting," said archeologist Curtis N. Runnels of Boston
University, editor of the Journal of Field Archaeology. "It will
create quite a bit of discussion in the field."
The research was sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the
Arts & Humanities Research Council, English Heritage and Wessex