90 original slabs of Stonehenge, researchers have long known, were carefully placed to align with the rising and setting of the sun during the summer and winter solstices.
By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007; A01
New excavations near the mysterious circle at Stonehenge in southern England have uncovered dozens of homes where hundreds of people lived -- at roughly the same time that the giant stone slabs were being erected 4,600 years ago.
The finding strongly suggests that the monument and the settlement nearby were a center for ceremonial activities, with Stonehenge probably a burial site, while other nearby circular earthen and timber "henges" were devoted to feasts and festivals.
The small homes and personal items found beneath the grounds of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site are the first of their kind from that late Stone Age period in Britain, and they suggest a surprising level of social organization and ceremonial behavior to complement the massive stonework nearby. The excavators said their discoveries, about two miles from Stonehenge itself, together constitute an archaeological treasure.
"This is evidence that clarifies the site's true purpose," said Michael Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, one of the main researchers. "We have found that Stonehenge itself was just half of a larger complex," one used by indigenous Britons whose beliefs centered on ancestor and sun worship.
The roughly 90 original slabs of Stonehenge, researchers have long known, were carefully placed to align with the rising and setting of the sun during the summer and winter solstices. The new research, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, concludes that the larger wood and earthen circle about two miles away featured concentric rings of timber posts aligned to mark the solstice in reverse. That monument, called Durrington Walls, was in line with sunset at the summer solstice, while Stonehenge was aligned with the sun's rise on that day.
In addition, last summer's excavation -- undertaken by a team of 100 archaeologists from universities around Britain -- uncovered an avenue 100 feet wide that led from the second circle to the River Avon. That mirrors a similar, but considerably longer, wide path downstream at Stonehenge, leading the team to conclude that the sites were connected, most likely as part of funerary rituals.
That finding, said Parker Pearson, is supported by the earlier discovery of cremated remains at Stonehenge and new work indicating that as many as 250 cremated bodies are buried there. It is supported by the layout of the Durrington Walls avenue, which leads from the giant circle down to a small cliff along 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. Stonehenge, he said, "was our biggest cemetery of that time."
The researchers said that recent carbon dating has fixed the time of Stonehenge's construction at between 2640 and 2480 B.C. with 95 percent probability -- around the time that Egyptians were constructing the giant pyramid of Giza. As with the pyramid, the building of Stonehenge was a remarkable engineering feat that involved moving huge stones weighing many tons for up to several hundred miles.
The six newly excavated houses within the Durrington Walls were dated to the same period, Parker Pearson said, leading the team to conclude that they housed the men and women who worked on the structures, and people who came to the site for ceremonies.
Each house was about 16 feet by 16 feet, had a central hearth, and showed indentations on the floor that suggest the past presence of furniture and wooden box beds. All of the houses were littered with debris, including tools, jewelry, pottery, and human and animal bones. The only other similar houses from the Neolithic, or late Stone Age, period found in the region are on the Orkney Islands, off northern Scotland.
Two other ancient clay floors were found on a slightly elevated section within Durrington Walls, but they were different in a potentially significant way -- they were entirely cleared of human debris. Another leader of the excavation team, Julian Thomas of the University of Manchester, said they may have been the homes of tribal leaders or wise women, or perhaps temples for ancestor and sun worship.
The eight floors were identified through a survey with magnetometers -- which detect unusual magnetic patterns underground -- that located the hearths. The survey suggested that hundreds of additional undiscovered homes are scattered through the area, the researchers said.
Among the remains found at the Durrington Walls site are those of domesticated pigs surrounded by arrowheads -- suggesting a mid-winter festival and feast. Whereas the Durrington circle was an area for living, Thomas said, Stonehenge appears to have been a monument to the ancestors.
Earlier Stonehenge investigators theorized that the structure was built by Celts, Gauls, or even Egyptians. But the current team said the builders appear to have been indigenous, migratory Britons who used the upland site for only part of the year. There was, however, at least one exception: Parker Pearson said that one of the cremated remains at Stonehenge is thought to be of a man from the foothills of the Alps.
While the main construction at Stonehenge is dated to the period of 2600 to 2500 B.C., the site had already been used for ceremonial purposes for several hundred years. It remains unclear how long the site remained in use, but the new excavation found that bones, tools and other items had been planted in the holes where the Durrington Walls timber posts once stood and rotted away. Parker Pearson said they may have been offerings in memory of the grand henge that once stood there.
The current Stonehenge Riverside excavation project began in 2003 and focuses on the entirety of the Stonehenge World Heritage site, about 100 miles southwest of London. The project will continue through 2010.
New excavations near Stonehenge have uncovered hearths, timbers and other remains of what archaeologists say was probably the village of workers who erected the monoliths on Salisbury Plain in England.
The archaeologists announced yesterday that the 4,600-year-old ruins appear to form the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain. The houses at the site known as Durrington Walls were constructed in the same period that Stonehenge, less than two miles away, was built as a religious center, presumably for worshipers of the sun and for their ancestors.
Mike Parker Pearson, a leader of the excavations from the University of Sheffield, said the discoveries last summer supported the emerging recognition that the ring of standing stones and earthworks at Stonehenge was part of a much larger religious complex.
In a telephone conference conducted by the National Geographic Society, Dr. Parker Pearson said a circle of ditches and earthen banks at Durrington Walls enclosed concentric rings of huge timber posts, “basically a wooden version of Stonehenge.”
The excavations exposed not only the timber circle but also a roadway paved with stone leading to the Avon River, about 500 feet away, which was similar to a river road from Stonehenge. The evidence, Dr. Parker Pearson said, “shows us these two monuments were complementary” and that “Stonehenge was just one-half of a larger complex.”
The project, begun in 2003, is exploring the wider landscape of the Stonehenge World Heritage site, about 100 miles southwest of London. The research is directed by six British universities and financed in part by National Geographic.
Over the years, Stonehenge has inspired a wide range of conjecture, though it is now assumed that this was a place of worship that seemed to be related to solar cults. A decade ago, improved radiocarbon tests dated the first constructions at Stonehenge to between 2600 B.C. and 2400 B.C., more than 600 years earlier than previous estimates. The houses at Durrington have been dated to between 2600 B.C. and 2500 B.C.
Eight houses were discovered last September in part of the site, and a broad survey detected traces of many more buried over a wide area, the archaeologists said. Each house, made from sticks woven together and crushed chalk, was no bigger than 14 to 16 feet square and had a hard clay floor and a central fireplace. Indentations in the floor were interpreted as postholes and slots that once anchored wooden furniture.
The occupants were a messy lot, the excavators concluded. Debris of broken pots and jars and animal bones was everywhere. Some of the people may have been builders of Stonehenge, the archaeologists surmised, and others may have been pilgrims to the sacred complex whose worship included lively feasting.
By contrast, Julian Thomas of the University of Manchester found neater house remains in a western part of the Durrington site. The two excavated so far were small, neat structures, each surrounded by its own ditch and wood palisade and set apart from others in the vicinity. At least three other such structures are probably buried nearby.
Dr. Thomas offered two possible interpretations in the telephone news conference. Those dwellings may have been the homes of special people, chiefs or priests. Or their cleanliness may mark them as not living quarters at all, but places set aside as shrines and cult centers.
Scholars and other archaeologists not involved with the project reserved judgment on the ramifications of the findings. But Drs. Parker Pearson and Thomas emphasized the importance of the Durrington roadway in understanding the two sites’ intimate connection.
They said the road was paved with flint and led straight from the Durrington enclosure to the Avon. A similar road at Stonehenge, discovered in the 18th century, is aligned with the summer solstice sunrise, the archaeologists noted, while the one at Durrington lines up with the summer solstice sunset. Similarly, the Durrington timber circle was aligned with winter solstice sunrise, while a giant stone monument at Stonehenge frames the winter solstice sunset.
Venturing into the bumpy field of Stonehenge interpretation, Dr. Parker Pearson suggested that the durable stones of the better-known site were a memorial and final resting place for the dead, and the wood architecture at Durrington Walls symbolized the transience of life. People from all over the region, he said, probably went there to celebrate life and deposit the dead in the river for transport to the afterlife.