An Ancient Settlement Is Unearthed Near Stonehenge

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

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.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company