Suburb of Stonehenge: Ritual village found near famed rock site

Excavations in southern England of a village dating to 4,600 years ago are transforming archaeologists’ notions about the function of nearby Stonehenge, the legendary set of massive stones that people positioned on Salisbury Plain around the same time.

VILLAGE REBIRTH. Excavations in England reveal clay floors of prehistoric houses at a site that may have been occupied by the builders of Stonehenge. One work area, floor at upper right, cuts across the remains of a road that ran to a nearby river. A. Stanford/Aerial-Cam for National Geographic

Researchers led by Michael Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield in England suspect that the same community built both the village and Stonehenge as parts of a religious complex devoted to the dead. “We think we’re looking at a village that was occupied by the builders of Stonehenge,” Parker Pearson says.

After massive feasts in town, villagers transported bodies about 2 miles up the River Avon to Stonehenge, where some were interred after cremation, according to Parker Pearson. The huge stones memorialized the villagers’ deceased relatives, he asserts.

Parker Pearson and Julian Thomas of the University of Manchester in England described the new findings Jan. 30 during a teleconference held by one of their funding organizations, the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.

Many investigators have viewed Stonehenge as an isolated site used for religious or astronomical purposes.

Parker Pearson’s team focused on a location called Durrington Walls. There, other researchers had detected magnetic traces of dozens of hearths typical of dwellings. Durrington Walls is a large henge, an enclosure surrounded by an earthen bank and ditch. That henge was last investigated in 1967.

The new project began in 2003 and will run through 2010. Last September, Parker Pearson and his coworkers uncovered remains of eight houses at the site. Each house measured about 16 feet by 16 feet and had a central fireplace set in a clay floor. Postholes and slots in the floors once anchored wooden furniture. Debris, including huge numbers of animal bones and cooking implements strewn across the floors, represents the remains of ancient feasts, Parker Pearson says.

Radiocarbon dates for the houses overlap with previous age estimates for cremated remains discovered at Stonehenge.

The Durrington Walls houses bordered a stone road, 90 feet wide and 560 feet long, found in 2005 and further excavated last year. The road runs from the remains of a huge ceremonial circle of timbers to the river. Two miles upstream, a comparable road stretches from the river to Stonehenge.

Thomas excavated two Durrington Walls structures on a terrace and surrounded by wooden fences and ditches within the henge. He suggests that these structures and at least three others nearby served either as shrines or as houses for community leaders.

The pair of roads at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls illuminates the complementary relationship between the sites, Parker Pearson holds. For instance, Stonehenge’s thoroughfare, discovered in the 18th century, aligns with the midsummer-solstice sunrise, while the Durrington Walls road lines up with the midsummer-solstice sunset. Similarly, a set of three giant stones at Stonehenge frames the midwinter-solstice sunset, while the Durrington Walls timber circle aligns with the midwinter-solstice sunrise.

Parker Pearson says that villagers appear to have used Durrington Walls as a place for periodic celebrations of life—held before they moved their dead up the river to the afterlife via cremation at Stonehenge, a symbol of permanence.

Archaeologist Caroline Malone of the University of Cambridge in England calls the new findings “extremely exciting.” She notes that to confirm their theory, the researchers need to find more evidence of graves and funeral activities in the Durrington Walls vicinity.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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