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Stonehenge builders' houses found

A huge ancient settlement used by the people who built Stonehenge has been found, archaeologists have said.

Excavations at Durrington Walls, near the legendary Salisbury Plain monument, uncovered remains of ancient houses.

People seem to have occupied the sites seasonally, using them for ritual feasting and funeral ceremonies.

In ancient times, this settlement would have housed hundreds of people, making it the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain.

The dwellings date back to 2,600-2,500 BC - according to the researchers, the same period that Stonehenge was built.

"This is where they went to party - you could say it was the first free festival."
Mike Parker Pearson, Sheffield University

But some archaeologists point out that there are problems dating Stonehenge itself because the stone circle has been rebuilt many times.

Consequently, archaeological material has been dug up and reburied on numerous occasions, making it difficult to assign a date to the original construction.

But Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues are confident of a link.

"In what were houses, we have excavated the outlines on the floors of box beds and wooden dressers or cupboards," he explained.

The Sheffield University researcher said this was based on the fact that these abodes had exactly the same layout as Neolithic houses at Skara Brae, Orkney, which have survived intact because - unlike these dwellings - they were made of stone.

The researchers have excavated eight houses in total at Durrington. But they have identified many other probable dwellings using geophysical surveying equipment.

In fact, they think there could have been at least one hundred houses.

Each one measured about 5m (16ft) square, was made of timber, with a clay floor and central hearth. The archaeologists found 4,600-year-old rubbish covering the floors of the houses.

"It is the richest - by that I mean the filthiest - site of this period known in Britain," Professor Parker Pearson told BBC News.

"We've never seen such quantities of pottery and animal bone and flint."

The Sheffield University researcher thinks the settlement was probably not lived in all year round. Instead, he believes, Stonehenge and Durrington formed a religious complex used for funerary rituals.

"I see Stonehenge more as a living monument."
Julian Richards, archaeologist and broadcaster

He believes it drew Neolithic people from all over the region, who came for massive feasts in the midwinter, where prodigious quantities of food were consumed. The bones were then tossed on the floors of the houses.

"The rubbish isn't your average domestic debris. There's a lack of craft-working equipment for cleaning animal hides and no evidence for crop-processing," he said.

"The animal bones are being thrown away half-eaten. It's what we call a feasting assemblage. This is where they went to party - you could say it was the first free festival."

Pigging out
Durrington has its own henge made of wood, which is strikingly similar in layout to Stonehenge. It was discovered in 1967 - long before any houses.

Both henges line up with events in the astronomical calendar - but not the same ones.

Stonehenge is aligned with the midwinter solstice sunset, while Durrington's timber circle is aligned with the midwinter solstice sunrise - they were complementary.

This seems to fit with the idea of a midwinter festival, in turn supported by analysis of pig teeth found at the site.

"One of the things we can tell from the pig teeth we've looked at is that most of them have been slaughtered at nine months. And we think they are farrowing in Spring," he said.

"It's likely there's a midwinter cull and that ties in with our midwinter solstice alignments at Durrington and Stonehenge."

Sacred monument

Professor Parker Pearson believes Durrington's purpose was to celebrate life and deposit the dead in the river for transport to the afterlife. Stonehenge was a memorial and final resting place for some of the dead.

After feasting, he speculated, people travelled down the timber circle's "avenue" to deposit their dead in the River Avon flowing towards Stonehenge. They then moved along Stonehenge's avenue to the circle, where they cremated and buried a select few of their dead.

The Sheffield University archaeologist said Stonehenge was a place for these people, who worshipped their ancestors, to commune with the spirits of the departed.

But not all archaeologists agree: "I see Stonehenge more as a living monument," archaeologist and broadcaster Julian Richards told BBC News 24.

"So in terms of broad understanding of the landscape I'm not in total agreement."

Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, from Wessex Archaeology, who was not a member of the research team, commented: "There haven't been many excavations near Stonehenge in recent years and the new work will stimulate exciting new theories in coming years.

"But we shouldn't forget that Stonehenge became special when people brought the stones from Wales, 250km away. Some of the answers about Stonehenge aren't just to be found in Durrington, but further afield."

Stonehenge was the largest cemetery in Britain at the time, containing about 250 ashes from cremations.

In a separate area, further up the valley from Durrington Walls, Julian Thomas of Manchester University, discovered two other Neolithic houses. But these were free of rubbish.

The researchers think these dwellings were deliberately kept clean. They could have been home to community leaders, or they might have been sacred sites, where rituals were performed.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2007/01/30 15:00:05 GMT

Article, the second
Stonehenge Settlement Found: Builders' Homes, "Cult Houses"

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
January 30, 2007

A major prehistoric village has been unearthed near Stonehenge in southern England.

The settlement likely housed the builders of the famous monument, archaeologists say, and was an important ceremonial site in its own right, hosting great "feasts and parties."

Excavations also offer new evidence that a timber circle and a vast earthwork where the village once stood were linked to Stonehenge—via road, river, and ritual. Together, the sites were part of a much larger religious complex, the archaeologists suggest.

(See also: "Stonehenge Didn't Stand Alone, Excavations Show" [January 12, 2007].)

"Stonehenge isn't a monument in isolation. It is actually one of a pair—one in stone, one in timber [animated map showing the sites]," said Mike Parker Pearson, leader of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, a joint initiative run by six English universities and partially funded by the National Geographic Society. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

The Late Stone Age village—the largest ever found in Britain—was excavated in September 2006 at Durrington Walls, the world's largest known "henge," a type of circular earthwork. A giant timber circle (photo) once stood at Durrington, which is 1.75 miles (2.8 kilometers) from the celebrated circle of standing stones on Salisbury Plain.

At Durrington the archaeologists discovered foundations of houses dating back to 4,600 years ago (photo)—around the time construction began on Stonehenge.

Excavations revealed the remains of eight wooden buildings. Surveys of the landscape have identified up to 30 more dwellings, Parker Pearson said.

"We could have many hundreds of houses here," he added.

The initial stone circle at Stonehenge—the so-called sarsen stones—has been radiocarbon-dated to between 2600 and 2500 B.C.

The dates for the village are "exactly the same time, in radiocarbon terms, as for the building of the sarsens," Parker Pearson said.

Six of the houses so far unearthed measured about 250 square feet (23 square meters) each and had wooden walls and clay floors. Fireplaces and furniture—such as cupboards and beds—could be discerned from their outlines in the earth, Parker Pearson said.

Two more dwellings were uncovered away from the main settlement, to the western end of the henge.

Found by Julian Thomas of Manchester University, these additional buildings were surrounded by a timber fence and a substantial ditch.

There is evidence for at least three other such structures in the same area, Thomas said.

"Cult Houses"

The project team says these imposing buildings to the west may have been the homes of chiefs or priests (photo) who lived separately from the rest of the community.

Another theory is that the buildings were used only for rituals, as hardly any trace of household waste has been found inside them.

"They may have been more like shrines or cult houses," Thomas said. People may have gone to them "to invoke the spirits of ancestors" or "to have out-of-body or trance experiences."

The main group of houses were clustered along an impressive stone avenue discovered by the team in 2005.

Measuring some 90 feet (27 meters) wide and 560 feet (170 meters) long, the avenue linked the site of the former massive timber circle at Durrington to the River Avon. The road mirrors a similar avenue at Stonehenge that connects to the Avon downriver of Durrington.

The team says this and other parallels between the two monuments indicate that they formed a much larger religious complex. People moved between the two sites via the river during important ceremonies, the archaeologists suggest.

Stonehenge's avenue, the team notes, is aligned with the summer solstice sunrise. Durrington's avenue lines up with the summer solstice sunset.

Likewise, Stonehenge is aligned with the winter solstice sunset, whereas Durrington's large timber circle was lined up with the winter solstice sunrise.

"Durrington is almost a mirror image of its stone counterpart at Stonehenge," Parker Pearson said. "You can pretty much overlie the plan of Stonehenge on the timber circle and see they're the same dimensions."

After the initial construction of Stonehenge, the Late Stone Age, or Neolithic, village became a place where people stayed during ritual feasts, Parker Pearson believes.

Describing the settlement as a "consumer site," he says its residents weren't involved in usual day-to-day activities.

"There are a few tools for scraping hides and that sort of thing. But it's completely different from any other Neolithic settlement assemblage we've ever looked at before," he said.

Large quantities of pottery fragments and animal bones found at Durrington appear to support this idea. Prehistoric pigs' teeth from the site suggest the animals were slaughtered when they were nine months old, which would put their butchering during the winter solstice period—perhaps just in time for feasting.

Stone Age Party

People came from all over southern Britain "to feast and party," Parker Pearson said.

Ongoing isotope analysis of human teeth recovered from the settlement may show that visitors traveled from even farther afield, he added.

Tests carried out in 2002 on nearby buried human remains from around 2300 B.C. suggested that people from the foothills of European Alps also came to the Stonehenge area.

Parker Pearson says that the latest finds indicate that Durrington and Stonehenge represent the domains of the living and the dead, respectively—Durrington's temporary wooden circle symbolizing life, and Stonehenge's permanent megaliths symbolizing death.

After big feasts at Durrington, he theorizes, worshippers proceeded down the avenue there, depositing human remains in the River Avon. The river then carried the remains downstream to Stonehenge.

"My guess as to what's being thrown in is cremation ashes or human bones or perhaps even whole bodies in cases," Parker Pearson said.

"We think the river is acting like a conduit to the underworld."

Evidence of prehistoric pyres has been found along the course of the river. This suggests that worshippers traveled on foot or by boat to Stonehenge, perhaps to bury their dead, Parker Pearson adds.

"The theory is that Stonehenge is a kind of spirit home to the ancestors," he said.

Stonehenge archaeologist Joshua Pollard, of Bristol University, agrees that there does appear to be a strong link between Neolithic standing stones and the human dead.

"Stonehenge is remarkable for the sheer quantity of human remains buried there," Pollard said.

Manchester University's Thomas is less sure about the exact nature of the ritualistic connection between Durrington and Stonehenge. But he said that their complementary relationship and connection to the River Avon is "immensely important."

"Rather than just focusing on Stonehenge as something in isolation," he said, "we're seeing the way in which it relates to a whole landscape."

© 1996-2006 National Geographic Society

Article, the third -- Well, transcript actually...
Archaeologist discovers Stonehenge village

This is a transcript from Correspondents Report. The program is broadcast around Australia on Sundays at 08:00 on ABC Radio National.

orrespondents Report - Sunday, 18 February , 2007
Reporter: Stephanie Kennedy
ELIZABETH JACKSON: This week, archaeologists in Britain revealed a major discovery on Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge.

They say they've found a huge ancient settlement used by the people who built the stone circle.

Excavations at Durrington Walls, near the legendary monument, have uncovered remains of houses, tools and animal bones.

Researchers think the people who lived in this settlement built Stonehenge, and they've dated the houses to 2,500 BC.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson from Sheffield University is one of the archaeologists involved in the find.

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: We've excavated six houses from the end of the Neolithic, that's the first phase of farming in Britain, and what's really exciting is that the dates for these put them in exactly the same century as the building of the Sarsens at Stonehenge - that's the great big stones that you can see when you visit today.

So, 26th Century, this is when the big pyramids are going up in Egypt and in Britain, it's about the time that stone is giving way to metal as the primary material for people's tools.

STEPHANIE KENNEDY: And what exactly did you find?

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: This is a time when they're using very simple technology, so of course putting up big stones really required just lots of ropes and timbers, that sort of thing, and in their daily lives, they have pots for cooking with, there are flint tools for their household activities. And the other thing that we're finding in just huge, huge abundance is animal bones.

So, on our particular site, we've found 50,000 or more animal bones. Now we're looking at an enormous area that this settlement covered, and we've only dug less than 2 per cent of the total.

So that just gives an idea of the sheer volume of material that lies here. It is the richest site of this period anywhere that we know of in Britain.

In terms of the animal bones, a lot of this is what we call feasting debris, so these are the bones of particularly pig and cattle, and what's really interesting is that, unlike anywhere else that I've ever worked on, they're clearly not using the meat to its full extent.

They're actually throwing away half-eaten joints of pork and beef, and we're finding those joints with the bones still articulated, and that's really quite exceptional.

STEPHANIE KENNEDY: What does that indicate?

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: That tells us something very interesting. It tells us we're looking at people who are feasting and who are really partying.

We're not sure about the role of alcohol in these societies, but they've been growing grain by millennia by this point, so I would guess that they're also drinking as well as eating as much as they possibly could.

STEPHANIE KENNEDY: So what's the link between this settlement and Stonehenge?

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: Well, we found a whole series of houses, and it really looks to us as though these are where the builders were actually living when they were building Stonehenge.

They're less than two miles to the north of Stonehenge, in a small valley, and they're all clustered around a timber circle that's a monument very similar to Stonehenge, except that it was built out of wood, and leading from that down to the Avon River, we found a brand new avenue, 30 metres long, it's the ceremonial procession route, very similar to the avenue that leads out of Stonehenge, and also goes down to the River Avon.

What's been particularly exciting about this discovery is that it's telling us a great deal about Stonehenge itself and what it was all about.

STEPHANIE KENNEDY: So what's the relationship between this relationship and Stonehenge?

MIKE PARKER PEARSON: Well, there are two important aspects. One of them is that given that they're identical in date, we're looking at the people, this is where they lived when they were doing whatever they were doing at Stonehenge and, of course, some of that's the building, and the other side has to be some form of religious worship.

And what's really exciting is that everyone knows about the Solstice orientations at Stonehenge, people still gather today, I think there were 15,000 last June for mid-summer Solstice sunrise, because the monument, the avenue is on that particular access.

And people even gather at Stonehenge today because at mid winter sunset, on the Solstice at mid winter, you can see the sun setting on the other access of that monument.

If you come to Durrington, we've got the precise opposite Solstice directions. The avenue's lined on mid-summer sunset, whereas the timber circle is aligned on mid-winter sunrise.

So there's a complementary opposition between these two monuments, and that's really exciting, because it suggests that Stonehenge is only just one half of a larger complex, and that I think is very revealing.

Because when we look at what we've found at Durrington and compare it with Stonehenge, the 20th century excavations in Stonehenge found a large number of burials, over 50 cremations, and we reckon that's probably about a fifth of the total that we're buried there in the Neolithic.

So in contrast, Durrington, it's all about the living. We've got very few human bones at all, and this makes it very clear, I think, that we're looking at a living-dead distinction.

And it suggests to us that the reason they're building in stone is because it's all about commemoration, memorialisation of the dead. They're building it in perpetuity, so we're looking really, I think, at a religion that's all about worshipping the sun, and also the ancestors.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Professor Mike Parker Pearson from Sheffield University speaking to Stephanie Kennedy.


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