Thursday, February 01, 2007

Huge settlement unearthed near Stonehenge

Hugh Settlement unearthed near Stonehenge.

Jan. 30, 2007

Courtesy National Geographic

and World Science staff

Ex­ca­va­tions near Eng­land’s vast Stone­henge rock mon­u­ment have re­vealed an enor­mous an­cient set­tle­ment that once housed hun­dreds, ar­chae­o­lo­gists said Tue­day. They say the hous­es were prob­ab­ly con­structed and oc­cu­pied by the builders of near­by Stone­henge—the leg­end­ary, mys­ter­ious circle of mas­sive stones on Eng­land’s Salis­bury Plain.

The Sun shin­ing through the Stone­henge mon­u­ment. Sun­rise and sun­set on the sum­mer and win­ter sol­stices—the long­est and short­est days of the year res­pect­ively—were the key times when the Sun would shine through the mon­u­ment. (Cour­te­sy


“The whole val­ley ap­pears full of hous­es,” said ar­chae­o­lo­gist Mike Par­ker Pear­son of the U.K.’s Shef­field Uni­ver­si­ty. “In what were hous­es, we have ex­ca­vat­ed the out­lines on the floors of box beds and wood­en dressers or cup­boards.”

The hous­es were dat­ed to 2600-2500 B.C., the same pe­ri­od Stone­henge rose—one rea­son the re­search­ers con­cluded the occu­pants erec­ted Stone­henge. The homes would form the larg­est Neo­lithic, or late-Stone Age, vil­lage ev­er found in Brit­ain; a few si­m­i­lar Ne­o­lith­ic hous­es have been found in the Ork­ney Is­lands off Scot­land.

Par­ker Pear­son said the dis­cov­er­ies help con­firm a the­o­ry that Stone­henge didn’t stand alone but was part of a much larg­er re­li­gious com­plex used for fu­ner­ary rit­u­al. The set­tle­ment was found at Dur­ring­ton Walls, a part of this com­plex that is some 1,400 feet across and en­closes a se­ries of con­cen­tric rings of huge tim­ber posts, he said. On­ly small ar­eas of Dur­ring­ton Walls, lo­cat­ed less than two miles from better-known Stone­henge, have been in­ves­t­i­gated by ar­chae­o­lo­gists.

Par­ker Pear­son ar­gues that Stone­henge and Dur­ring­ton Walls were in­ti­mate­ly con­nect­ed: Dur­ring­ton’s pur­pose was to cel­e­brate life and de­pos­it the dead in the riv­er for trans­port to the af­ter­life, while Stone­henge was a me­mo­ri­al and even fi­nal rest­ing place for some of the dead.

Stone­henge’s av­e­nue, dis­cov­ered in the 18th cen­tu­ry, is aligned on the mid­sum­mer sol­stice sun­rise, while the Dur­ring­ton av­e­nue lines up with mid­sum­mer sol­stice sun­set. Sim­i­lar­ly, the Dur­ring­ton tim­ber cir­cle was aligned with mid­win­ter sol­stice sun­rise, arch­aeo­lo­gists said, while Stone­henge’s gi­ant tri­lith­on—a struc­ture of three stones—framed the mid­win­ter sol­stice sun­set.

Eight of the hous­es’ re­mains were ex­ca­vat­ed in Sep­tem­ber in the Stone­henge Riv­er­side Proj­ect, led by Par­ker Pear­son and five oth­er U.K. ar­chae­o­lo­gists. Six of the floors were found well-pre­served. Each house once meas­ured about 16 feet square and had a clay floor and cen­tral hearth. The team found 4,600-year-old de­bris strewn across floors, post­holes and slots that once an­chored wood­en fur­ni­ture, long since dis­in­te­grat­ed.

Dur­ring­ton, Par­ker Pear­son be­lieves, drew peo­ple from all over the re­gion. They came for mas­sive mid­win­ter feasts, where pro­di­gious quan­ti­ties of food were con­sumed. Abun­dant an­i­mal bones and pot­tery, in quan­ti­ties un­par­al­leled else­where in Brit­ain at the time, at­test to this idea, he said.

Af­ter feast­ing, Par­ker Pear­son the­o­rizes, the peo­ple trav­eled down the av­e­nue to de­pos­it their dead in the Riv­er Avon flow­ing to­wards Stone­henge. They then moved along Stone­henge Av­e­nue to the mon­u­ment, where they would cre­mate and bury a se­lected few of their dead. Stone­henge was a place for these peo­ple, who wor­shipped their an­ces­tors, to com­mune with the spir­its of those who had died, the re­search­ers pro­posed.

Dur­ring­ton ap­pears “very much a place of the liv­ing,” said Par­ker Pear­son. In con­trast, no one ev­er lived at the stone cir­cle at Stone­henge, which was the larg­est cem­e­tery in Brit­ain of its time: Stone­henge is thought to con­tain 250 cre­ma­tions. The find­ings of the new re­search, fund­ed by the Na­tion­al Geo­graphic So­ciety, were an­nounced in a te­le­con­f­er­ence on Tues­day.

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