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 centennialofflight.gov)
“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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