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Stonehenge just one of a pair

January 31, 2007 By Lucy Odling-Smee This article courtesy of Nature News.

Excavation shows strong connection with a nearby wooden circle.

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It's hard to believe that the Stonehenge World Heritage Site — a popular tourist destination in densely populated southern England, and home to one of the most famous prehistoric monuments in the world — is the site of a major new discovery.

But on 30 January, archaeologists announced that they have found an ancient village at a site called Durrington Walls, about two miles from Stonehenge itself. And remnants of a wooden circle at this site, previously thought to be the supports of a roofed building, has been shown to bear striking similarities to the more famous and permanent Stonehenge circle nearby.

"There is a kind of complementarity between the timber circle and the stone circle of Stonehenge," says Julian Thomas of Manchester University, a director of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, which carried out the survey.

The find suggests that the legendary circle of standing stones known as Stonehenge was just part of a bigger ceremonial complex.

Down on digging

The team, involving archaeologists from six universities, did their work at Durrington Walls in 2006. The remains of a wooden circle there had been partially excavated in the 1960s, and there was speculation that people may have settled in this area while building the nearby stone circle.

It may seem striking that no one had excavated there thoroughly since the 1960s, but because it's a World Heritage Site, "the thrust has been to conserve and protect such areas," says Timothy Darvill, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University, UK, who was not involved in this latest work.

There have been a number of non-intrusive surveys of the Stonehenge area before. Measuring the electric resistance of the soil, for example, can be used to detect features such as postholes beneath. And checking variations in the magnetic field can hint at where hearths had been, as burning alters the alignment of clay particles, says Thomas. But to find out exactly what's down there, he says, you have to dig.

But attitudes have changed in recent years, says Darvill, and that has helped to bring about this dig.

Lived in

Within the Durrington Walls 'henge' — a raised bank with a ditch on the inside of the site — the team excavated eight well preserved houses. As well as being the "richest site archeologically speaking, it is also the filthiest we have ever seen," says project director Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, UK. Some 50,000 animal bones at the site suggest that people went there for "feast and fun" he says.

Carbon dating supports the idea that the villagers of Durrington Walls helped to build Stonehenge — the houses date to 2600-2500 BC, matching the time when it is thought that the first stone blocks were erected.

Using geophysical techniques and digging, the team mapped out a more precise plan of the old wooden monument. They also revealed a vast stone avenue that connected the wooden circle to the Avon river.

Architecturally, the two monuments were remarkably similar, says Thomas. A similar stone avenue connects Stonehenge to the Avon river, for example. And whereas Stonehenge is oriented to face sunrise in the summer and sunset in the winter, the wooden circle at Durrington Walls would have faced the opposite way.

Life and death

The cult practices thought to be associated with the complex, however, remain controversial.

Parker Pearson speculates that the stone and wooden monuments played contrasting roles in ritual practices — with the wooden one being used to celebrate life and the stone one to celebrate death. After a funeral feast, he suggests, people living in or visiting the Durrington Walls village might have travelled down the stone avenue to deposit their dead in boats on the River Avon. Downstream at Stonehenge, the people may have cremated or buried their dead.

However, Timothy Darvill, author of Stonehenge: The Biography of a Landscape1, disagrees. He thinks the stones of Stonehenge were valued for their magical, healing properties. "Stonehenge is a temple for the living," he says.

But in answering the long-standing issue of whether people settled near the wooden circle in the Avon valley, "Mike's team has nailed it" says Darville. "We all suspected that the two sites were connected," he says. But by revealing that a wooden circle once stood at Durrington Walls, with a complementary structure to Stonehenge, "Mike has shown what it must have looked like," says Darville. "It is pretty spectacular."

References

  1. Darvill T. Stonehenge: The Biography of a Landscape, Tempus (2006).

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