Huge Neolithic Ritual Settlement Discovered Near Stonehenge

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 31 January 2007
an aerial photograph of an archaeological excavation

Archaeologists’ trenches reveal clay floors of Neolithic houses at Durrington Walls, occupied by the builders of Stonehenge. © Adam Stanford/Aerial-Cam for National Geographic

Archaeologists at the University of Sheffield have unearthed a huge settlement at Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge, confirming that the Stonehenge monument was part of a larger ritual centre.

The excavations reveal an enormous ancient settlement that once housed hundreds of people. Archaeologists believe the houses were constructed and occupied by the builders of nearby Stonehenge, the legendary monument on Salisbury Plain.

Radiocarbon dated to 2600-2500 BC, the houses are from the same period Stonehenge was built — one of the facts that leads the archaeologists to conclude that the people who lived in the Durrington Walls houses were responsible for constructing Stonehenge. The houses form the largest Neolithic or new stone age village ever found in Britain.

a photograph of a bearded man in front of stonehenge

Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University. © Chris Steele Perkins/Magnum for National Geographic

Eight of the houses´ remains were excavated in the Stonehenge Riverside Project, led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson from the University of Sheffield and five other archaeologists from the UK.

"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," explained Professor Parker Pearson. "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."

The floors of six of the houses were found well-preserved and archaeologists believe each house once measured about 5 metres square and had a clay floor and central hearth. The team found 4,600-year-old debris strewn across floors, postholes and slots, which once anchored wooden furniture that had disintegrated long ago.

a photograph of some bones in an archaeological dig

Remains of a day of feasting — Neolithic cow bones — were discovered by the Stonehenge Riverside Project. © Mike Parker Pearson for National Geographic

Among the debris were piles of animal bones, which may also suggest the Neolithic village was also the place to go for a lavish feast, featuring spit-roast pork and beef. Elsewhere the team found the imprints of beds and other furniture still present on the clay floors.

More houses are clustered on both sides of an imposing stone-surfaced avenue some 30 metres wide and 170 metres long, found in 2005 and further excavated by the team in 2006. The avenue connects remains of a colossal timber circle with the River Avon.

Existence of the avenue, which mirrors one at nearby Stonehenge, indicates people once moved between the two monuments via the river. Discovery of the avenue has helped the team piece together the purpose of the entire Stonehenge complex.

an aerial photograph of an archaeological dig

Archaeologists work at Neolithic-floor level within Durrington Walls. © Adam Stanford/Aerial-Cam for National Geographic

"This discovery at Durrington Walls sheds light on the actual purpose of Stonehenge and shows that it wasn´t a monument in isolation but part of a larger complex," added Professor Parker Pearson.

"It is vital in our understanding of Stonehenge and paves the way for further investigation at the site in the summer and hopefully more remarkable finds."

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