Stonehenge Riverside Project: New Approaches to Durrington Walls

Mike Parker Pearson

Woodhenge

There were many significant breakthroughs this year. The enormous ditch and bank of Durrington Walls were found to be at the end of the sequence of mid-3rd millennium BC activity in this small valley northeast of Stonehenge. The construction of the henge was preceded by the building of a substantial avenue, 30m wide, leading from the River Avon and aligned on the midsummer solstice sunset. The flint and gravel surface of this avenue led into the Southern Circle, a 40m-diameter monument of six concentric rings of timber posts. Whilst the partial plan of this impressive timber circle was recovered during excavations in 1967 in advance of the new A345, further excavations and geophysical survey in 2006 have allowed its full plan to be reconstructed.

Image of excavation

The Durrington Avenue ran from the riverside to the Southern Circle, a distance of just over 170m. Its width is comparable to the Stonehenge Avenue although it is much shorter. This avenue met the river at approximately the same point as today, culminating in a steep drop down the chalk river cliff to the water.

The Durrington Avenue and Southern Circle were the main components of a ceremonial complex which was at the centre of a very large settlement whose house floors are well preserved. No other Neolithic villages have been found in southern Britain and the discovery of eight houses within the relatively tiny area excavated at Durrington Walls in 2004-2006 (about 0.3% of the total extent) demonstrates that this valley was probably filled with hundreds of small dwellings. They are square or sub-rectangular and vary in size from 5m x 5m to just 2.5m x 3m with a roughly central hearth set within a chalk plaster floor surrounded by slots which held footings for wooden beds and furniture. In two cases within the east entrance, the micro-debris left on the floor by their occupants could be examined to show that activities took place in different parts of the house. For example, cooking debris was concentrated on the south side whilst flint tools such as scrapers, arrowheads and retouched flakes were mostly found in the northeast. The house plans are reminiscent of Skara Brae and other Orcadian houses of the 3rd millennium BC.

Two houses within the western half of Durrington Walls were encircled by ditched enclosures of different sizes. The smaller enclosure was about 12m in diameter and had an external bank and an entrance to the west. The interior edge of the ditch was surrounded by a timber palisade. The larger enclosure, about 40m in diameter, had an internal bank and an entrance on its east side. Between this entrance and the house there was a pair of enormous postholes and a substantial timber palisade whose entrance was later blocked by stakes. The house was set centrally within the enclosure, suggesting a relationship of some sort between it and the surrounding monumental architecture. The positioning of these houses on a terrace with dramatic views down to the Southern Circle and the river suggests that they were highly significant structures. Were they the dwellings of special people? Were they shrines? Unfortunately their floor surfaces were eroded, leaving only their hearths.

Of the five houses in the east entrance, two sat adjacent to each other on the low banks astride the Avenue. They were separated from the other three to the north by a zone of pits. These three houses were sited within a large midden full of pig and cattle bones. The largest house was 5m x 5m with a south-facing entrance and was terraced into the hillside. Although part of it lay outside the excavated area, the edges of its chalk plaster floor contained slots for timber beds and furniture. Its wall was formed by a line of stakeholes in a rectangular plan with rounded corners. There was evidence of an earlier house beneath its plaster floor. Northeast of this large house was an ancillary building – a 2.5m x 3m structure with a central hearth – and the two houses formed a household compound separated from the others by a curving palisade of small posts. To the south of them was the house found in 2005. This was about 5m x 5m and had slots for holding timber furniture only on its north side. To its east was a hollow with a hearth which may be the entrance to a sixth house.

Photo of Trench 1

The discovery of houses within and outside Durrington Walls suggests that a large area of the valley in which the henge lies was probably covered in dwellings. The considerable quantities of pig and cattle bones, pottery, flint arrowheads and lithic debris indicate that occupation and consumption were intense. The many articulated and unfragmented animal bones are likely to be debris of the wasteful consumption resulting from feasting. The small quantities of stone tools other than arrowheads, the absence of grinding querns and the lack of carbonised grain indicate that this was a `consumer´ site. The midsummer and midwinter solstice alignments of the Durrington and Stonehenge architecture suggest seasonal occupation. It is likely that these dwellings were lived in by the builders of the Southern Circle and Stonehenge.

Re-excavation of Maud Cunnington´s 1926 trenches at Woodhenge revealed that the timber circle´s posts were replaced by a smaller, rectilinear arrangement of standing stones. Under Woodhenge´s bank, a tree-throw hole contained pottery dating to the beginning of the Neolithic c. 4000-3800 BC.