Sheffield archaeologists unearth huge settlement at Stonehenge

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.

The houses have been radiocarbon dated to 2600-2500 B.C., 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.

The discoveries help confirm a theory that Stonehenge did not stand in isolation but was part of a much larger religious complex used for funerary ritual. Durrington Walls is the world's largest known henge — an enclosure with a bank outside it and a ditch inside, usually thought to be ceremonial. It is some 450 metres across and encloses a series of concentric rings of huge timber posts. Only small areas of Durrington Walls, located less than two miles from better-known Stonehenge, have been investigated by archaeologists.

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. Six of the floors were found well-preserved. 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.

In a separate area inside the western part of Durrington henge, the team discovered two other Neolithic houses, each surrounded by a timber fence and a substantial ditch. Isolated from the others, these houses may have been dwellings of community leaders, chiefs or priests living separately from the rest of the community. Or, because of the nearly complete lack of household waste typically found in such houses, the archaeologists speculate that they may have been shrines or cult houses used for rituals, unoccupied except for a fire kept burning inside.

The rest of the 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.

Professor Parker Pearson now believes that Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were intimately connected. He said: " 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."

He added: "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.

"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."

Notes for Editors: Directors of the Stonehenge Riverside Project are Professor Mike Parker Pearson (The University of Sheffield), Professor Julian Thomas (The University of Manchester), Dr Joshua Pollard (The University of Bristol), Dr Colin Richards (The University of Manchester), Chris Tilley (University College London) and Dr Kate Welham (Bournemouth University). The project is run by the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Bournemouth, Bristol and University College London.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project is currently funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, National Geographic Society and English Heritage. The project has been running since 2003 and was funded in 2004-2005 by the British Academy, the Royal Archaeological Institute, English Heritage, the Prehistoric Society, the Society of Antiquaries and the McDonald Institute. Other contributors to the project include Wessex Archaeology, the University of Cambridge and English Heritage.

The landowners include the Ministry of Defence, the National Trust and Wiltshire County Council.

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