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Prehistoric Britain

Stonehenge Builders' Houses Found

Edited from BBC News, 30 January 2007

A huge ancient settlement which was used by the people who built at least one major phase of Stonehenge was uncovered in 2006, according to archaeologists.

Excavations at Durrington Walls, near the legendary Salisbury Plain monument, uncovered the remains of ancient houses. People seem to have occupied the sites seasonally, using them for ritual feasting and funeral ceremonies.

This settlement would have housed hundreds of people, making it the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain to date. The dwellings were dated to the period between 2600 BC to 2500 BC which, according to the researchers, was the same period in which the earliest parts of Stonehenge were built.

That statement was not entirely accurate as Phase I of Stonehenge is dated to about 2950-2900 BC, but it certainly covers the main period of construction and expansion. Other archaeologists were quick to point out the fact that there are problems dating Stonehenge itself because the stone circle had been rebuilt many times.

Consequently, archaeological material has been dug up and reburied on numerous occasions, making it difficult to assign a date to the original construction. But Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues who were behind the latest discoveries were confident of a link.

'In what were houses, we have excavated the outlines on the floors of box beds and wooden dressers or cupboards,' he explained. The Sheffield University researcher said this was based on the fact that these abodes had exactly the same layout as Neolithic houses at Skara Brae, Orkney (see related links in the sidebar), which have survived intact because - unlike these dwellings - they were made of stone.

The researchers excavated eight houses in total at Durrington. But they were able to identify many other probable dwellings using geophysical surveying equipment. In fact, they thought that there could have been at least a hundred houses there.

Each one measured about five metres square, being made of timber with a clay floor and a central hearth. The archaeologists found contemporary rubbish covering the floors of the houses.

'It is the richest - by that I mean the filthiest - site of this period known in Britain,' Professor Parker Pearson said. 'We've never seen such quantities of pottery and animal bone and flint.'

He thought the settlement was probably not lived in all year round. Instead, he believed that Stonehenge and Durrington formed a religious complex which was used for funerary rituals. He theorised that it drew Neolithic people from all over the region, who came for massive feasts in the midwinter, where prodigious quantities of food were consumed. The bones were then tossed onto the floors of the houses.

'The rubbish isn't your average domestic debris. There's a lack of craft-working equipment for cleaning animal hides and no evidence for crop-processing,' he said. 'The animal bones are being thrown away half-eaten. It's what we call a feasting assemblage. This is where they went to party - you could say it was the first free festival.'

Pigging out

Durrington has its own henge which is made of wood, and which is strikingly similar in layout to Stonehenge. It was discovered in 1967 - long before any houses. Both henges line up with events in the astronomical calendar, but not the same ones. Stonehenge is aligned with sunset on the midwinter solstice, while Durrington's timber circle is aligned with sunrise on the midwinter solstice. They were complementary.


This seems to fit with the idea of a midwinter festival, which in turn is supported by an analysis of pig teeth which were found at the site. 'One of the things we can tell from the pig teeth we've looked at is that most of them have been slaughtered at nine months. And we think they are farrowing in spring,' he said.

'It's likely there's a midwinter cull and that ties in with our midwinter solstice alignments at Durrington and Stonehenge.'

Sacred monument

Parker Pearson believed that Durrington's purpose was to celebrate life and to deposit the dead in the river for transport into the afterlife. Stonehenge was a memorial and final resting place for some of the dead. After feasting, he speculated, people travelled down the timber circle's 'avenue' to deposit their dead in the River Avon which flows towards Stonehenge. They then moved along Stonehenge's avenue to the circle, where they cremated and buried a select few of their dead.

The archaeologist said Stonehenge was a place for these people, who worshipped their ancestors, to commune with the spirits of the departed. But not all archaeologists agree: 'I see Stonehenge more as a living monument,' archaeologist and broadcaster Julian Richards said. 'So in terms of a broad understanding of the landscape I'm not in total agreement.'

Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology, who was not a member of the research team, commented: 'There haven't been many excavations near Stonehenge in recent years and the new work will stimulate exciting new theories in coming years. But we shouldn't forget that Stonehenge became special when people brought the stones from Wales, two hundred-and-fifty kilometres away. Some of the answers about Stonehenge aren't just to be found in Durrington, but further afield.'

Stonehenge was the largest cemetery in Britain at the time, containing about two hundred-and-fifty ashes deposits from cremations. In a separate area, further up the valley from Durrington Walls, Julian Thomas of Manchester University discovered two other Neolithic houses. But these were free of rubbish.

The researchers thought that these dwellings were deliberately kept clean. They could have been home to community leaders, or they may have been sacred sites in which rituals were performed.

Map of Stonehenge finds
A map of the sites showing the location of Durrington Walls and its excavation site in comparison to the nearby Stonehenge complex



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