Village May Have Housed Builders of Stonehenge


Mike Parker Pearson for National Geographic

Archaeologists’ trenches at Durrington Walls, two miles from Stonehenge, expose the hard clay floors of houses dating from 2600 B.C. to 2500 B.C.


Published: January 31, 2007

New excavations near Stonehenge have uncovered hearths, timbers and other remains of what archaeologists say was probably the village of workers who erected the monoliths on Salisbury Plain in England.

The archaeologists announced yesterday that the 4,600-year-old ruins appear to form the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain. The houses at the site known as Durrington Walls were constructed in the same period that Stonehenge, less than two miles away, was built as a religious center, presumably for worshipers of the sun and for their ancestors.

Mike Parker Pearson, a leader of the excavations from the University of Sheffield, said the discoveries last summer supported the emerging recognition that the ring of standing stones and earthworks at Stonehenge was part of a much larger religious complex.

In a telephone conference conducted by the National Geographic Society, Dr. Parker Pearson said a circle of ditches and earthen banks at Durrington Walls enclosed concentric rings of huge timber posts, “basically a wooden version of Stonehenge.”

The excavations exposed not only the timber circle but also a roadway paved with stone leading to the Avon River, about 500 feet away, which was similar to a river road from Stonehenge. The evidence, Dr. Parker Pearson said, “shows us these two monuments were complementary” and that “Stonehenge was just one-half of a larger complex.”

The project, begun in 2003, is exploring the wider landscape of the Stonehenge World Heritage site, about 100 miles southwest of London. The research is directed by six British universities and financed in part by National Geographic.

Over the years, Stonehenge has inspired a wide range of conjecture, though it is now assumed that this was a place of worship that seemed to be related to solar cults. A decade ago, improved radiocarbon tests dated the first constructions at Stonehenge to between 2600 B.C. and 2400 B.C., more than 600 years earlier than previous estimates. The houses at Durrington have been dated to between 2600 B.C. and 2500 B.C.

Eight houses were discovered last September in part of the site, and a broad survey detected traces of many more buried over a wide area, the archaeologists said. Each house, made from sticks woven together and crushed chalk, was no bigger than 14 to 16 feet square and had a hard clay floor and a central fireplace. Indentations in the floor were interpreted as postholes and slots that once anchored wooden furniture.

The occupants were a messy lot, the excavators concluded. Debris of broken pots and jars and animal bones was everywhere. Some of the people may have been builders of Stonehenge, the archaeologists surmised, and others may have been pilgrims to the sacred complex whose worship included lively feasting.

By contrast, Julian Thomas of the University of Manchester found neater house remains in a western part of the Durrington site. The two excavated so far were small, neat structures, each surrounded by its own ditch and wood palisade and set apart from others in the vicinity. At least three other such structures are probably buried nearby.

Dr. Thomas offered two possible interpretations in the telephone news conference. Those dwellings may have been the homes of special people, chiefs or priests. Or their cleanliness may mark them as not living quarters at all, but places set aside as shrines and cult centers.

Scholars and other archaeologists not involved with the project reserved judgment on the ramifications of the findings. But Drs. Parker Pearson and Thomas emphasized the importance of the Durrington roadway in understanding the two sites’ intimate connection.

They said the road was paved with flint and led straight from the Durrington enclosure to the Avon. A similar road at Stonehenge, discovered in the 18th century, is aligned with the summer solstice sunrise, the archaeologists noted, while the one at Durrington lines up with the summer solstice sunset. Similarly, the Durrington timber circle was aligned with winter solstice sunrise, while a giant stone monument at Stonehenge frames the winter solstice sunset.

Venturing into the bumpy field of Stonehenge interpretation, Dr. Parker Pearson suggested that the durable stones of the better-known site were a memorial and final resting place for the dead, and the wood architecture at Durrington Walls symbolized the transience of life. People from all over the region, he said, probably went there to celebrate life and deposit the dead in the river for transport to the afterlife.