Archaeologists working near Stonehenge in England have discovered what appears to be an ancient religious complex containing a treasure trove of artifacts that might finally illuminate the lives and religious practices of the people who built the mysterious monument 4,600 years ago, British archaeologists said yesterday.
The circle of massive stone blocks on England's Salisbury Plain southwest of London is one of the best known archaeological sites in the world, but researchers know surprisingly little about the people who built it and lived in the region.
The new finds, reported at a teleconference organized by the National Geographic Society, vastly increase the knowledge of these early Britons, said archaeologist Mary Ann Owoc of Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., who was not involved in the research.
"To see the everyday lives of these people, to see people living in their houses, is filling in really important gaps in the record," she said. "We had some evidence, but this is so much richer."
The discoveries are also destined to change archaeologists' views of how the ancient people used the site. Stonehenge is typically thought of as a cemetery and an astronomical observatory that was the site of pagan celebrations at the summer solstice.
The monument comprises concentric circles of huge stones, some weighing as much as 50 tons apiece, surrounded by a circular earthen bank and a ditch. Some of the stones were imported from Wales, about 150 miles away, while others were quarried about 24 miles north of Stonehenge at Marlboro Downs. It was constructed about the same time as the great pyramid of Giza in Egypt.
The new finds at Durrington Walls, two miles northeast of the stone circle, indicate that the entire region was a religious center where the early Britons gathered in midwinter for raucous feasts and solemn ceremonies before sending their deceased on a voyage to the afterlife.
While Stonehenge was a monument to the dead, the complex at Durrington Walls was "very much a place of the living," said archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, who led the team along with archaeologist Julian Thomas of Manchester University.
Archaeologists already knew there was a henge - a circular banked enclosure with an internal ditch - at Durrington Walls, but the wide excavations carried out last year place it in a new light.
"Such intensive subsurface research has never been attempted on this scale before" near Stonehenge, said archaeologist Ruth Tringham of the University of California, Berkeley.
The henge, about 1,400 feet in diameter, enclosed a series of concentric rings of huge timber posts. The team now knows that the posts mimicked Stonehenge in all particulars save one - its orientation.
Stonehenge is aligned with sunrise at the summer solstice and sunset at the winter solstice. The henge at Durrington Walls is the exact opposite, aligned with sunrise at the winter solstice and sunset at the summer solstice.
Artifacts found in the houses indicate that there was a major midwinter celebration marking the solstice to complement the summer celebration at Stonehenge.
The team excavated eight houses at the site, and magnetic anomalies indicate there are at least 25 more nearby, Pearson said. "My guess is that there are many more than that," he said. In fact, the entire valley appears to have been densely populated, he said.
The relatively flimsy wattle-and-daub walls of the houses are long gone. What remains are the densely packed clay floors. "These are the first ones we have found with intact clay floors from this period," Pearson said.
"The houses are virtually square, no bigger than the average sitting room - about 14 feet by 14 feet," he said. They feature a central fireplace, an oval hearth sunk into the floor. Slight indentations around the walls mark the location of timber fittings for boxbeds and a dresser that stood opposite the door.
The houses are virtually identical, he said, to a few houses previously discovered at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland. Those houses, from the same period, were constructed of stone because the islands had been deforested.
Durrington Walls "is either the richest site or the filthiest that we have ever found for this period," Pearson said. "It's absolutely stuffed full of trash or rubbish: broken pots, chips, flints, burned stones used for cooking and animal bones. Many were thrown away half eaten, a sign of conspicuous consumption. This is an enormous feasting assemblage. People were here to have a really good time."
Owoc noted that people during this period tended to move from place to place as the seasons changed. It was not until the period 1700 B.C. to 1200 B.C. that they began to settle down in walled towns.
Teeth from pigs found at the site indicated that the animals were about nine months old when they were slaughtered. Given the animals were likely born in the spring, that would place the celebration near the winter solstice. Arrowheads embedded in the pigs suggest there were archery and other competitions before the feast.
Thomas H. Maugh II writes for the Los Angeles Times.