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In the shadow of Stonehenge, a way of life is illuminated

January 31, 2007|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Archeologists working near Stonehenge in England have discovered what appears to be an ancient religious complex containing a wealth of artifacts that may finally illuminate the lives and religious practices of the people who built the mysterious monument 4,600 years ago.

The circle of massive stone blocks on Salisbury Plain southwest of London is one of the most famous archeological sites in the world, but researchers know surprisingly little about the people who built it and lived in the region.

The discovery, reported Tuesday in a teleconference organized by the National Geographic Society, reconfigures the geometry of Stonehenge, indicating that it is not an isolated monument but part of a larger religious complex that may have encompassed the area.

It also casts the people who built the monument in an unexpected light, indicating that they were not only the somber worshipers of Stonehenge but also a raucous, hard-partying group who gathered for regular festivals.

"To see the everyday lives of these people, to see people living in their houses, is filling in really important gaps in the record," said archeologist Mary Ann Owoc of Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., who was not involved in the research. "We had some evidence, but this is so much richer."

The discovery is also destined to change archeologists' views of how the ancient people used the site. Stonehenge is typically thought of as a cemetery and an astronomical observatory that was used for pagan celebrations at the summer solstice.

The monument comprises concentric circles of massive stones, some weighing as much as 50 tons, surrounded by a circular earthen bank and a ditch. Some of the stones were imported from Wales, about 150 miles away, and others were quarried about 24 miles north of Stonehenge at Marlboro Downs. It was constructed about the same time as the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

The discovery at Durrington Walls, two miles northeast of Stonehenge, indicates that the region was a religious center where people gathered in midwinter for raucous feasts and solemn ceremonies before sending their deceased on a voyage to the afterlife.

Although Stonehenge was a monument to the dead, the complex at Durrington Walls was "very much a place of the living," said archeologist Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, who led the team along with archeologist Julian Thomas of Manchester University.

Archeologists already knew there was a henge -- a circular banked enclosure with an internal ditch -- at Durrington Walls, but the wide excavations carried out in 2006 placed it in a new light.

"Such intensive subsurface research has never been attempted on this scale before" near Stonehenge, said archeologist Ruth Tringham of UC Berkeley.

The henge, about 1,400 feet in diameter, enclosed a series of concentric rings of huge timber posts. The team said the posts mimicked Stonehenge in all particulars except 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 opposite, aligned with sunrise at the winter solstice and sunset at the summer solstice.

Artifacts found in the houses indicate there were massive midwinter celebrations marking the solstice to complement the summer celebration at Stonehenge.

The team excavated eight houses, and magnetic anomalies show 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 houses' relatively flimsy wattle and daub walls are long gone. What remains are 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 locations of timber fittings for boxbeds and a dresser that stood opposite the door.

The houses are almost identical to a few houses previously discovered at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland, he said. 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."

Significantly, there was no evidence regarding the processing or baking of grain, and little evidence of crafts.

"This was not a full-time, year-round community, but one for specialized activities," Pearson said.

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