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THE history of the Stonehenge landscape could be rewritten completely after a new discovery by archaeologists.
Remains of a huge ceremonial gathering place were found near Larkhill, dating back to 3650 BC – about 700 years before Stonehenge was built.
The remains, which were discovered during archaeological excavations ahead of construction of new services accommodation, are of a Neolithic enclosure, a major ceremonial gathering place measuring about 200m in diameter.
So far pottery, worked flint, animal bones and human skull fragments have been found in the ditches surrounding the enclosure, which would likely have been used for temporary settlement, exchanging animals and other goods or for feasting and other ritual activities, including the disposal of the dead.
Dr Matt Leivers of Wessex Archaeology said: “This is an exciting new find, and one that transforms our understanding of this important monumental landscape.”
The majority of the site lies within the Larkhill Garrison, where it will remain unaffected by the current works.
Only about 70 enclosures of this type are known across the UK, and they’re thought to be some of the earliest built structures in the British landscape.
Nearby, at Bulford, archaeologists have found a unique double henge, the only known example in Britain, which dates back to around 2900 BC.
Martin Brown, the principal archaeologist for WYG, who are managing and directing the archaeological work on both site, said: “These discoveries are changing the way we think about prehistoric Wiltshire and about the Stonehenge landscape in particular.
“The Neolithic people whose monuments we are exploring shaped the world we inhabit: they were the first farmers and the first people who settled down in this landscape, setting us on the path to the modern world.
“It is an enormous privilege to hold their tools and investigate their lives.”
Article by Rebecca Hudson. Salisbury Journal
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Our knowledge of the people who worshipped at Stonehenge and worked on its construction is set to be transformed through a new project led by the University of Reading.
This summer, in collaboration with Historic England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Wiltshire Museum, archaeologists are embarking on an exciting three-year excavation in the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire.
Situated between the iconic prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury, the Vale of Pewsey is a barely explored archaeological region of huge international importance. The project will investigate Marden Henge. Built around 2400 BC ‘Marden’ is the largest henge in the country and one of Britain’s most important but least understood prehistoric monuments.
Excavation within the Henge will focus on the surface of a Neolithic building revealed during earlier excavations. The people who used this building will have seen Stonehenge in full swing, perhaps even helped to haul the huge stones upright.
Dr Jim Leary, from the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology and Director of the Archaeology Field School, said: “This excavation is the beginning of a new chapter in the story of Stonehenge and its surrounds. The Vale of Pewsey is a relatively untouched archaeological treasure-chest under the shadow of one of the wonders of the world.
“Why Stonehenge was built remains a mystery. How the giant stones were transported almost defy belief. It must have been an astonishing, perhaps frightening, sight. Using the latest survey, excavation and scientific techniques, the project will reveal priceless insight into the lives of those who witnessed its construction.
“Marden Henge is located on a line which connects Stonehenge and Avebury. This poses some fascinating questions. Were the three monuments competing against each other? Or were they used by the same communities but for different occasions and ceremonies? We hope to find out.”
The Vale of Pewsey is not only rich in Neolithic archaeology. It is home to a variety of other fascinating historical monuments from various periods in history, including Roman settlements, a deserted medieval village and post-medieval water meadows. A suite of other investigations along the River Avon will explore the vital role of the Vale’s environment throughout history.
Dr Leary continued: “One of the many wonderful opportunities this excavation presents is to reveal the secret of the Vale itself. Communities throughout time settled and thrived there – a key aim of the dig is to further our understanding of how the use of the landscape evolved – from prehistory to history.”
Duncan Wilson, Historic England Chief Executive, added: “Bigger than Avebury, ten times the size of Stonehenge and half way between the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Sites, comparatively little is known about this fascinating and ancient landscape. The work will help Historic England focus on identifying sites for protection and improved management, as well as adding a new dimension to our understanding of this important archaeological environment.”
The Vale of Pewsey excavation also marks the start of the new University of Reading Archaeology Field School. Previously run at the world-famous Roman town site of Silchester, the Field School will see archaeology students and enthusiasts from Reading and across the globe join the excavation.
The six week dig runs from 15th June to 25th July. Visitors are welcome to see the excavation in progress every day, except Fridays, between 10:00am and 5pm. Groups must book in advance.
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Latest Research and Theories About the World’s Most Famous Standing Stones.
Stonehenge. It stands on Salisbury Plain, massive, isolated and mysterious. People have been trying to fathom the meaning and history of the UK’s – and probably the world’s – most impressive and important standing stones for at least 800 years.
According to English Heritage, which manages the site about 90 miles southwest of London, early references have been found in the mid 12th century writings of Henry of Huntingdon, a Lincoln clergyman who wrote a history of England. Calling the site Stanenges, he wrote of stones of “wonderful size…erected after the manner of doorways, so that doorway appears to have been raised upon doorway; and no one can conceive how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or why they were built there.”
His questions – how was Stonehenge built, why was its location chosen and by whom – have puzzled generations of writers, researchers and visitors. Now, in the first decades of the 21st century, archaeologists are beginning to come up with some new answers – as well as a lot of new questions.
How Was Stonehenge Built and By Whom?
One of the great mysteries of Stonehenge is its actual creation. Some of its heaviest stones, the blue stones that make up the lintels, come from hundreds of miles away in the Preseli Hills of Wales. How were they transported by a society that did not use the wheel? And calling the monument “the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world,” English Heritage points out that while other Neolithic stone monuments were essentially piles of natural stones and boulders, Stonehenge is made of dressed stones, fitted together with precise mortise and tenon joints. When all the lintel stones of the outer circle were in place, they formed a perfectly horizontal, interlocking circle, even though the monument stands on sloping ground.
Early writers have theorized the monument was built by Romans – Inigo Jones thought no earlier people had enough engineering skill. In about 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his history of Britain placed it in the heart of Arthurian legends and suggested that Merlin had a hand in building it. There are stories of Merlin flying the bluestones from Wales and levitating them to the top of the monument. And of course, there are plenty of stories of alien involvement.
Current theories are equally impressive though more down to earth. For ten years, in the Stonehenge Riverside Project, teams of archaeologists from the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Southampton and Bournemouth, along with University College London, have been studying the monument and the surrounding landscape. They suggest that it was built as a unification project between farming tribes of East and West Britons who, between 3,000 BC and 2,500 BC, shared a common culture.
Professor Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, author of Stonehenge: A New Understanding, explains, “there was a growing island-wide culture – the same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast…Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labour of thousands… Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification.” (Buy Prof. Pearson’s Book Direct).
In fact, a settlement being excavated about two miles northeast of the monument, Durrington Walls, indicates as many as 1,000 houses and 4,000 people from all over Britain took part in the building of Stonehenge. And this was at a time when the estimated population of the entire country was about 10,000. The village of builders was probably the largest Neolithic village in Europe.
So the manpower to undertake so much plain hard work was there. The stones were moved from Wales, via sledges and by boat, not by dark arts or secret sciences. Though the level of organization required at such an early period, is rather amazing.
Of course, that’s just the latest theory about the origin of the stones. Another idea is that the Preseli bluestones were carried to the Salisbury landscape by Ice Age glaciers and were found naturally littering the plain when Stonehenge’s builders walked the earth.
How Old is Stonehenge?
The common wisdom has been that the monument is about 5,000 years old and was built in several stages over a period of 500 years. In fact, much of the main building of Stonehenge, visible today, was probably built within that time frame.
But the use of the Stonehenge site for important, and probably ritual purposes goes back much further – perhaps as long ago as 8,000 to 10,000 years. Excavations around the monument’s parking area in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s found pits that held wooden posts planted between 8500BC and 7000BC.
It’s not clear whether these are directly related to Stonehenge but what is becoming more evident is that the landscape of Salisbury Plain was important to early Britons for many thousands of years.
Why Salisbury Plain?
Nice big landing place for spaceships perhaps? Not very likely. What is more probable is that the landscape chose itself. Ancient Britain was covered by forests. A large open space, thousand of acres of chalk grassland, would have been rare and special. I can tell you myself, that even today, driving across Salisbury plain at in the dark, its mysterious earthworks looming blank against a starry sky, can be a transcendant, almost supernatural experience.
Then, there is the matter of the lines. No not ley lines. Aerial photography, excavations and geophysical surveys have revealed grooves – known as periglacial stripes – that run parallel to the Avenue at the Stonehenge site and coincidentally line up with the axis of the solstice. It is possible that the farming people who settled the area and who closely observed seasonal signs noticed the alignment of these natural geological features and chose the site and position of Stonehenge because of them.
That certainly was the conclusion reached by Prof. Pearson’s group. He said, “When we stumbled across this extraordinary natural arrangement of the sun’s path being marked in the land, we realized that prehistoric people selected this place to build Stonehenge because of its pre-ordained significance…Perhaps they saw this place as the centre of the world”.
Was the Summer Solstice Important to Ancient People?
Every year, Wiccans, Neo Pagans, New Agers and curious tourists flock to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. It is the only time that visitors are allowed to camp out around the site and spend all night waiting for dawn.
But findings at Durrington Walls suggest that midwinter, not midsummer was the most important and the time for rituals and feasting. Scientists have been able to date pigs teeth found at the site and say that they were slaughtered and consumed in winter, not summer. Most of the other monuments in the Stonehenge area are aligned to midwinter sunrise and sunset. That theory makes even more sense when you consider the fire festivals and observances of midwinter all over Northern Europe.
What Was Stonehenge Used For?
Take your pick: Druid worship, burials, harvest festivals, animal sacrifices, solstice celebrations, communal rituals, a healing center, a farming calendar, a defensive earthwork, a signal to the gods, an alien landing strip. There are dozens of theories about what Stonehenge was used for. And over the years, archaeological excavations have found evidence of most of theses activities (except aliens – so far). The discovery of at least 150 burials in the area is a relatively recent finding, for example.
The fact is, the ritual landscape that Stonehenge is a part of was in use by different human societies for thousands of years. It’s likely that it, and the other monuments in the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites UNESCO World Heritage site, had a variety of different uses over the millennia. We may never fully understand this mysterious place, but archaeologists and historians are getting closer all the time. Article by By Ferne Arfin: http://gouk.about.com
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