Archaeologists working near Stonehenge in England have discovered what appears to be an ancient religious complex containing a treasure trove of artifacts that may finally illuminate the lives and religious practices of the people who built the mysterious monument 4,600 years ago, British archaeologists said Tuesday.
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.
The discoveries are also destined to change archaeologists’ views of how the ancient people used the site. Stonehenge itself is typically thought of as a cemetery and an astronomical observatory that was the site of pagan celebrations at the summer solstice.
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 itself 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 in 2006 place it in a new light.
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 massive midwinter celebration marking the solstice to complement the summer celebration at Stonehenge.
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.”