WASHINGTON: Archaeologists have unearthed a Neolithic village near Stonehenge that may have housed the people who built Britain’s ancient stone circle.
“We think we are looking at the village of the actual builders of Stonehenge,” said Mike Parker Pearson of Britain’s Sheffield University, a member of the team.
Hundreds of people once lived in the enormous ancient settlement, located within the Stonehenge World Heritage site in southern England, said the archaeologists.
The team located their excavations based on scans conducted by English Heritage, a project sponsor. “[Their] magnetometry survey had detected dozens of hearths – the whole valley appears full of houses,” said Pearson. “In what were houses, we have excavated the outlines on the floors of box beds and wooden dressers or cupboards,” he said in a prepared statement.
Henges are a type of ancient circular man made structure found in large numbers throughout Britain that have a bank on the outside and a ditch inside. The houses were found at the world’s largest henge, Durrington Walls, a site nearby Stonehenge. They have been radiocarbon dated to between 2600 and 2500 BC, the archaeologists said.
Those dates coincide with the construction of Stonehenge, leading the researchers to conclude that the people who lived in the houses were responsible for arranging the megaliths. The discovery supports the theory that Stonehenge was not erected in isolation but was instead part of a much bigger religious complex used for funerary rituals, according to the archaeologists.
“We think our discovery is very significant to understanding the purpose of Stonehenge,” said Pearson. “What we’ve revealed is that Stonehenge was just one half of a larger complex and was the largest cemetery in Britain at the time.” He said Stonehenge and Durrington Walls, only three kilometres apart, were closely linked, with the village receiving and preparing bodies for burial, some of which would be taken to the Stonehenge memorial.
He added, “The village was also occupied by people who visited for festivals in the succeeding decades and possibly centuries.” Only a small area of Durrington Walls has been investigated, and the archaeological digs are expected to continue until 2010.
Six of the houses unearthed had well preserved floors made of clay, with each room made of wood measuring 25 square metres with a hearth at the centre. A few similar Neolithic houses have been found in the Orkney Islands off Scotland. A large number of 4,600-year-old fragments of objects were also found strewn about the floors, where postholes and slots for wooden furniture had once been anchored.
“It’s the richest site, by that I mean the filthiest site, of this period known in Britain,” said Pearson. “We have never seen such quantities of pottery and animal bone and flint.” Thousands of tourists visit Stonehenge on the summer solstice, June 21, every year. In 2006, the site was declared a candidate for the world’s seven modern wonders.