Before Stonehenge: village of wild parties


Neolithic Christmas seems to have been all about wild celebrations, with grilled pig feasts, half-eaten joints thrown to the floor, and lots of willful crockery breakage – and no one cares to clean up the mess. This is the image that emerged when in September last year a team of archaeologists led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson discovered the remains of the largest Neolithic village ever to be found in Britain. They found him outside Durrington Walls, part of the large ritual complex around Stonehenge in Wiltshire. “English Heritage’s magnetometric survey had detected dozens of outbreaks – the whole valley appears to be full of houses,” Parker Pearson said. β€œWe searched the outlines on the floor of the safe beds and wooden chests of drawers or wardrobes.

Image: Rafa Esteve.

Of the approximately 25 possible houses, eight were searched, and in six of them the dirt floors were intact. Each house was approximately 5 square meters in size, with a central fireplace and post holes and slits that once anchored wooden furniture. Strewn about the remains of noisy feasts – piles of broken pots and piles of pig and cow bones on a scale unprecedented in Neolithic archeology. Some of the shards contained chemical traces of a milk and meat stew.

“This is what we would call conspicuous consumption,” Parker Pearson explained. It’s a huge gathering of feasts. It was there to make people have a good time. It was the first free festival at Stonehenge. Studying pig teeth showed that most were killed at nine months – in time for the winter solstice. β€œIt would have been a kind of Neolithic Christmas – they had a really good party. “

Most of the houses were clustered on either side of an imposing stone-covered avenue about 27m wide and 170m long that connected Durrington Walls to the River Avon. Geoffrey Wainwright’s excavations in 1966-1968 established that Durrington Walls was a huge henge monument with a moat and an outer bank enclosing approximately 12 ha. Part of the interior has been exposed to reveal two large wooden structures formed of concentric rings of post holes, one measuring 38 m in diameter, the other 27 m. Now, as part of new excavations by Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge Riverside Project, Julian Thomas has discovered two more buildings inside, this time houses similar to those lining the avenue, each surrounded by a wooden fence. wood and a substantial ditch. At least three simpler structures are suspected.

The houses inside the walls were devoid of debris and therefore were used differently. β€œWe might assume that leaders, priests or wise women might have lived here in isolation,” suggests Thomas. “Or the cleanliness could mean that they were not dwellings, but shrines or houses of worship.”

At Durrington Walls, two miles northeast of Stonehenge, archaeologists discovered a Neolithic village with ample evidence of ritual feasting. These trenches, cutting the avenue connecting the Durrington Walls henge monument to the River Avon, have revealed numerous houses on either side. Photo: Adam Stanford / Aerial-Cam for National Geographic.

In addition to a distinction between “sacred” space on the inside and “profane” space on the outside – archaeologically signified by the contrast between clean and dirty – there is, for Parker Pearson, evidence in the new findings of a deeper dichotomy between the Durrington Walls complex and the Stonehenge complex even two miles to the southwest. β€œThese findings are important to understanding the purpose of Stonehenge,” says Parker Pearson. β€œWe revealed that this was only half of a complex of monuments that people came to both to celebrate life and pay homage to the dead. We see these two monuments as complementary opposites.

The current thought is that, ritually speaking, Durrington Walls was in the realm of the living, Stonehenge in the realm of the ancestors. The use of old-fashioned wooden poles perhaps symbolized life, the gradual rotting of the wood the passage from life to death. Joshua Pollard, another member of Parker Pearson’s team, worked at Woodhenge, which lies immediately south of Durrington Walls and therefore forms another part of the ‘realm of the living’ complex. He showed that the original wooden poles were replaced with stone after decay. Stone, in contrast to wood, perhaps symbolized the end of the life-to-death journey, the completion of this final rite of passage when the deceased recently entered the ancestral domain. Perhaps, indeed, in a certain sense, the messages represented people – the people who had left.

Archaeologists at work on the floor of a Neolithic house in Durrington Walls. In the foreground, the blurred silhouette of a small square house, with a fireplace in the center. The line of holes in the background is what remains of the fence that once surrounded the house. This house is part of a small group located away from the others actually inside the henge monument and free of feast debris. Photo: Adam Stanford / Aerial-Cam for National Geographic.

That’s why no one was feasting at Stonehenge. There are no houses, no discarded pieces of meat, no broken dishes. But some 250 cremations are known or suspected. Parker Pearson believes many dead were thrown into the river at the end of the avenue leading from Durrington Walls: “I guess they were throwing ashes, human bones and maybe even whole bodies into the water, a practice seen in other river settings. But some of the dead, perhaps only the most important members of the community, had to be transported all the way to be disposed of in a more elaborate ceremony among the Stones themselves. Perhaps the body was on display within the walls of Durrington as the living wandered into the houses along the avenue. Perhaps it was then routed along the path. ‘avenue down to the river, down the river by boat, then along the other more famous avenue leading to Stonehenge. While Durrington Walls celebrated life, the gray, silent monoliths of Stonehenge were a memorial to the dead, the final destination of the trip life, the place where ancestors lived forever.

So, was the Durrington Walls settlement β€œthe wild town next to Stonehenge where the builders partied,” as one of the national headlines put it? Probably yes and no. The village’s radiocarbon dates are from 2600-2500 BC, which corresponds exactly to the main construction phases of Stonehenge, when the bluestones and large sarsens were erected. β€œWe think we are looking at the Village of the Real Builders of Stonehenge,” Parker Pearson said. “It would then have been occupied by people visiting festivals over the decades and possibly centuries after.”

But is there a danger that we conjure up an image of construction gangs like those on a modern construction site, or craft guilds like those employed on a medieval cathedral? Perhaps the construction itself was, or was part of, a ceremony. Maybe it was done on a seasonal basis, and was a collective community work job.

The excavations of September 2006 strongly supported an increasingly powerful theory about the functioning of the entire sacred landscape. The living brought the bodies of the recently deceased to Durrington Walls, and there, celebrating life, they feasted in a tumultuous funeral vigil, while the deceased lay in the henge monument. Then the bodies were transported along Durrington Walls Avenue, the River Avon, and down Stonehenge Avenue. Here, the last rites were performed to complete the passage of the body to the afterlife, and the dead spirit took its place in the domain of the ancestors. Map: National Geographic.

Stonehenge Avenue is aligned with the summer solstice sunrise, and its giant stone trilithon frames the winter solstice sunset. Durrington Walls Avenue is aligned with the summer solstice sunset, while its main circle of wood aligns with the winter solstice sunrise. The movements of the sun; the cycle of the seasons; the contrast between day and night, summer and winter, light and darkness: they are symbols of growth and decadence, of transition from one state of being to another, of life and of death. Probably too, if only we knew, that there was symbolism in some of the smaller things. The shards of Durrington Walls come primarily from Grooved Ware vessels, a type of Late Neolithic pottery that Parker Pearson says is associated with rituals and practices of everyday life, unlike Peterborough Ware, which appears to be found in related contexts to the dead and the ancestors.

It’s hard to believe that something happened at Stonehenge that wasn’t richly symbolic and ritually charged. This probably included the construction itself. The process of creating the monuments – forming and transforming over hundreds of years, of course – was perhaps as important as the end result. The effort was an act of propitiation, of dedication, of respect for the dead. Offerings of food and pottery were found in post holes at Durrington Walls – as if erecting a single post was a ceremony in itself.

For Professor Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, the results of the new excavations at Durrington Walls offer dramatic confirmation of his theories on the functioning of the sacred landscape and in particular the ritual articulation of wooden structures at Durrington Walls (the domain of the living) and the stone monument to Stonehenge itself (the domain of the ancestors).

Thus, the village could well belong to the builders of Stonehenge. But the builders were probably the common people of the area 4,500 years ago, meeting perhaps twice a year, in midwinter and mid-summer, to bury the dead, honor the ancestors. and revere the forces of nature on which their lives depended.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project is directed by Mike Parker Pearson (Sheffield), Julian Thomas (Manchester), Joshua Pollard (Bristol), Colin Richards (Manchester), Chris Tilley (UCL), and Kate Welham (Bournemouth). The project is funded by the National Geographic Society and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, supported by English Heritage and Wessex Archaeology, and run by the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Bournemouth, Bristol, UCL, and Cambridge.


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