Thursday, June 5, 2008

Stonehenge Dig Reveals Expanded Site

Archaeologists keep learning more about Stonehenge and are shedding more light on the Neolithic religion that prompted construction of the mysterious 4,600-year-old monoliths.

Current excavation work is funded mostly by the National Geographic Society and performed under auspices of six British universities. The project began in 2003 and its current focus is excavation of the largest Neolithic village ever found in England. Known as Durrington Walls, the site is less than two miles from the well-known monoliths.

Recent digging has shown that Durrington Walls had earthen banks and ditches enclosing rings of huge wooden posts set in the same pattern as Stonehenge’s giant stones. This is leading archaeologists to believe Stonehenge and Durrington were closely connected and the builders of Stonehenge likely resided in the village at Durrington Walls.

So far, eight houses have been discovered and many more suspected to have existed in the area. Each house was built of woven sticks and crushed chalk, with a hard clay floor, central fireplace, and was only about 16 feet square. Excavators have unearthed messy debris everywhere inside the houses – broken pots, shattered jars and a litter of animal bones. Two houses on the west side of the village, however, separated from the others by a wood fence, are free of debris, leading some researchers to speculate they were shrines or something similar.

While Stonehenge is believed to have been a place of worship of an ancient solar cult because of the astronomical alignment of the giant stones, it’s now clear that even the roads of the period had similar purposes. A road paved with flint at Stonehenge lines up with the summer solstice sunrise. A similar road recently discovered at Durrington (shown at right in National Geographic photo) lines up with the sunset of the summer solstice. Conversely, the giant stones on Salisbury plain are aligned with the winter solstice sunset, while the wooden circle at Durrington lined up with sunrise of the same day.

Radiocarbon dating puts the Stonehenge site as being built between 2600 BC and 2400 BC, while Durrington Walls is from the same epoch, sometime between 2600 BC and 2500 BC.

“The evidence shows us these two monuments were complementary,” Dr. Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield recently told the New York Times. “Stonehenge was just half of a larger complex.”

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