Most people will have heard of Stonehenge, the Neolithic megalithic monument, comprising circles of dressed stones surrounded by earthworks, situated on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, just outside the village of Amesbury.
Rather less well-known, and 3.22km (about two miles) to the north-east of Stonehenge, lies the site now known as Woodhenge. This was discovered by aerial observation during 1925 by Squadron Leader GSM Insall1, a First World War pilot, while flying a Sopwith Snipe. From his elevated position he could see the remains of several disc barrows which had been almost obliterated by years of ploughing. However, on this particular occasion he noticed one that differed from the others in that there appeared to be a number of white spots or holes inside the circle. He immediately recognised the similarity of this configuration to that of Stonehenge.
Over the following three years, archaeological excavations were carried out by the Wiltshire-based archaeologists, Mr and Mrs BH Cunnington and, by 1928, it was clear that the site was very similar to Stonehenge, in that the circle was slightly oval with its long axis approximately in line with midsummer sunrise. It consisted of an outer ditch and bank some 76 metres (250 feet) in diameter enclosing several concentric circles of holes which had originally accommodated timber posts. Unlike Stonehenge, there was no central 'altar stone'2 although further investigations during the 1970s uncovered the skeleton of a child, approximately three years of age, whose skull had been split. This burial was positioned about 1.2 metres off the circle's centre.
Further investigation showed that the monument, dated to 2300 BC, was constructed towards the later part of Phase I3 of Stonehenge.
Durrington Walls Henge
Perhaps less well-known than either Stonehenge or Woodhenge is Durrington Walls Henge4, dating from the same time and situated only 3km to the north-east of Stonehenge.
Durrington Walls Henge is a massive circular earthwork some 480 metres in diameter, located north of Woodhenge. It has a ditch six metres deep and 16 metres wide, with a three-metre bank, and is over 1.5km in circumference. These dimensions mean that Durrington Walls Henge is even larger than the stone circle at Avebury, which encloses virtually an entire village. Radiocarbon dating of remains in former wooden post holes shows that it was built in the Neolithic period between 3100 and 2400 BC, so at about the same time as Phase I of its more illustrious neighbour, Stonehenge.
Woodhenge and Durrington Walls Henge nowadays form part of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. Archaeologists have long speculated that the functions of these three henges were connected in some way; and key to this is the proximity of the River Avon which flows between them.
Excavations at Durrington Walls conducted by Geoffrey Wainwright5 in 1967, when the A345 was being re-routed, revealed the remains of two timber circles standing within the henge, and vast quantities of animal bones which could indicate that feasting took place there. The pottery that was found was from the late Neolithic period, and a large number of deer antlers found at the foot of the ditch were identified as picks used in the construction of the monument.
Concerning the timber circles, the Southern Circle6, at the south-eastern entrance to the henge, was found to consist of two huge entrance posts and 166 posts of various sizes arranged in five concentric circles. The circle was 40 metres across and aligned so that the midwinter sun would rise between the entrance posts. The Northern Circle consisted of two timber rings with an avenue of posts leading into it.
It has been suggested that the timbers supported roofs and that the two circles represent large buildings that stood within the henge around 2500 BC.
In 2003, a magnetometry survey by English Heritage revealed two new entrances to the henge. The area outside the east entrance was found to contain a number of Neolithic pits, large quantities of animal bones, pottery and worked flints, including arrowheads. Analysis of the bones showed that the largest proportion came from pigs, and the remainder from cattle. Examination of the pig teeth revealed that they came from animals which were slaughtered at about nine months old, suggesting that this took place in midwinter. The teeth were also found to have been affected by caries, leading to the suggestion that they had been fed honey to sweeten the meat.
Also found on the site were flint representations of the male and female sexual organs.
In 2005, a team of archaeologists from several universities discovered a massive Neolithic trackway, estimated to be ten metres wide, running down to the River Avon from the eastern entrance of the henge. The trackway is metalled with flint cobbles and is the first of its kind to be found in Europe.
Linking the Living with the Dead
These findings have prompted Professor Mike Parker Pearson7 to claim a definite functional link between Durrington Walls Henge and Stonehenge, which also had an earthwork avenue (the Avenue) leading down to the River Avon. Pearson suggests that the two sites were interlinked and in use at the same time.
Durrington Walls, being made of wood, was a temporary structure and subject to decay and thus represented the land of the living, while Stonehenge, being made of stone, was permanent and represented the land of our ancestors - the afterlife.
The remains of the dead would be collected at Durrington Walls and periodically, at the midwinter festival (feastival) would be transported along the trackway and then down-river to Stonehenge. The journey would begin at Durrington Walls (and Woodhenge) in the east at sunrise and end at Stonehenge in the west at sunset. The Avenue at Stonehenge provides an approach from the north-east where the mid-summer sun rises; and facilitates the observation of the midwinter sunset as it passes between the highest stones of the inner sarsen horseshoe of Stonehenge. This final straight approach to the stones is dated to 2200 BC (ie, to Phase II of Stonehenge). However, the Avenue was extended in the later Bronze Age to curve round to the south-east down to the River Avon.
In the summer of 2009, archaeologists from the 'Stonehenge Riverside Project', led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson, excavated the remains of a prehistoric circle situated one mile (1.6km) south-east of Stonehenge on the banks of the River Avon at West Amesbury. This places it at the end of the 'Avenue', considered by Professor Parker Pearson to be a ritual pathway that connected Stonehenge with the River Avon.
Some 33 feet (10m) in diameter and surrounded by a ditch and bank, the circle was erected 5,000 years ago and is thus contemporary with the first phase (bank and ditch) of Stonehenge, of which it appears to be a miniature version. All that now remains of the circle are holes containing chips of Preseli Spotted Dolerite, identical to the bluestones used in Stonehenge.
Stonehenge itself is considered to have been constructed and remodelled over a period of some 600 years, in three phases. The second phase saw the construction of two circles consisting of 82 bluestones brought from the Preseli Mountains in Pembrokeshire, while the third phase involved the erection of the familiar sarsen stones. Conventional wisdom is that, at this stage, the bluestones were dug up and repositioned to the positions in which they are found today. However, the excavation of the summer of 2009 challenges this interpretation and Professor Parker Pearson's team now think that the creators of Stonehenge originally constructed two bluestone circles – one with 56 stones at Stonehenge and another with 27 stones at West Amesbury. The stones of the smaller circle were later incorporated into the larger circle.
The discovery of 'Bluehenge' adds credence to Professor Parker Pearson's current conjecture that Stonehenge, Woodhenge and Durrington Walls form a funerary complex or landscape in which human remains made a literal and metaphorical journey from the land of the living to the land of the dead, along a funerary processional route - the 'river of life'. One theory is that bodies were cremated at 'Bluehenge' and their ashes transported to Stonehenge for burial.
In keeping with this proposed function is the fact that the region around Stonehenge contains more prehistoric barrow burials than any other area of equivalent size in Britain, thus reflecting the great sanctity of the region from Neolithic times onward. Many of these barrows are arranged in cemeteries often strung out in a straight line. The most impressive of these cemeteries lie on Normanton Down, about 0.8km (0.5 miles) south of Stonehenge.
These cemeteries were in use over a long period of time, during which the shape of the barrows and the ritual of burial gradually evolved. The earliest type of barrow is the long barrow, which was a long mound of chalk rubble excavated from a ditch on either side, covering at one end a number of bodies which would have been interred at the same time. A particularly fine example of such a barrow can be seen at the south end of the Winterbourne Stoke group, about 2.4km (1.5 miles) south-west of Stonehenge on the main road to Exeter (A303).
Most of the burials in these cemeteries, however, are in bowl barrows, which are simple circular mounds, occasionally with a ditch around the outside edge. This sort of burial was intended for a single individual, was introduced by the Beaker People, and continued to be used throughout the Bronze Age. In addition to these there are two much rarer types of barrow, both of which seem to have been used by the Wessex people of the Early Bronze Age - the builders of Stonehenge III. These are the bell barrows which have large mounds separated from a surrounding ditch by a flat platform, and disc barrows, consisting of a flat circular area bounded by a ditch with a bank outside it. A small hump in the centre marks the actual burial. The bell barrows usually contain the burials of men, sometimes accompanied by weapons and ornaments, suggesting that they were warrior-chieftains; whereas disc barrows are almost always women's graves.