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Archaeologists Find Workers’ Village Near Stonehenge

January 31, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Stonehenge is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world and, with its huge stones aligned with the solstices, a place of great wonder and mystery. Now, archaeologists think they’ve shed new light on the site and the surrounding area, unearthing a village of dwellings built some 4,600 years ago, at the same time as Stonehenge.

The new findings are located about two miles from Stonehenge in southern England. They include a well-trod avenue from a site called Durrington Walls to the Avon River.

The excavations, partially funded by the National Geographic Society, were done last year and announced yesterday. Julian Thomas is a professor of archaeology at Manchester University and one of the directors of the project. He joins us from Manchester.

Discovery of a 'little village'

Professor Thomas, welcome to you. First, would you, if you would, describe these dwellings that you found?

JULIAN THOMAS, Manchester University: Well, these are very ephemeral little structures. Each one is no more than about four or five meters across.

And the main thing that we get in the ground is a clay floor with a little fireplace in the middle of it, and then around the edges, there will be wall lines defined by little stake holes. And those show us where walls, which would originally have been made of clay dorb or some kind of a wattle framework, would have stood.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how many did you find? And how many might there be in all?

JULIAN THOMAS: It's a good question. They're in two groups, so immediately outside the entrance of the Durrington Wall's hinge, we've excavated six of these structures, but we think that there are a great many more there. We have a geophysical survey which suggests the positions of the fireplaces of 20 or 30 more.

And this seems to form a little village, which seems to be quite dirty. There's lots of animal bones, lots of pottery, lots of fire ashes lying around.

But then, as you go up the hill and into the center of the great Henge Monument at Durrington Walls, there are another group of these little houses, and they're set further apart from each other, and each one is surrounded by a timber stockade and a bank and a ditch. And these ones seem to have been kept considerably cleaner.

Now, because of the position of these, overlooking the main settlement, we think that these are rather different. So either they're for rather special people or they're not dwellings at all. They're something like shrines or cult houses.

A mid-winter destination

JEFFREY BROWN: The ones that you referred to as dirty, one of your colleagues said that they were used for feasting and partying, a kind of Stone Age celebration. Now, how do you surmise that? Is that from the artifacts that are found in these houses?

JULIAN THOMAS: Yes, that's right. There's a whole series of bits of evidence that point in that direction. One of the things that suggests this is that, when we look at the teeth of the pigs -- and there are lots of pigs being eaten on this site -- the eruption patterns suggest that they're mostly being killed off in mid-winter.

And we think that both at Durrington Walls and at Stonehenge, mid-winter and mid-summer are the two really important parts of the year. And we think that this village, rather than being somewhere that's occupied year round, is perhaps somewhere where people are gathering at a particular time of year. And we think that these people are semi-nomadic.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the key, as I understand, is not only finding these houses, but making the connection to Stonehenge, two miles away, so that you now have a kind of wider community. Explain to us how you think about this place.

JULIAN THOMAS: Well, it's the avenue that connects Durrington Walls to the river, which actually, in the first place, led to us conduct the excavation. We wanted to find out whether Durrington, like Stonehenge, had an avenue that connects it to the river. We found it there, and as a bonus, we found the houses, as well.

But what this means is that Stonehenge, with its circles of stones, and Durrington Walls, with its circles of timbers, which are directly comparable, are actually linked together by this pair of avenues and the river.

And this means that, effectively, that they're one integrated structure, and that you could move from one to the other, which is exactly what we think they were probably doing.

The broader picture

JEFFREY BROWN: And what does it tell us more about Stonehenge itself and what kind of activities went on there? I think people know, if they know anything, a little bit about it, as an astronomical observatory, or perhaps because of their religious rites or the burial rites there. What new light does this shed on it?

JULIAN THOMAS: It tells us, first of all, that it didn't stand in isolation. It wasn't just a stone setting there to be looked at. It's part of a broader pattern, a bigger structure.

And it stands, both as a kind of complement, and as an antithesis, if you like, to what's happening at Durrington Walls. So Stonehenge is stone, and Durrington is timber.

At Durrington, you have lots of feasting going on, lots of animals being perhaps sacrificed and slaughtered, lots of people coming together seasonally. At Stonehenge, it seems that there is less activity going on. There's certainly not the feasting going on there, there's not the breaking of pots and much material being deposited.

So it's as if it's a special place that people go to from Durrington Walls, and it forms part of a suite of activities, which is spread out across this landscape. It's a very special place, but it's a special place that gains its particular character by being different from what's happening at Durrington Walls.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there also the implication that the people who would have lived in these dwellings, you found, might have been the same people who built Stonehenge?

JULIAN THOMAS: I think that's almost certainly the case. We now think that the sarson stones at Stonehenge were set up in the 26th century B.C., and that's precisely the same date as we're getting for our radio carbon dates at Durrington Walls.

And the fact that we have this integrated structure of the two monuments and their avenues connected by the river and that these houses are intimately connected with one of these avenues I think tells us that these are actually the dwellings of the Stonehenge builders.

A 'very sophisticated society'

JEFFREY BROWN: And the dwellers themselves, the people, what do these findings, these artifacts tell you about their social life, their social networks? Was it a more sophisticated society, perhaps, than we had thought?

JULIAN THOMAS: It certainly is a very sophisticated society, and it's a society linked by a whole series of connections over very long distances. We know from scientific analysis that people are moving in this Neolithic period right the way across southern England, probably following herds of cattle or herding cattle from place to place.

But it's the intimate details, as well, that we're getting for these dwellings that are so interesting. We can see the marks where people have knelt by the fireplace. We can see little holes in the ground where they've deposited the remains of meals.

It's all these things that are going on that are really so interesting, to get this fine grain of detail of what people were doing 4,500 years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, you know, I started this by talking about referring to the mystery of Stonehenge. You've had a close look at the place now and this new site. How much mystery still remains?

JULIAN THOMAS: I think it's a mysterious site now, and it was probably a mysterious site then, because I think the seclusion of what's happening inside Stonehenge itself is very important.

It may not have been everyone who walked from one site to the other, and it may not have been everyone who was able to go inside those stones back in the Neolithic. I think it was intended to be a place where what was happening was a bit shady, a bit surprising, a bit mysterious, even back then in the Neolithic.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, Julian Thomas of Manchester University, thank you very much.

JULIAN THOMAS: My pleasure.