Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Landscape of Stonehenge

It's the British Festival of Archaeology this week and there are lots of special events going on across the country. Living where I do I am rather spoilt for choice so having limited time I opted to go on the National Trust tour of the landscape around Stonehenge guided by the NT archaeologist  Dr Nick Snashall.

I've been past Stonehenge so many times and have read so many books on the subject but there is no substitute for actually walking the larger site and actually experiencing how the different archaeological features actually do fit together.

The walk started with the Cursus. This has been recently dated to between 3630 and 3375 BCE which makes it considerably older than any part of Stonehenge itself. We walked past the round barrows  and along the line of the cursus which is approximately 2 miles in length. The round barrows were added long after Stonehenge was built and have a principal burial with others added afterwards. Much later still cremation burials have been inserted into the side. Unfortunately  these barrows were excavated before DNA analysis was developed so whether the individuals are related or not cannot be known.

The cursus is ended by a neolithic long barrow which cuts across at right angles. This has been dated to be very similar in date to the cursus but  has been badly damaged  by ploughing.

We then proceeded to the "cuckoo" stone to enjoy our lunch. This is a sarsen stone that has been moved  a short distance from its   natural resting place and set upright ( before falling over!) Cremation burials have been found nearby.

On to Durrington Walls. Here there is little left to see of the henge  other than the remains of the walls and ditch - however under the grassy field lies much more. In 2007 a reinvestigation of the site revealed a well preserved chalk floor and further investigations unveiled a whole village complete with evidence of mid summer and mid winter feasting - they were apparently very fond of pork!. It is now considered that this was the village in which the constructors of Stonehenge lived during the building period.  Interestingly though the henge itself is  of later construction than the village and the site was abandoned soon after the henge was completed. Was it built to honour the workers who built Stonehenge?

Below Durrington Walls there is archaeological evidence of a timber circles which could have been used ceremoniously by the workers. Next to all this is Woodhenge itself where the positions of the original timber holes have been sensitively filled with concrete (!) in approximately the right positions. Fortunately the original excavator did not go down far enough and in 2007 more dating evidence was found along with stone sockets for at least 2 standing stones. There was a child burial found in the centre.

If  this wasn't enough then close by there are some more round barrows. Underneath these barrows were found 4 post holes and it has been suggested that these posts supported a platform which might have been used for sky burials with the bones then being removed and stored elsewhere or thrown into the nearby river for disposal. This would explain the scarcity of human remains found on the complex - with the number of people known to be there, there are nowhere near enough human remains accounted for.

Time now to start heading back to Stonehenge itself along Kings Barrow Ridge and to the barrow cemetery. Although there are traces of many more barrows only a few survive without severe damage and have not been excavated. Trees were  planted on the top by the Victorians as a decorative feature but these are destructive to the archaeology. However the storm of 1987 blew down many of them and environmental archaeologists took the chance to look at the material brought to the surface by the tree roots. 

Almost back now apart from the Avenue up to Stonehenge itself. Amazingly this has been shown to be a largely natural feature and may explain why Stonehenge is situated where it is. The Avenue aligning both  the winter solstice sunset and the summer solstice  sunrise and leading up to a plateau which was a natural clearing in what would have been woodland. This would have seemed a gift from the gods to the local people which would lead it towards a ritual use.
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