The Blueprint for Stonehenge

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Durrington Walls / Southern Circle - replicaPhoto:
Durrington Walls / Southern Circle ­ replica
Photo ­- University Sheffield – Archeology Dept.

The ritual timber circle at Durington Walls known as the Southern Circle may be the model used by the priest-astronomer-architects who designed Stonehenge. Let’s reconstruct this incredible archeological find. In so doing, we’ll get a feel for what life was like in the only Neolithic village discovered in England – and possibly the largest of its time in all of northwest Europe. This settlement may even have been the resting and feasting place for the work crews who built Stonehenge.

Durrington Walls

Durrington Walls is only 3.2 km (2.0m) distant from Stonehenge, and contains a sacred avenue that provided for processions that led up from the Avon River. Durrington Walls also contains the largest henge in Britain – 40m diameter. This timber circle was oriented towards the rising sun at mid-winter solstice, which is in opposition to the solar alignments at Stonehenge. The avenue was aligned with the setting sun at summer solstice, an arrangement similar to the avenue that connects the River Avon to Stonehenge. There is evidence for huge fires on the banks of the River Avon at this time. At some point in time that cannot yet be dated, the south entrance and route to Woodhenge from Durrington Walls was blocked.

Durrington Walls / AvenuePhoto:
Durrington Walls / Avenue
Photo ­- University Sheffield – Dept. Archeology Report 2006

The Avenue

Durrington Avenue was built before the three wood henges. It was 30 metres wide, aligned on the mid-summer solstice, had a flint and gravel surface and was at least 170m in length of which 100m survives today. The Durrington Avenue connected the Southern Circle to the River Avon, ending at a chalk cliff with a steep drop to the river.

Durrington Walls - Southern Circle orientationPhoto:
Durrington Walls / Southern Circle orientation
Diagram ­- University Sheffield – Dept. Archeology Report 2005

The Southern Circle is a 40m diameter area within which are six concentric rings of timber posts. At least three flint nodules in the shape of male sexual organs placed within a naturally shaped vulva pit have been found in this area. They indicate a role for fertility symbolism in the rituals of the time, but at what level is unclear. Such artifacts might only be individual offerings for enhanced virility, or a baby on the way that the father wanted to be a boy.

Durrington Walls / Southern Circle - sight linesPhoto:
Durrington Walls / Southern Circle -­ sight lines
Schematic ­- University Sheffield – Dept. Archeology Report 2005 / p.71.

Southern Circle ­

In spite of the apparent density of posts in the Southern Circle, there was a series of sight lines that provided a compelling view of the surrounding and distant landscape. These sight lines were likely a deliberate feature of a contemplative design. It is possible that an abstract template of astronomical or calendar significance determined where these long distance sight lines were placed. If an important myth and ritual demanded a specific view, then the design of the Southern Circle must acquiesce or lose significant ritual potency. The principal solstice alignment is of course without question.

Durrington Walls - antlers hedge bankPhoto:
Durrington Walls / antlers in hedge bank
Photo ­­- University Sheffield – Dept. Archeology Report 2005 / p.52.

High concentrations of antler picks map features at significant locations within the Southern Circle and the entrance passage to the interior. There is a massive concentration of pottery, flints and bone tools around the entrance and immediately adjacent to the long distance sight lines. When the Southern Circle had fallen into disuse and the posts had rotted away, their holes were recut. These recuts received another phase of massive deposition consisting of pottery, arrowheads and antler picks. Flints and animal bones were carefully placed in the recuts in a series of discrete events, after which pottery fragments were added higher in the fill. The bones and flints were derived from the massive middens scattered across the landscape, and the smash ups that accompanied feasting.

Durrington Walls / Southern Circle- posthole cutsPhoto:
Durrington Walls / Southern Circle -­ posthole cuts
Schematic ­- University Sheffield – Dept. Archeology Report 2005

This activity occurred long after the Southern Circle was in active ritual use; it was now ancient and in a ruined state. These deposition ceremonies in the recuts would be commemorative, designed to honor an ancient and formerly powerful religious structure that now had lost its primary meaning and sacred song. Ceremony appears to have been small in scale and perhaps private. A hole was dug into which were placed gifts to honor the Southern Circle in its former time of greatness.

The complexity of individual recut deposits might be evidence for nothing more than randomness and lack of specific requirements as to what could be deposited. Alternatively, this complexity might reflect the mosaic in different parts of the Southern Circle. Individual posts might have had different identities and histories associated with different persons and geography. This individuality of posts might have required that different materials be deposited in each recut.

Durrington Walls / Avenue - Trench 1Photo:
Durrington Walls / Avenue – Trench 1
Photo ­­- University Sheffield – Dept. Archeology Report 2006

Neolithic Village

Durrington Avenue and the Southern Circle were the dominant constructions in a ceremonial complex that was the center of a large Neolithic village. Eight house floors have been found amidst an excavated area that is only 0.3% of the entire Durrington Walls site. This is the only Neolithic village discovered in England and as such it is a very important excavation.

Extrapolation suggests that the valley was filled with hundreds of small, rectangular houses, where the thousands who toiled at Stonehenge lived and slept. Houses were 2.5m x 3m to 5m x 5m, not large by any standard. House plans from Durrington Walls are similar to those on the Orkney Islands at Skara Brae. A central hearth was set within a chalk plaster floor that was surrounded by slots that held wooden bed footings and furniture. In the wall construction in two buildings, cobb was used for the first time in Britain. Cobb is a traditional building material that was made from crushed, conglomerated chalk. Other houses used simple wattle and daub or wattle for wall construction.

Durrington Walls / Village House 547Photo:
Durrington Walls / Village House 547
Photo -­­ University Sheffield – Dept. Archeology Report 2006

Two of the houses are unlike the others that were excavated because they are inside ditched enclosures. The smaller enclosure is 12m in diameter, with an external bank and entrance on the west side. The larger is similar in structure but 40m in diameter with an east side entrance. Between this east side entrance and the house was a pair of very large potholes and a sturdy timber palisade whose entrance was later blocked by stakes. Both houses were positioned on a terrace with dramatic views of the sacred landscape.

It seems that these houses were designed and situated to reflect important attributes of their owners. Were they the homes of regional aristocracy who directed the Stonehenge, Durrington Walls, and/or Avebury projects? Or, were these buildings religious shrines or temples for ceremonies that were not freely available to the entire community? Did the Amesbury Archer and/or the Boscombe Bowmen live in this village when they were involved with Stonehenge?

The entire village had a circumference of about one mile, and perhaps 300 houses survive beneath the hedge banks. The Durrington Walls village may have been the largest of its time in all northwest Europe. Town planning was circular and the houses were set around an open area that contained the Southern Circle. This sacred space and construction was the center of an arc that included a timber circle (Northern Circle), and the two special houses set within palisades and ditched enclosures.

Durrington Walls - Trench 1 postholePhoto:
Durrington Walls / Trench 1 – posthole
Schematic ­- University Sheffield – Dept. Archeology Report 2005 / p.49.

Large quantities of pig and cattle bones, pottery, flint arrowheads and lithic debris testify to a high population density in the village and intense activity. Feasting and wasteful consumption was frequent. There are no grinding querns among the artifacts, nor carbonized grains. This was a village of strong men who ate a great deal of meat, and then worked very hard at the henges, sacred stone circles and avenues (cursus) at Stonehenge, Durrington Walls, and perhaps Avebury as well. Occupation may have been seasonal, but working throughout a winter in southern Britain is possible if ice and blizzards are only occasional. There is evidence for the culling of pigs in the village at mid-winter.

We can assume the work crews were ‘tough guys’, and the absence of plant derived dietary items indirectly suggests that women were present only on an occasional basis. Perhaps the regional population was dense enough to organize large work gangs in shifts that worked intensely for a short time. After several weeks, the men returned to their home villages as a new work gang arrived. Rotation of work assignments in this fashion would maximize efficiency and enthusiasm. No one would be forced away from their home village for a long period of time.

Durrington Walls - Durrington 68Photo:
Durrington Walls / Durrington 68
Photo ­­- University Sheffield – Dept. Archeology / 2007 Excavations

Three Timber Structures

Durrington 68 was a square structure determined by the square setting of four postholes, each 1.6m deep, which held posts that were at least 9m high above ground. This four timber pole ‘square’ was surrounded by a sub-rectangular palisade that may have been set in place in later years, perhaps as a ‘closing deposit’. The southeast side entrance of the palisade was marked by two pits each set 1m deep that held posts that were at least 2m high above ground. These posts were too close together to make a roof feasible. The orientation of the building was toward the midwinter solstice sunrise.

Durrington 70 was a rectangular structure comprised of six postholes whose timber poles had been left to rot in their postholes. The building faced east and no calendrical significance can be discerned. Single potsherds of Beaker and Peterborough pottery have been found in the eastern postholes. South of Durrington 68 is the smallest of these three late Neolithic post buildings, a four post structure with each side aligned on the cardinal points.

Further south was a double ring ditch that contained a Beaker culture burial that was excavated in 1928. It was surrounded by an unevenly spaced circle of large pits that intersected with the outer ring ditch.

These three timber structures formed a line of ceremonial structures overlooking the River Avon, downstream from Durrington Avenue. Were there platforms on top of these timber structures, upon which people gathered for particular ceremonies?

Durrington Walls - Stonehenge comparisonPhoto:
Durrington Walls -­ Stonehenge comparison
Photo -­­ University Sheffield – Dept. Archeology Report 2005 . p.77.

Journey to the Ancestors

200 years after the first circle was constructed, two other concentric rings and a henge enclosure were built. The work force estimated to build the henge numbered between 4,000 and 6,000. A ditch 5.5m deep was dug, and the earth used to create a large outer bank 30m wide and several meters high. Stonehenge is most often compared to Woodhenge, but closer proximity and adherence to similar architectural concepts suggest that Durrington Walls and Stonehenge were a designed partnership for some ritual functions. Each has an avenue, or roadway, joining their ritual circle to the Avon River.

The second phase of the Southern Circle and the sarsen alignment were both constructed c. 2500 BC. Both structures are circular, set within an earthwork enclosure, and each faces an avenue that connects to the Avon River. The Southern Circle at Durrington Walls, and the Sarsen Circle and Trilithons at Stonehenge form two ends of a single pattern, with­ the tips of the arms in a ‘V’ shaped architectural plan. There is a similar arrangement between the henge at Avebury and either end of the West Kennet Avenue.

Stonehenge-Durrington Walls / Journey to AncestorsPhoto:
Stonehenge – Durrington Walls map / Journey from Life to Death
Map – tim / remote central archives

One proposal ties many known parameters together in this ritual landscape. The prodigious quantity of animal bones in the Neolithic village excavation at Durrington Walls appear to have been deposited during mid-winter feasting. Perhaps these feasts honored the dead whose remains – perhaps cremation ashes – were taken in solemn procession down the Durrington Walls Avenue to the River Avon. The ashes of the dead drifted, or were guided on small rafts to the sacred Avenue that led from the River Avon to the Stonehenge site. These ashes were then the focus of a ritual performed within the timber henge believed to be the sacred structure of the site at this earlier time. Perhaps in the Bronze Age, it was believed that the souls of the dead were free to leave this earthly realm for the ‘heavens’.

The Avenue at Durrington Walls is aligned to the Summer Solstice Sun Set. The Avenue at Stonehenge is aligned to Summer Solstice Sun Rise. The Southern (timber) Circle at Durrington Walls aligns with Winter Solstice Sun Rise, and a portion(?) of Stonehenge is aligned to Winter Solstice Sun Set. The presence of a timber henge at this earlier phase of Stonehenge is noted and easily accommodated.

Stonehenge 3 VI / Y and Z HolesPhoto:
Stonehenge 3 VI / Y and Z Holes
Plan ­- Dr. Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe / Sweet Briar College

Stonehenge had a much longer ritual lifetime than the Southern Circle at Durrington Walls. It continued in active use for approximately one thousand years after the great Sarsen Circle was built. Stonehenge also underwent architectural modifications for a few hundred years after initial construction of the great stone Circle. In contrast, the Southern Circle at Durrington Walls fell into disuse more rapidly and it had a much shorter lifetime of ritual potency.

It seems that the digging of the Y and Z holes outside of the sarsen circle ~1500 BC were the last construction at Stonehenge to survive in the archeological record. At this time, the Southern Circle at Durrington Walls had fallen down and rotted away. The final configuration of the central area at Stonehenge, which was six concentric rings of constructions, might refer to the Southern Circle in its degraded state.

Although now an antique relic, a strong folk memory of extreme ritual power may have persisted through the centuries. Were the posts intended for the Y and Z holes designed to commemorate the recuts at Durrington Walls that honored the two outer rings of the Southern Circle? Or is this all too convoluted? The similarities between the Southern Circle and Stonehenge may – after all – only be a coincidental meeting of generalities.

Sources –

1, 2, 3, 4

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