Durrington Walls, two miles from Stonehenge, is named after the Neolithic henge that calls the location home. But with ongoing research revealing a massive and previously unknown monument hidden beneath its banks, the site’s history is set to be rewritten. Carly Hilts spoke to Vince Gaffney, Mike Parker Pearson, and Nick Snashall to find out more.
Around 4,500 years ago, hundreds of people gathered two miles from Stonehenge to build another massive monument, at a location known to us as Durrington Walls. The spot they had selected lay within sight of the celebrated stones, and had previously been home to a village that may have housed the community that erected them (CA 208). But now the short-lived settlement lay abandoned, and – perhaps motivated by a desire to commemorate its presence – the new group of builders punched through the living surfaces and midden material of their predecessors to complete their work.
Their efforts were not focused on raising the imposing earthworks of the henge that gives the site its modern name, however. Instead, their labour created a previously unknown earlier phase whose full extent is only now being revealed by ongoing research: as many as 300 huge wooden posts, evenly spaced 5m apart in a ring almost 450m across. It would have been an arresting sight, yet within a maximum of 50 years the monument had been decommissioned once more, its posts removed and their sockets filled in, before being covered over by the henge that we see today. All trace of the post circle would lie hidden beneath the banks of its successor for millennia – until it was brought to light once more by a series of excavations and the largest geophysical survey of its kind. Why did the site undergo such a sudden change in design, and what can we learn about the rise and fall of a long-lost monument? As analysis continues, intriguing clues are beginning to emerge.
The first clues to the earlier circle’s presence came during 1967, when an investigation led by Geoffrey Wainwright revealed six postholes on the north-east side of the henge. At the time, it was not clear what these represented, but decades later the 2005-2007 Stonehenge Riverside Project (co-directed by Mike Parker Pearson) saw archaeologists uncover a short row of four more postholes while digging near the henge’s eastern entrance. So far, so enigmatic – and this was how these features would remain, until a recent wide-ranging geophysical survey revealed them to be part of something much more significant.
The surveying was part of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, a collaboration between the Universities of Birmingham and Bradford, and the Ludwig Boltzman Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Vienna, which between 2010 and 2014 explored an area of over 13 square kilometres around Stonehenge using an arsenal of cuttingedge geophysical techniques (CA 296). Their findings were revelatory: footprints of dozens of previously unrecorded prehistoric features could be seen scattered across the landscape, proving that what was once thought to be a relatively empty environment – with Stonehenge standing in glorious isolation – was anything but.
Among the project’s star finds were hints of a mystery monument beneath Durrington Walls. It yielded such strong signals that the team initially wondered if they had found the buried remains of a stone circle. Preliminary analysis hinted at a vast C-shape of at least 120 standing stones, with some 30-40 toppled over but remaining intact, and the rest represented by in situ fragments or empty sockets (CA 308). This would have been an enormous construction – but what was it? The next step was to put spade to earth and ‘ground truth’ some of these features through excavation.
Pits and palisades
To this end, the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project and Stonehenge Riverside Project teams came together with the National Trust to explore the enigmatic anomalies. Two of the pits were selected for further investigation. As digging began, it swiftly became clear that the holes had held not stones but posts, and enormous ones at that. Supported by pits measuring over half a metre across and around 1.5m deep, these timbers could have stood as much as 5m above the ground; not slender poles, then, but tree trunks weighing between 1.5 and 3 tonnes, the team estimates.
Mike Parker Pearson led the excavation. He argues that, as analysis continues, it becomes increasingly likely that the postholes previously discovered on the other side of the henge also formed part of this arrangement. Given that the pits are so regularly spaced, and taking into account gaps in the circuit caused by early 20th-century disturbance, this could point to a ring of as many as 300 posts. The labour involved in creating such a monument without the aid of modern technology must have been staggering, but the recent project has uncovered some clues to how it was achieved. Both of the excavated pits were accompanied by a ramp cut into the bedrock, evoking images of a post being guided in at an angle and then lifted vertically.
The end result was a form of monument known as a ‘palisaded enclosure’ – a type occasionally seen elsewhere in Wessex, such as one excavated at Greyhound Yard in Dorset in the 1980s, but more commonly found in Scotland and Wales. At 440m in diameter, the Durrington Walls enclosure is an illustrious addition to this body – the secondlargest Late Neolithic example yet found – although it is dwarfed by the largest, at Hindwell in Wales, which is twice the size.
That this form of monument had reached Salisbury Plain seemingly lends credence to suggestions that the Stonehenge landscape attracted people and ideas from far afield during the prehistoric. Isotope analysis of cattle and pig bones found at Stonehenge speak not only of large-scale feasts being held near the stones, but of people travelling great distances to attend them. With ongoing research also pinpointing the source of some of the bluestones in the Preseli hills in Wales (CA 311), the famous site could be seen as being as much a monument to mobility as a ceremonial site. Might the Durrington Walls enclosure also represent this flow of ideas towards the celebrated stones? Such a transmission might explain why the post circle is at least a couple of centuries later in date than similar examples in Scotland and Wales.
Building the monument
If building the monument would have been a logistical feat, sourcing the materials it was built from presented no less of a challenge. The huge posts indicated by the size of the Durrington pits would have come from mature trees perhaps 70-80 years old: heavy things to shift, and needed in large numbers. At this time, however, pollen and mollusc studies suggest that the Stonehenge landscape was open grassland. So where can these quantities of tall, straight trees have come from?
The answer, the team suggests, could lie along the River Avon, either towards the coast where the land was more thickly forested, or in the densely wooded valleys that lay upstream. Finding areas of canopy forest was key, they argue, because trees competing for light tend to grow straight up, producing the tall, pole-like trunks required for a project like the Durrington Walls circle – whereas single trees are more likely to grow twisted. With the help of the river, moreover, transporting the heavy trunks even over long distances should not have been overly problematic – after all, the researchers point out, Neolithic people were capable of shifting the much heavier components of Stonehenge over even greater distances.
It was perhaps to commemorate the achievement of erecting the posts that enigmatic ‘structured deposits’ seem to have been placed close to the timbers after they were installed. Holes had been dug into their accompanying ramps, into which were tucked intriguing collections of objects: animal bones including partly articulated cattle remains, lumps of sarsen stone, and a fist-sized nodule of iron pyrites. Might these be votive offerings made to mark the monument’s completion?
The moment when the mighty timbers were heaved into place must have been a triumphant one, but within perhaps only a couple of generations – or even sooner – the whole arrangement had been taken apart and replaced by something completely different. The absence of tell-tale soil stains testify that the posts had not been left to rot in situ; in any case, the interval between the posts being installed and the henge being constructed on the same site is too narrow for this to have been possible.
As yet, we have no direct dating evidence for precisely when the posts were set up or taken down, but the fact that this was a rapid process can be clearly seen thanks to previous research at Durrington Walls. There is an underlying Neolithic village, which is thought to have been inhabited for only 10-12 years, based on our understanding of the chalk floors of the houses, which seem to have been renewed at most nine times, and of the pits from which material for this was quarried, which seem to have been recut a maximum of 12 times. Bayesian statistical analysis of radiocarbon dates established during earlier projects reveals that this village went out of use in c.2500-2460 BC, while the henge bank was completed by c.2480-2450 BC. Taken together, this suggests a window of a maximum of 50 years in which the timber circle existed.
Further clues may emerge as post-excavation analysis continues, however; rather considerately, the prehistoric builders left a shovel formed from a cow’s shoulderblade, possibly used for loosening a post before removal, at the base of one of the pits after the pole was taken out. We can tell that it post-dates the timbers being removed, rather than being involved in their installation, because if the latter were true the bone would have been completely crushed. By contrast, part of an antler pick recovered from pit fill is thought to have been used in the initial construction. It is hoped that radiocarbon dating both of these might provide bookends for the monument’s life cycle that will help to make the existing Bayesian statistical model more robust.
Despite this apparent haste, however, this was no wanton destruction. The pits and ramps show no sign of the damage that might be expected if the posts had simply been hauled over sideways and dragged from their sockets. On the contrary, concentric rings at the bottom of one of the excavated postholes suggest that the timbers had been carefully twisted loose before being extracted vertically. Was this a sign of respect for a significant site at the end of its life? Or might the decommissioners instead have been salvaging the posts for reuse elsewhere?
Such suggestions can only be speculative, but tantalising clues to just such a process might possibly lie nearby. In 1967, Geoffrey Wainwright led the excavation of two rather different prehistoric post arrangements, formed of multiple concentric rings of timbers, just 200m from Durrington Walls. The larger of these, known as the Southern Timber Circle, seems to have undergone significant augmentation at the very same time that the Durrington Walls palisaded enclosure was being taken apart – modifications that included the addition of 200 new posts. Might this have been the final home of the Durrington timbers?
It is a tempting possibility – though, as an alternative, Mike also proposes a more prosaic fate: when the enclosure was dismantled, the builders were probably already planning to build the henge that so swiftly replaced it, a project that required a vertically sided ditch some 6m deep. ‘This would have been tricky to get into,’ he said. ‘I wonder if some of the timbers might have been turned into notched log ladders of the type we have seen elsewhere for this period – they would have been perfect for that.’
Whether the timbers’ next use was ceremonial or more mundane, and wherever they ended up, their departure from Durrington Walls was marked by the Neolithic community. All of the empty postholes were packed with quantities of chalk fragments: it was this densely crammed rubble that had produced signals during the geophysical survey, which led the team to interpret the remains as standing stones. Furthermore, the route of the new henge was designed to follow the line of the pits.
The henge was a dramatic break with the earlier design of the site: a 3m-high circular bank accompanied by a ditch 3-5m wide. But what prompted this radical change of direction, and so soon after the post circle was built? Could this simply be attributed to the mercurial moods of senior management that we are all so familiar with today – a vivid illustration of the people and resources that the prehistoric elite could command? Or could the change have been more dramatic?
Such a major switch might hint at a change in the social order and a particular group or individual wanting to impose their own stamp on the landscape, suggests Nick Snashall, National Trust archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site: ‘It is possible that the breaking up of the diverse group of people who had come from across Britain to build Stonehenge may have created social instability,’ she said. ‘This is a moment of such change that you almost feel that someone new had taken sway.’
While the care apparently given to dismantling the palisaded enclosure suggests that this was not a violent change, Vince Gaffney of Bradford University, who co-directed the geophysical work, agrees that there may have been an ideological motive behind it. ‘I think theological change seems reasonable, given the scale and speed of the transformation,’ he said.
Instead of a destructive change, might we be better off viewing the creation of the henge as an upgrade to the site? Given that the Durrington palisaded enclosure falls quite late in the tradition of such monuments, ideas of some kind of prehistoric Reformation might be misplaced, Mike suggests.
‘Yes, the palisaded enclosure would have been a big undertaking, but its creation represents a tiny amount of effort compared to building a henge bank and ditch with antler picks – that is a project that would have required not hundreds but thousands of people.’
For prehistoric monuments to have undergone striking redesigns is not unknown on Salisbury Plain; after all, the layout of the stones of Stonehenge shifted multiple times during its life (CA 275), while Avebury’s avenue was relatively late in joining the rest of the Neolithic complex. Nor would the arrival of the henge be the last modification of Durrington Walls: at some point two or three centuries later, its north and south entrances were blocked off and their causeways severed to create the continuous bank with a single eastern entrance that we see today.
As for the future, the team has no immediate plans to excavate any more of the pits, but the site and its surroundings may yet yield further secrets. The vast datasets of geophysical survey results produced by the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project will take time to sift through, and the next step will be to work through these and continue to refine their results. The Stonehenge landscape has been studied in varying degrees of detail by generations of archaeologists and antiquarians, but new technology may hold the key to eking out even more previously unknown features. As Vince Gaffney comments: ‘It’s a site that keeps on giving.’
Images: Aerial-Cam,www.aerial-cam.co.uk; LBI ArchPro / Joachim Brandtner; National Trust