Happy Midwinter Solstice

This heading may not roll off the tongue as readily as “Happy Christmas”, but celebrations of the solstice at the sunset on 20-22 December predated Christmas by some 4,500 years. Solstice celebrations have been found by archaeologists to have included considerable eating of fattened pigs and drinking of ale or mead. Not so different from our present-day Christmas festivities!

Readers of this column may have noted I have a keen interest with the times before the Romans arrived: the Iron, Bronze and Neolithic ages. As a small boy I passed through Avebury en route to Swindon to visit one of my aunts and I saw the stone circle there for the first time. I asked my father what it was and his reply was “Thats Avebury, thats all”. Neither Avebury or Stonehenge were mentioned to us at school, although we were within about 25 miles of these great monuments. So a friend and I cycled to Stonehenge, when we were about 13 or so and found it open and free to roam around and touch the stones. We were in awe of the size of the stones, how and who moved them and why? How times have changed. In the last few years archaeologists have made great strides in investigating the great henge monuments and explaining them to us.

Time Team has shown us the largest henge in the country, Durrington Walls, the largest stone age settlement in Europe, near Stonehenge. Durrington is not as well known as Stonehenge as it has no obvious stones and has now been crossed by a road. It had two huge circles of oak pillars, each weighing about 5 tons and over ten feet tall. These have decayed leaving only traces of their footings in the soil, radio carbon-dated to about 2,500 BC. It was built on sloping land so its southern circle faces only the midwinter sunrise, unlike Stonehenge which is of similar date. Archaeologist Professor Mike Parker-Pearson has said that Durrington must have been the largest Neolithic settlement in Europe and was probably the construction camp for Stonehenge, maybe only for some months of each year. It probably closed around 2,500 BC, after some 40 to 50 years, according to the dating of animal bones. Nine houses have been excavated, the best having been decorated with chalk slurry. Many more houses must have been on-site to accommodate the required builders. Large amounts of pottery have been found there. Also 80,000 animal bones, especially pig, originating from all over the country as far as Scotland. The pigs were 9 months old and surprisingly had caries, tooth decay, possibly they had been fed on a diet of honey for the midwinter festivities. No doubt ale was drunk in quantity to wash down the pork! Cattle were also butchered on the site. This would have been the greatest event in peoples’ calendar, when they came together to celebrate the Solstice with a huge midwinter feast.

Parker-Pearson excavated a road 10 m wide from Durrington Henge to the River Avon. This is the first Neolithic road to have been found. It had a platform near the river with possibly 4 standing stones and stones forming the base. His theory is that people brought ashes of their deceased to Durrington and went along this road at the midwinter sunrise to the River Avon, where the river would take them to Stonehenge. There they could process along the Avenue to Stonehenge itself, for burial at midwinter sunset, said to be the largest cremation cemetery in Britain. A circle of holes, named after their finder, John Aubrey,  has been found to contain evidence of numerous cremation remains. (Aubrey wrote a review of Stonehenge in 1663 for Charles II). The Stonehenge Avenue is now said to have been created by the action of glaciers creating grooves, long before the henges or the Neolithic people were conceived. The grooves coincidentally line up with the midsummer sunrise and in recognition of this Stonehenge may have been created.

Parker-Pearson also suggests that the timber circles of “living” wood where so many people lived during the construction of Stonehenge compares with the permanent “dead” stone circle. Finds at Durrington have included polished pig bone clothespins, a clay oil lamp, a 4,500 year old cooking pot and hundreds of flint arrowheads for hunting pigs. It was not just a local community effort, but people came from all across southern Britain and may have formed the largest congregation in Europe. Jane Evans of Nottingham University believes that strontium isotopes in cattle teeth provide land signatures which show that only one was local, with a large number from 50 miles distant, a few from Wales, Cornwall and possibly Scotland.

Moving onto Stonehenge it has been suggested that this monument must have been the talk of Europe once it was complete. Few other countries have stone circles. Europe generally had rows of standing stones one of the best known being at Carnac in France. Bones excavated at Stonehenge ave been found to have been from people across the Channel, some showing signs of illness or injury which had  occurred sometime before death. It has been suggested that Stonehenge was a healing centre. However before the stone circle was erected it was a burial centre for cremation remains, covering a wide area of the locality. This obviously continued after Stonehenge was complete.

Professor Mike Pitts believes the Aubrey Holes originally contained the Blue Stones from the Presili Mountains of Wales which were moved to their present positions later in the development. Recent analysis of human bones has shown high readings of strontium in some which suggests they originated in Wales, so perhaps they brought the Blue Stones and erected them. Most of the larger Sarsen stones were worked, or dressed. After a few more changes we are left with the Stonehenge we now see and love. Luckily it was built on Salisbury Plain which was largely undisturbed.

Avebury is larger than Stonehenge but its Sarsens were not worked. It has the long Kennet Avenue of alternately tall and wide stones which leads down to the so called “Sanctuary” across the road and is denoted by concrete “stones”, as the originals have been robbed. There are two other ancient monuments nearby, Silbury Hill about half a mile away and the West Kennet burial mound a little further away and which predated Avebury by several hundred years. Avebury suffered by having a  village built close to it, with some of its houses using stones robbed from the monument. In the middle ages some priests preached that stone monuments were the work of the Devil. Recently Professor Alice Roberts reported on TV that an excavation at the centre of one of its circles found the remains of a square wooden dwelling surrounded by a square of stones, now represented by post holes. It has been suggested that this square predates the stone circles by around 2,000 years.

We look forward to further work at Avebury to match that at Durrington.

I wish you a “Happy Mid Winter Solstice”. Just imagine walking along the Avenue towards Stonehenge into the midwinter sunset viewed through the Great Trilithon and then feasting on a Solstice supper of fattened sweet cured hog roast, swilled down with copious flagons of grog!

Bridport History Society meets well before the Solstice on 10th December at 2.30 pm in the Main Hall of Bridport United Church, when “Tinkers Cus and friends” will present Light to the darkness: from war to a new start, local history and stories from the First World War and the Peace in 1919. All welcome, visitors fee £3. To be followed by tea and mince pies.


Cecil Amor, Hon President,

Bridport History Society.