I normally write about this topic for the Winter Solstice, but missed it last year. However I can now wish readers a Better and Happy New Year!
Stonehenge is growing mainly in our knowledge, due to modern archaeological methods and increasing aids. But also it is growing in size and information provided on TV, radio and newspapers. As an engineer I am amazed at the way early people managed to move and erect the large stones, without our tractors, cranes and power tools and only stone axes, antler picks and ropes of twisted vegetation. Also their design capability and man-management, not forgetting making contact as far away as Scotland without telephones. So I share some recent information, as follows :
Last June The Guardian newspaper reported that a circle of deep shafts has been discovered near Stonehenge, forming a circle of 1.2 miles (2 km) in diameter. Durrington Walls Henge is precisely at its centre, 1.9 miles north east of Stonehenge. Each shaft is more than 5 metres deep and 10 metres in diameter. Twenty have been found so far at an average of 8.64 metres from Durrington Walls Henge. The circle also encloses Woodhenge and crosses a causewayed enclosure near Larkhill. There may have been over thirty shafts. The shafts have filled in naturally and were earlier dismissed as sink holes or dew ponds.
Professor Vincent Gaffney of Bradford University, who announced the findings, believes they may be greater than 4,500 years old and hence contemporary with Stonehenge and Durrington Walls. The circle appears to have included the Larkhill causewayed enclosure, which is believed to be over 1,500 years older than Durrington Walls. The investigation involved a consortium of Bradford and Birmingham Universities and one in Vienna.
Worked flints and bone fragments have been found in the shafts. Planning the circle must have involved pacing over 800 metres from the henge outwards and so must have involved a counting system or some sort of tally. Professor Gaffney believes it to be an incredible new monument, providing an insight to the past, of an even more complex society than we have imagined.
I have just discovered that I had overlooked a newspaper article by David Keys from 2012, describing Stonehenge as an art gallery. A laser scan of the monument discovered that five of the largest stones have carvings to be viewed from the north east, probably during processions at the solstices. At present these carvings are invisible now to the naked eye, having been chipped very finely. There are 72 carvings, dating from Early Bronze Age, 71 represent axe heads and one a Bronze Age dagger. It is suggested that real axe heads were used as stencils, up to 46 cm long, but larger than any actual implements so far discovered. They are believed to date from 1800 to 1500 BC and face nearby burials of the period, or the centre of the monument. The work was carried out for English Heritage by the Greenhatch Group from Derby and analysed by York Archaeological Trust.
In July English Heritage reported that they now believe they know the origin of the source of the large 20 ton sarsen stones for which Stonehenge is famous. Apparently during repair work in the 1950s a core sample was taken by drilling with diamond tools from one of the large 22ft stones. One workman took part of the core sample home as a memento and subsequently took it when he went to live in the USA. He is now 90 years old and asked his sons to return the sample to English Heritage, where it has been chemically compared with sarsens from Devon to Norfolk. Susan Greaney, one of the English Heritage authors of a recently published paper, believes that its origin is West Woods, near Marlborough in Wiltshire, about 15 miles from Stonehenge. Just the far side of West Woods lies the road from Marlborough to Avebury and adjacent to the road lie many large sarsens, commonly known as “Grey Wethers”, an old name for sheep. I have always considered this to be the source of the Stonehenge and Avebury sarsens, so I was not far out!
Professor Alice Roberts reported in October that excavations at Bulford, 3 miles to the east of Stonehenge by Phil Harding (of Time Team fame) and others had discovered two previously unknown henges, in fact a double henge. An unused stone axe, chalk balls and a decorated pot, perhaps late Neolithic, were found. Forty pits were excavated, containing a number of aurochs bones, several times larger than our domesticated cows and thought to be sufficient for a large feast, possibly for their religion. These people could have witnessed the erection of Stonehenge, 4,500 years ago. Later people left evidence of new skills, first the Beaker people and then metal working. Another excavation, towards Amesbury, at “Vespasians Camp” about one kilometre from Stonehenge showed human evidence from the Mesolithic period, with flint tools. Also animal bones some 8 or 9,000 years old, e.g. a wild boar tusk and aurochs bones. This is 3,000 years before Stonehenge was erected.
So it is gradually appearing that a large area around Stonehenge was in use before and after the erection of the monument. After its erection the use of the wide area seems to be for burial purposes of cremations, as a “hallowed ground”.
Some 14 miles, 30 km from Stonehenge is another henge which has only been fully investigated in the last 10 years. This is at Marden in the Vale of Pewsey, near Devizes in Wiltshire, described as a “Super Henge” on Radio 3 in April by Penny Bickle and Jim Leary. It is the largest known henge in Britain. Traces of a hut with a large central area of chalk/stone and remains of flint knapping and feasting on cattle and pigs were found. Some of the animals came from Scotland, according to strontium analysis, similar to those at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls. Post holes of a trapezoidal building, 20m long by 10m wide with timber walls, possibly Neolithic, maybe 3,800 BC, were found. Flat pieces of chalk engraved with marks were found in the post holes. The building might possibly have been a community hall, perhaps 7,500 years ago. The dwellings of the time would have been very smoky and residents would have ingested carbon.
This September Professor Alice Roberts added more detail about the Marden Henge, which had a bank and ditch about 10 times larger than Stonehenge. A large circle showed traces of houses, inside the henge, one of which had a large fireplace or hearth, possibly for a sauna or “sweat lodge”. Hot stones could have been carried inside and water poured over them. A second large hearth was also found, with no charcoal, but there were traces of a bonfire and a burnt sarsen stone. Near the entrance to the henge in the ditch a Neolithic burial was found of someone of mid teens, with amber beads and beaker remains of 2,000 to 4,000 BC. Later remains in straight lines were also found nearby, possibly Roman.
The Penguin Guide to Prehistoric England says the Marden Henge was oval shaped, of 14 ha, with bank and internal ditch, except on its south and western sides where the River Avon encloses it. Entrances were found on the north and east sides. A mound, the Hatfield Barrow, once stood 6.8m high inside which was excavated in 1807 by William Cunnington, but little was found and soon after it was destroyed. Excavations in 1969 found the northern ditch was over 15m wide, but only 1.8m deep. Grooved ware, antler picks and flint tools were found, with evidence of a timber circle 10.5m in diameter with 3 posts for a possible roof support.
As I write this I hear that a road tunnel will take traffic out of sight of Stonehenge soon. I wonder what may be found during the excavations?
Bridport History Society opens the New Year via Zoom at 1.30 for 2.30 pm on Tuesday 9th January 2021 when Dr Todd Gray will describe “Exeter in the 1700s: the golden years of the cloth industry”. For Zoom details contact Jane Ferentzi-Sheppard on 01308 425170 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best wishes for a better and Happier New Year.
Cecil Amor, Hon President of Bridport History Society.