Thursday, February 08, 2007

Digging Up Durrington: The Stonehenge Builders?

Anyone who has lived through an English winter can see the point of building Stonehenge to make the Sun come back. ~Alison Jolly

If there's anything that fascinates people even more than Neanderthals, it's ancient monuments, the older and more massive, the better. The Pyramids, the cities of the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs, Easter Islandand, of course, Stonehenge all conjure up either a) prodigious efforts by non-technological groups of people to create immense structures with amazing precisions, or b) aliens.

We're going with a) here.

Stonehenge, built roughly 4,500 years ago remains, to my mind, one of the most impressive of these ancient construction projects for a number of reasons. First, the people doing the work probably were not organized on the level of, say, the Egyptians who built the Pyramids. Egypt was a relatively well organized state by the time their major projects were underway. The denizens of England were more likely to be decently organized tribes, but I've not heard of any infrastructure that could have pulled so many people and resources together at this point in English history. It's unlikely, for example, that there was a “public works” approach as there was in Egypt. On the other hand, it does mean that some central purpose was strong enough to unite the various villages to get the manpower to build Stonehenge.

Second, Stonehenge took a long time to reach its final form, roughly 600 years. It began as a regular henge, a raised circle of land surrounded by a ditch, containing only a circle of wooden poles. The structure was enhanced, improved, and increased in ways that suggest there were long-range plans. And, while there is debate over however much Stonehenge acts a a calendar, clock, or observatory, there are clearly some elements that line up with important celestial events, such as the winter solstice. Again, it takes planning to ensure that the structure will line up properly.

Setting aside the aliens, there has always been lively discussion about who built Stonehenge. Popular legend has the Celts or Druids doing the deed. Unfortunately, Stonehenge was finished about a thousand years before these people showed up. So, all those folks who show up wearing cloaks and speaking Gaelic or Elvish or whatever are having a good time, but they are being historically inaccurate.

We may finally have some idea of who the builders were or at least what they were like, though. A team of archaeologists, sponsored in part by the National Geographic Society, working at a place called Durrington Walls has discovered a village that existed before and during the time of the construction. The village could have held hundreds of people, making it the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain. It seems, though, that it wasn't a permanent, year-round set of residences. Rather, it was used seasonally, possibly for rituals associated with the Salisbury Plain monument. Or at least, it may have been. So far, that is a speculative idea, but the team bases this on the kind of refuse left behind, which seems to indicate that a lot of feasting went on, given the number and type of animal bones left behind.

Interestingly, Durrington had its own henge, a wooden one, which was oriented differently than its more famous neighbor. Stonehenge is oriented with the winter solstice sunset and possibly with the summer solstice sunrise. Durrington is oriented in the reverse manner, toward the midwinter sunrise and midsummer sunset.

Since about 250 burials of cremated remains have been found at Stonehenge, there are those who think that Durrington Walls may have been to the Henge what Deir el-Median and Thebes were to the Valley of the Kings, a village of builders and of rites of burial. There are indications of a trackway or path that runs from Stonehenge and jogs up toward the Durrington village.

Interestingly, Julian Richards, whom I saw being interviewed on the BBC, does not seem to share the idea that Durrington Walls was a launching point (literally, for the river runs past Durrington toward Stonehenge) for funerary rites. Unfortunately, the interview didn't get into much detail, but I gathered he felt that Stonehenge was a celebratory place rather than just a cemetary.

The number of burials there do cover a considerable time, and Mr. Richards may be right in his view, but it is clear that Durrington Walls was a place that got very busy at certain times of the year. In fact, the nature of some of the pig teeth found there confirms that partying went on around the time of the winter solstice for sure.

There is a lot more digging to do here and much more to learn. For example, what was the relationship between the Durrington henge and Stonehenge? Could the feasting have been limited to events relating to the Durrington henge? What sort of celebrations and/or rites were really held at both locations?

At least we know they were having a good time while they were doing it.

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