Before Stonehenge: village of wild parties

Stonehenge is merely one part of a much wider sacred landscape represented today by the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. The evidence is mounting that Stonehenge itself represented a domain of the ancestors, and, as such, a place in which the final rites were performed in elaborate ceremonies marking the passage of the recently deceased from life to death.


The Neolithic Christmas seems to have been a matter of wild parties, with feasts of barbecued pig, half-eaten joints tossed to the floor, and much deliberate smashing of crockery – and noone bothering to clear up the mess. That is the picture that emerged when, in September last year, a team of archaeologists led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson uncovered the remains of the largest Neolithic village ever discovered in Britain. They found it outside Durrington Walls, part of the great ritual complex around Stonehenge in Wiltshire. ‘English Heritage’s magnetometry survey had detected dozens of hearths – the whole valley appears full of houses,’ said Parker Pearson. ‘We have excavated the outlines on the floors of box-beds and wooden dressers or cupboards.’

Image: Rafa Esteve.

Of the 25 or so possible houses, eight were excavated, and in six of these the clay floors were intact. Each house was about 5m square, with a central hearth, and post-holes and slots that had once anchored wooden furniture. Strewn about were the remains of raucous feasts – heaps of broken pots and piles of pig and cow bone on a scale unprecedented in Neolithic archaeology. Some of the sherds contained chemical traces of a milk and meat stew.

‘This is what we would call conspicuous consumption,’ explained Parker Pearson. ‘It is an enormous feasting assemblage. It was there for people to have a good time. This was the first free festival at Stonehenge.‘ Study of the pigs’ teeth has shown that most were killed at nine months – in time for the midwinter solstice. ‘It would have been a sort of Neolithic Christmas – they had a really good party.’

Most of the houses were clustered on both sides of an imposing stone-surfaced avenue some 27m wide and 170m long which linked Durrington Walls with the River Avon. Excavation by Geoffrey Wainwright in 1966-1968 established that Durrington Walls was a huge henge monument with a ditch and external bank enclosing some 12ha. Part of the interior was exposed to reveal two large timber structures formed of concentric rings of post-holes, one measuring 38m across, the other 27m. Now, as part of the new excavations being carried out by Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge Riverside Project, Julian Thomas has uncovered two more buildings in the interior, this time houses similar to those lining the avenue, each surrounded by a timber fence and a substantial ditch. At least three more simple structures are suspected.

The houses inside the Walls were devoid of debris and were therefore used differently. ‘We might speculate that chiefs, priests, or wise women might have been living here in seclusion,’ suggests Thomas. ‘Or the cleanliness might mean these were not dwellings, but shrines or cult-houses.’

At Durrington Walls, two miles north-east of Stonehenge, archaeologists have uncovered a Neolithic village with extensive evidence of ritual feasting. These trenches, cutting through the avenue linking the Durrington Walls henge monument with the River Avon, revealed numerous houses on either side. Photo: Adam Stanford/Aerial-Cam for National Geographic.

As well as a distinction between ‘sacred’ space within and ‘profane’ space without – signified archaeologically by the contrast between clean and dirty – there is, for Parker Pearson, evidence in the new discoveries for a more profound dichotomy between the Durrington Walls complex and that at Stonehenge itself two miles to the south-west. ‘These discoveries are important for the understanding of the purpose of Stonehenge,’ explains Parker Pearson. ‘We have revealed it to be just one half of a monument complex to which people travelled to both celebrate life and pay their respects to the dead. We are looking at these two monuments being complementary opposites.’

The current thinking is that, ritually speaking, Durrington Walls was in the domain of the living, Stonehenge in the domain of the ancestors. The use of timber posts at the former perhaps symbolised life, the gradual rotting of the wood the passage from life to death. Joshua Pollard, another of Parker Pearson’s team, has been working at Woodhenge, which lies immediately south of Durrington Walls and is therefore another part of the ‘domain of the living’ complex. He has shown that original wooden posts were replaced by stone after decay. Stone, by contrast with wood, perhaps symbolised the end of the journey from life to death, the completion of that final rite of passage when the recently deceased entered the domain of the ancestors. Perhaps, indeed, in some sense, the posts represented people – the people who had gone.

Archaeologists at work on the floor of a Neolithic house at Durrington Walls. In the foreground is the faint outline of a small, square house, with a hearth in the centre. The line of holes in the background is what is left of the fence that once surrounded the house. This house is one of a small group located apart from the others actually within the henge monument and free of feasting debris. Photo: Adam Stanford/Aerial-Cam for National Geographic.

That is why no-one feasted at Stonehenge. There are no houses, no discarded joints of meat, no smashed crockery. But some 250 cremations are known or suspected. Parker Pearson believes that many of the dead were disposed of in the river at the end of the avenue leading from Durrington Walls: ‘My guess is that they were throwing ashes, human bones, and perhaps even whole bodies into the water, a practice seen in other river settings.’ But some of the dead, perhaps only the most important members of the community, must have been conveyed the whole way for disposal in a more elaborate ceremony within the Stones themselves. Perhaps the body lay in state within Durrington Walls while the living conducted a wake in the houses along the avenue. Perhaps it was then conveyed along the avenue to the river, down the river by boat, and then along the other, more famous avenue leading to Stonehenge. While Durrington Walls celebrated life, the grey, silent monoliths of Stonehenge were a memorial to the dead, the final destination on life’s journey, the place where the ancestors dwelt forever.

So was the settlement at Durrington Walls ‘the wild town next to Stonehenge where the builders partied’, as one of the national headlines put it? Probably yes and no. Radiocarbon dates for the village have come out at 2600-2500 BC, giving an exact match with the main building phases at Stonehenge, when the bluestones and the great sarsens were erected. ‘We think we are looking at the village of the actual builders of Stonehenge,’ said Parker Pearson. ‘It would then have been occupied by people visiting for festivals in succeeding decades and possibly centuries.’

But is there a danger that we conjure a picture of construction gangs like those on a modern building site, or of guilds of craftsman such as were employed on a medieval cathedral? Perhaps construction was itself a ceremony, or part of one. Perhaps it was done seasonally, and was a work of collective communal labour.

The excavations of September 2006 have given strong support to an increasingly powerful theory about how the whole sacred landscape worked. The living brought the bodies of the recently deceased to Durrington Walls, and there, celebrating life, they feasted in a riotous funerary wake, while the deceased lay in state within the henge monument. Then the bodies were conveyed down the Durrington Walls avenue, down the River Avon, and along the Stonehenge avenue. Here, the final rites were performed to complete the body’s passage to the afterlife, and the dead spirit took its place in the domain of the ancestors. Map: National Geographic.

The Stonehenge avenue is aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise, and its giant stone trilithon frames the midwinter solstice sunset. The Durrington Walls avenue is aligned on the midsummer solstice sunset, while its main timber circle lines up with the midwinter solstice sunrise. The movements of the sun; the cycle of the seasons; the contrast between day and night, summer and winter, light and darkness: these are symbols of growth and decay, of the transition from one state of being to another, of life and death. Probably, also, if only we knew, there was symbolism in some of the smallest things. The sherds at Durrington Walls are mainly from Grooved Ware vessels, a type of Late Neolithic pottery that Parker Pearson has argued are associated with the rituals and practices of everyday life – in contrast to Peterborough Ware, which seems to be found in contexts associated with the dead and the ancestors.

It is difficult to believe that anything happened at Stonehenge that was not richly symbolic and rituallycharged. This probably included construction itself. The process of creating the monuments – forming and changing over hundreds of years, of course – was perhaps as important as the finished result. The effort was an act of propitiation, of dedication, of respect for the dead. Offerings of food and pottery were found in post-holes at Durrington Walls – as if the erection of even a single post was itself a ceremony.

 For Professor Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, the results of the new excavations at Durrington Walls offer dramatic confirmation of his theories about the way in which the sacred landscape worked and in particular the ritual articulation of timber structures at Durrington Walls (the domain of the living) and the stone monument at Stonehenge itself (the domain of the ancestors).

So the village may indeed belong to the builders of Stonehenge. But the builders are likely to have been the ordinary people of the region 4,500 years ago, coming together perhaps twice a year, midwinter and midsummer, to bury the dead, honour the ancestors, and worship the forces of Nature on which their lives depended.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project is directed by Mike Parker Pearson (Sheffield), Julian Thomas (Manchester), Joshua Pollard (Bristol), Colin Richards (Manchester), Chris Tilley (UCL), and Kate Welham (Bournemouth). The project is funded by the National Geographic Society and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, supported by English Heritage and Wessex Archaeology, and run by the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Bournemouth, Bristol, UCL, and Cambridge.