On holiday this week but I’ve been reading up on Stonehenge and Avebury for a talk on Monday. Our understanding of these places have been transformed in recent years. There is a great deal to know.
The National Trust does not own Stonehenge itself, which is cared for by English Heritage but Stonehenge is surrounded by the National Trust Stonehenge Estate which leases the visitor car park to EH. For many years discussions have been taking place to improve the setting of the stones and amazingly, in the last few weeks, the modern road that cuts Stonehenge from the processional way, known as the Avenue, has been closed. This will soon enable people to approach Stonehenge as intended 4500 years ago (without having to climb over two fences and cross a busy road).
The car park will be moved to a new visitor centre which is rising at Airman’s Cross about a mile to the west.
A rare opportunity to walk amongst the stones last year as part of a EH presentation of recent geophysical, laser scan and earthwork survey research into the prehistoric landscape.
The NT has been acquiring land around the stones since the 1920s and now owns much of the Avenue that links Stonehenge to the River Avon, the Greater and Lesser Cursus (3600-3300 BC) and many of the Bronze Age burial mounds (2200-1500 BC).
The 2.8km long feature along the left side of picture is the Great Cursus an Early-Mid Neolithic ‘processional way’ (no one really knows what this long thin, banked enclosure was for. The blobs to the right of the Cursus, left of centre in the picture are part of the Early Bronze Age Cursus Barrow Group. Centre bottom to top right runs the A344 which was recently closed. Stonehenge lies to the right of this road above the car park and the Avenue lies opposite on the left side of the road turning almost through 90 degrees after a few hundred metres to run up the hill to the King Barrow Ridge at the top of the picture.
The Estate was extended in 1999 when Countess Farm was purchased on the east side of King Barrow Ridge. This meant that all the land from Stonehenge east as far as Durrington could be conserved. The Trust owns over 60% of Durrington Walls which is the largest henge… I was going to say in Britain but they only exist here so I guess it’s the largest henge in the world. Henges are ceremonial earthworks which have a ditch inside the bank hacked out of the ground using red deer antler picks c.2500-2400 BC which were often left in the bottoms of ditches (very useful for radiocarbon dates). Durrington was a massive piece of work.
Countess Farm and Durrington Walls looking south taken during a ‘Country File’ helicopter ride. Durrington Walls north boundary can be seen as a line of scrub running left from the wood right of centre of the picture. Durrington was cut by the road on the left of the picture in 1967 when linear band across the Neolithic settlement was excavated.
It was one of those epic conservation days, to go out with Simon the Head Warden with a Land Rover and trailer full of fence posts. We located the ploughed down prehistoric earthworks and marked out areas to exclude them from further ploughing, including Amesbury 42, the Neolithic long barrow (3600-3300 BC) at the east end of the cursus.
Every time a gate post hole is dug on the Stonehenge Estate, it needs to be monitored. This land is holy archaeological ground. Most of the post-holes are ploughsoil above chalk bedrock. However, in 2003, I examined two replacement gate post-holes for the entrance to the main Durrington Walls field. No bedrock in sight, they went down a metre and revealed only an accumulation of silt. The archaeology was snugly buried under a deep accumulation of soil. This had built up in the central hollow of the enclosure which gently slopes down towards the River Avon.
Hmmm. One of the 2003 Durrington Walls field gate post-holes. Exciting for its depth of soil. A special kind of excitement I admit.
A couple of months later I met Mike Parker-Pearson who had also seen the post-holes. He had put together an A Team of archaeologists to test a theory that Durrington had been a place of the living and Stonehenge was a place of the dead linked by the River Avon. It all seemed a bit fanciful at the time but the evidence they found was extraordinary. The deep silts at Durrington had created a Late Neolithic Pompeii of preservation, particularly where the henge lies close to the river. A couple of years into Mike’s Stonehenge Riverside research project, he was showing us amazingly preserved Neolithic house floors complete with a central hearth and fixings for a cupboard and bed (the layout is just like Skara Brae 500 miles away in Orkney where the houses survive in stone but are almost the same size and layout (ancient connectivity over such a distance).
One of the Late Neolithic houses at Durrington Walls (c.2500BC) contemporary with the trilithon building phase of Stonehenge. The central hearth had two indentations beside it worn by the knees of people tending the fire.
The Stonehenge landscape is an inspirational but massive subject. A vastly skilled, unique people remote in time doing incomparable things with stone and wood with very basic tools.
There is too much to write about for a blog but you must read Mike’s book ‘Stonehenge Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery’ (2012) it sets out the evidence and tells the story exceedingly well.