Unravelling our heritage
16 October 2008
Over the past decade, Dr Joshua Pollard from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology has co-directed two projects at the Neolithic monument complexes of Avebury and Stonehenge.
Archaeological research is often labour intensive, sometimes involving substantial teams of people ranging from professional archaeologists and students to enthusiastic local volunteers. Thus, both the Longstones and Stonehenge projects have involved teams from several universities, a collaborative approach that has brought the varied specialist knowledge of different archaeologists together to address the key questions of why such great prehistoric monuments were constructed, and in the form that they were.
The henge monument of Avebury is one of the most significant Neolithic sites in the world. Constructed in several stages during the course of the third millennium BC – the later Neolithic and early Bronze Age – the massive earthwork enclosure and stone settings have had a complex history, both in their construction and destruction. As at Stonehenge, the Avebury henge was created in a landscape that had witnessed earlier settlement and monument construction, such as the Windmill Hill enclosure and West Kennet Long Barrow. As recent research has shown, these earlier Neolithic sites may have been especially important to later Neolithic communities, which shaped the way monuments like Avebury and Stonehenge were created.
Despite nearly four centuries of archaeological research, it is surprising what remains to be discovered in landscapes such as that around Avebury. The Longstones Project discovered a sizeable, but long disappeared, Neolithic enclosure and confirmed the existence of the Beckhampton Avenue, a curving 1.5-kilometre setting of large paired standing stones which runs broadly south-west from Avebury towards the Longstones at Beckhampton. Although all but two of the stones are now gone, a 120-metre section of the avenue was excavated, indicating that it had consisted of a double row of stones placed at 25-metre intervals. These discoveries alone served to effectively double the area known to be covered by the monument complex.
Stonehenge and Avebury have been part of the British landscape for so long, it is easy to think we know all there is
Most of the Avebury megaliths seem to have survived intact up until about the 14th century and then, partly because of the expansion of the village of Avebury, some of the stones were buried in order to get them out of the way of the plough, or to create new areas of pasture. After that, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, there was a very active phase of deliberately breaking up the stones in order to create building material for houses and walls. Perhaps one of the most important outcomes of this research has been a better understanding of the chronology of Neolithic monument building. We tend to imagine that someone sat down one day and decided to build a monument like Stonehenge in all its complexity, rather like a modern shopping centre. In fact, what is becoming evident is that places like Stonehenge and Avebury were continually revisited, altered and reworked over a period of a thousand years or so. What’s more, it has been possible to pick out certain periods in time when there has been a great intensity of monument building. That is particularly evident in the centuries either side of 2,500 BC when the scale of construction around both Stonehenge and Avebury seems to dramatically increase. Comparable monuments were built in both places at similar times, but were different in detail, almost as if the two places were in competition with each other, yet retaining their regional identity. The critical period around 2,500 BC, which saw the creation of the main megalithic settings at Stonehenge and Avebury, and the construction of colossal earthworks such as Durrington Walls and Silbury Hill, also coincides with an explosion of contact with continental Europe and the appearance of early metalwork.
But one of the most fascinating features of the Avebury work was the realisation that the megalithic constructions seemed to mark the end of the active engagement of people with these places. Timber and earthwork constructions of the period are often found to be associated with feasting debris – flint, pottery and animal bone – and evidence of people gathering periodically and living in these places. But once some of these sites were converted to stone, there is little evidence of people visiting. Instead, all that is found is the occasional human burial close to the stones. From fieldwork it has been possible to establish that the avenues of stones at Avebury could never have functioned as proper processional routes, which suggests the idea that they may have been constructed as paths for the ancestral dead, rather than for the living, as we tend to assume.
In fact, new radiocarbon dates of human cremation burials at Stonehenge indicate that the monument there was used as a cemetery from its inception just after 3,000 BC, until well after the large sarsen stones went up around 2,500 BC. Many archaeologists previously believed that people had been buried at Stonehenge only between 2,700 and 2,600 BC, before the large stones were raised. The new dates provide strong clues about the original purpose of the monument and show that its use as a cemetery extended for more than 500 years.
One of the most fascinating features of the Avebury work was the realisation that the megalithic constructions seemed to mark the end of the active engagement of people with these places.
These dates were only part of the many discoveries made by the Stonehenge Riverside Project, now into its fifth season of excavation. Much focus has concentrated on Durrington Walls, a Neolithic henge enclosure, located three kilometres north-east of Stonehenge. The results of the work show that before the henge enclosure was constructed, there existed a seasonal settlement of up to 300 houses at Durrington Walls, ringing a large multiple-timber circle; in fact, a timber equivalent to the megalithic settings at Stonehenge. Middens around the houses were packed full of animal bone, evidence of midwinter feasts, perhaps left by those constructing Stonehenge.
Another discovery, made along the cliff top south of the timber monument known as Woodhenge, was of monumental timber structures, each with four large posts at the centre. While it is clear these were not domestic buildings, their true purpose is still uncertain. One suggestion is that they supported raised platforms where bodies of the dead were left to decay.Stonehenge and Avebury have been part of the British landscape and psyche for so long, it is easy to think we know all there is. But another field season is about to start and students from many universities will gather in the hope of revealing yet more of the fascinating story of this enigmatic place and its people, who created such intrigue for their descendants.
Landscape of the Megaliths by Mark Gillings, Joshua Pollard, David Wheatley and Rick Peterson, describes the results of the Longstones Project and has just been published by Oxbow Books.