Christmas Countdown 22 and 23 – Prehistory of Midwinter part 2

So in out first part we mainly focused on Stonehenge and eluded to how interacts/related to other monuments in its landscape. In part two our focus will be on a few other Neolithic/Early Bronze Age sites, and a brief examination of the other evidence in later Prehistory for the celebration of the Midwinter festivals.

Durrignton Walls – The Late Neolithic ‘Superhenge’

(Durrington Walls and Stonehenge)

I would like to start by looking at the the ‘Super Henge’ of Durrignton Walls, which also has a strong connection to Stonehenge.

Where as Stonehenge gives us the term ‘Henge’, but is not actually a henge itself, Durrignton Walls is a henge (an earth ditch and bank monument, where the the ditch is on the inside of the bank – a very simple definition). With a diameter of 440m it is Britain’s largest henge. It lays almost two miles from Stonehenge in a valley that meets the River Avon north of Amesbury. Just outside of Durrignton is the much smaller Woodhenge which was built around a timber circle (excavated in 1928). Two other timber circles were found inside Durrington Walls the Southern and Northern circles, which were dug in 1967.

Other than that, very little was known about Britain’s largest henge until the excavations that took place between 2004 and 2007 (this of course included a Time Team dig in 2005). These excavations gave a tantalizing glimpse into the history of Stonehenge and the link between these two monuments, the wider landscape, and the midwinter solstice.

Before the excavations in 2004-2007, there was no real evidence for the people who built Stonehenge, at least not for where they were living. Excavations in and around Stonehenge had revealed very little, a few flint arrowheads here, a few pottery sherds but nothing substantial for that workforce that would of been needed, especially during phase 3 (please see Christmas Countdown Day 20 for more details) when the 80 30-50 ton Sarsen stones were erected. So if they were not living in the immediate vicinity of Stonehenge, where were they living? Could they have been living at Durrington Walls? And if so why were they living almost 2 miles away? And what, if anything does it have to do with the Midwinter solstice and any related celebrations? Well let us take a closer look at the 2004 – 2007 excavations.

Durrington Walls Excavations 2004-2007

During these excavations, remains were found of a large village that was found underneath and inside of the banks of the henge, around the Northern and Southern timber circles. As the village was found underneath the banks of the henge, it means it predates the henge, that starts to give us an idea of the history of the site. In the area that was excavated, all the houses appear to belong to one phase, no houses built on top of another, suggesting that this village was probably short-lived.

Radio-carbon dating has dated the Henge at Durrington Walls between 2480-2460 BC. The excavations reveal that the village itself was in use for no more than 55 years, which puts the time that the village was in use c.2500 BC, which coincides with the phase 3 of Stonehenge. For exactly how long, or often the village was in use for his hard to say, but it may have been only for a decade or two.

As previously mentioned, all the houses appear to belong to one level, not built on top of other houses, and none built on top of them. Each house had a floor made of chalk plaster, evidence was found that some floors had reapplied, in some cases as many as seven times. Chalk pits were found outside of the houses, which provided the chalk for the floors and walls of the houses, and for the repairs as needed. Outside one of the houses 12 pits were discovered, each dug into the edge of the other, if these repairs/reapplications happened annually, then this may give a good indication of how long the village was inhabited for.

So if the village at Durrington Walls was indeed the home of builders of the Sarsen phase of Stonehenge then this would narrow down this phase to the one to two decades that the village was inhabited. This may seem like a long time for building of this phase, but evidence points that this phase was built on a seasonal basis between the autumn and winter, rather than all year round. Now, only nine houses were excavated over the three years of the excavations, but archaeologists have extrapolated using the traces of occupation elsewhere around the henge that may have been up to 1000 houses in total, giving a population of around 4000 people, making Durrington Walls one of the one most densely populated sites in all of Neolithic Britain, apart from Orkney. This population estimate also equates to the estimate of people needed to build the henge around a generation after the houses were first built.

The evidence from the excavation suggests that the inhabitants of the village did not live there all year round, but probably during the autumn and winter months. This is supported by the large amount of pig remains found on site, and with close analysis of the bones it is possible to determine in what season they were butchered, and the large quantities of pig remains appear to be butchered between the autumn and winter months. Was some sort of winter feast? If so it would coincide with the alignment of Stonehenge to the midwinter solstice sunset.

There are other links that point to the relationship between Durrington Walls and Stonehenge (and the midwinter festivals). The orientation of the two timber circles within Durrington Walls, they are both aligned on the midwinter sunrise. So with the Durrington Walls, settlement for the living, and Stonehenge a ‘settle of the dead’, with its many cremations, does this potentially link to a symbolic representation of sunrise and sunset in the Neolithic? In part 1 of this series we considered what John Abercrombie thought of the relationship with Stonehenge and his ideas about the death and rebirth of a great divinity, could this potentially be evidence for this? I am not sure whether we could say for certain, one could look to anthropological comparisons from the first European settlers exploring the ‘New World’ and to modern studies, and although these give some ideas these sort of studies also have many issues, the main one being the assertion that these cultures and peoples have remained unchanged in some of form of cultural stasis for thousands of years, which I think does them a disservice. Anyway, this has got a little bit off topic.

Another interesting relationship is the relationship of the Southern timber circle and the avenue of the henge. The avenue ‘connects’ the southern circle to the river Avon along a 170m track. The avenue itself is aligned on the midsummer solstice sunset. If you strip away the the man-made service of the avenue to its original surface was naturally deposited as long this alignment. This shows parallels to the avenue of the Stonehenge where it’s alignment was also naturally formed along the solstice, which shows the Neolithic people’s recognition and deliberate appropriation. The surface of the Avenue was 15m wide with banks dug either side, so was more than just a functional track for getting to and from the river, house-sized buildings were also found on either side of the river. Were these potentially part of some procession? Or to view the sunset? Is the link between Durrington Walls and Stonehenge? Two sides of the same coin? There is a lot happening in the landscape and River Avon appears to play an important part. I will not dwell on this too much now, but I think it is clear that the there is something important about midwinter. After all part of Stonehenge was built at midwinter, was this purely practical due to during this period there was lite agricultural going on? Or did it have a wider symbolic reason? Durrington Walls also aligned to the midwinter, but the sunrise not the sunset, the River Avon linking the two, does this potentially suggest that midwinter was symbolic in nature with meanings between sunrise and sunset? Water acting a professional way or liminal barrier? What is significance of the feasting? These are hard questions to answer, the Stonehenge landscape is a very complex place, evolving over many generations, and even if Durrington Walls was used to build Stonehenge during the winter periods c2500 BC it is clear that they only lived there for a maximum of 55 years, but more likely one to the decades? Where were they living during the other month. It also raises questions about how often Stonehenge is being used? If you want to know more about Stonehenge and it’s landscape, what it was like before and ‘after’ Stonehenge, then I really recommend ‘Stonehenge – Making sense of a prehistoric mystery’ by Mike Parker Pearson et al. It is three years old now (and a lot has happened in those three years). But it is still a really good book by one of the foremost experts on Stonehenge, and also very accessible.

(Please note this is not the finished article, over the past couple of days, I have been having technical issues with my computer and internet. Hopefully tomorrow I can update the rest, but it might have to be in a very condensed form due to time constraints, sorry :().

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