Archaeologists working near Stonehenge have found that habitation in the area started at least 3,000 years before the famous monument was built.
The BBC reports that a team of archaeologists working at Amesbury next to a stream a mile from Stonehenge have found evidence that hunter-gatherers were frequenting the site well before Stonehenge was started around 3000 B.C.
The site is the closest source of water to Stonehenge and therefore would have been of prime importance for the local hunter-gatherers during the Mesolithic, the period before the Neolithic farming era when Stonehenge was started. Not only would it have been important as a water source and for the plants that grew along its banks, but hunters could have bagged the animals that came to drink there. Carbon dates from butchered animal bones at the site give ages of 6250 B.C., 5400 B.C. and 4700 B.C.
The excavation is run by David Jacques, a tutor at Open Univeristy. A hundred Open University students and other members of the public volunteered for the dig, which is running on a shoestring budget. The excavation has also uncovered material from later periods, including a pair of duck figurines dating from 700 B.C. Open University has an interesting video about the dig dating from 2011, before the important radiocarbon dates came in.
[Photo courtesy Flickr user Jeffrey]
England’s prehistoric landscape has a new addition.
Marlborough Mound in Wiltshire has long been a mystery. The flat-topped cone of earth looks like a smaller version of Silbury Hill, pictured here. The bigger mound was finished around 2300 BC at a time when Neolithic farmers were erecting stone circles such as Stonehenge and Avebury. Now archaeologists have taken samples from Marlborough Mound and carbon dated them to 2400 BC.
Carbon dating, which measures decaying carbon isotopes in organic matter, has a slight margin of error that increases the older the sample is. Thus Silbury Hill and Marlborough Mound may have been finished simultaneously, or at least in the same generation. The two mounds are only about 20 miles apart, a day’s walk for a Stone Age farmer or excited archaeologist.
The mound was reused several times. The Romans had a settlement next to it and the Normans built a castle on top of and around it in the late 11th or early 12th century. Early Norman castles were wooden palisades around an artificial mound. In this case their prehistoric predecessors saved them some work. The wooden walls were later replaced with stone ones but the castle has long since vanished. In the 17th century the mound was turned into a garden. The mound stands on the grounds of Marlborough College and is off-limits to visitors. Hopefully that will change now that its true importance is understood.
It is one of England’s most mysterious monuments. Just a short walk from the massive stone circle complex of Avebury, Silbury Hill is a giant, flat-topped mound rising 120 feet above the surrounding countryside. Researchers have proposed dozens of theories over the years to explain its purpose, suggesting everything from a giant burial mound to a platform for religious music.
Now new research by English Heritage has revealed that Silbury Hill was constructed relatively quickly–in about hundred years–and finished around 2300 B.C. Previous researchers thought the mound took centuries to build. Archaeologists Jim Leary and David Field dug a cross-section tunnel into it in 2007 and found it was made up of 15 layers. The monument started as a circular ditch and embankment but soon grew into a giant hill. The researchers suggest that there was no final plan, no purpose. It was the building of it that mattered, the bringing together of various groups for the common purpose of a “continuous storytelling ritual”.
“Our Neolithic ancestors display an almost obsessive desire to constantly change the monument – to rearrange, tweak and adjust it. It’s as if the final form of the Hill did not matter – it was the construction process that was important,” Leary said.
“The most intriguing discovery is the repeated occurrence of antler picks, gravel, chalk and stones in different kinds of layering, in ways that suggest that these materials and their different combinations had symbolic meanings. We don’t know what myths they were representing but they must have meant something quite compelling and personal,” he said.
Leary and Field’s new book, The Story of Silbury Hill, explains their findings.
Of course archaeology isn’t a hard science, and this theory will be debated for years to come. Future excavations may refine or even overturn what Leary and Field have found. Silbury HIll hasn’t given up all its mysteries.
Archaeologists call him the “Boy with the Amber Necklace”, and ever since he was discovered in 2005 they’ve known he was special. Not only would his jewelry have been rare and expensive back when he was buried 3,550 years ago, but the choice of his grave site was significant too–just three miles from Stonehenge.
Now chemical analysis on his teeth has revealed something else special about him–he isn’t from England at all, but from the Mediterranean. Tooth enamel forms in early childhood and retains oxygen and strontium. Different isotopes of these elements are found in different ecozones and regions, and show where an individual grew up. When scientists analyzed the teeth of the Boy with the Amber Necklace, they found he’d grown up around the Mediterranean. The “boy” was actually about fourteen or fifteen years old, and it’s unclear exactly why he came to southern England and the sacred site of Stonehenge.
This isn’t the first time a burial near Stonehenge has turned out to be from somewhere else. The “Amesbury Archer”, a grown man buried with some of the oldest gold and copper artifacts ever found in the UK, grew up in the foothills of the German Alps some 4,300 years ago.
So were these prehistoric tourists? Well, more like prehistoric pilgrims, or perhaps immigrants coming to work at one of the most sacred and dynamic places in the prehistoric world. People often assume international travel is a new thing, starting in the age of luxury liners and really getting going when international flights became cheap, yet daring individuals and groups have been making long journeys for thousand of years. The Boy with the Amber Necklace and the Amesbury Archer could have taken boats along the coastline and rivers, and would have had to do a lot of walking too. They may have been helped along by a simple yet effective prehistoric navigation system. In the days when the waters teemed with fish and not plastic, and the forests were filled with wildlife and berries instead of discarded soda cans, the trip wouldn’t have been as hard as we think.
[Photo courtesy webmink via Gadling’s flickr pool]
Britain’s most interesting monument just got a whole lot more interesting.
Archaeologists using subsurface imaging have discovered evidence of a circle of wooden posts about the same size as Stonehenge and just 900 meters (2,950 feet) away from it.
The Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project plans to map features hidden under the surface in an area totaling 14 square kilometers (8.7 sq miles) around the famous monument. The mysterious feature was found only two weeks into the three-year survey.
The team picked up traces of postholes, where heavy wooden poles had once been sunk into the earth. The soil in these holes is of a different density than the undisturbed soil around them and show up on the subsurface imaging. The ring of posts appears to have had two openings opposite one another and was encircled by a ring of pits a meter wide. Archaeologists say it was built about 2,500 BC, about the same time that the builders of Stonehenge switched from using timber to using stone.
Project leader Professor Vince Gaffney of the University of Birmingham said, “When you see that as an archaeologist, you just look at it and think, ‘that’s a henge monument’ – it’s a timber equivalent to Stonehenge. The monument is one of the most studied monuments on Earth but this demonstrates that there is still much more to be found. The presumption was this was just an empty field – now you’ve got a major ceremonial monument looking at Stonehenge”.
The BBC has an interview with Prof. Gaffney and a computer reconstruction of the monument here. His team’s discovery comes just weeks after the start of excavations at Marden Henge, a stone circle ten times bigger than Stonehenge. It’s shaping up to be a good summer for archaeologists!
Image courtesy user Nachosan via Gadling’s flickr pool.