They suspect inhabitants of the houses, forming the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain, built the stone circle at Stonehenge – generally thought to have been a temple, burial ground or an astronomy site – between 3000 and 1600 BC.
“We found the remains of eight houses,” Mike Parker Pearson, a professor of archaeology at Sheffield University, UK, said in a teleconference to announce the discovery.
“We think they are part of a much larger settlement. I suspect we can identify 25 likely house sites. My guess is that there are many more than that,” he added.
They also uncovered the outlines of box beds and wooden dressers or cupboards and 4600 year-old debris, including burnt stones and animal bones strewn on the clay floors.
“We think we are looking at the village of the builders of Stonehenge,” he added.
The houses measured about 5 metres (16 feet) square and were located in a small valley north of Stonehenge that leads down to the River Avon. They are on either side of an avenue that leads from the river to a wooden version of Stonehenge.
“We think our discovery is very significant for understanding the purpose of Stonehenge. What we have revealed is that Stonehenge is one half of a larger complex,” said Parker Pearson, referring to the stone and wooden circles.
Feasts and parties
The scientists believe Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were complementary sites. Neolithic people gathered at Durrington Walls for massive feasts and parties while Stonehenge was a memorial or burial site for the dead.
“We are looking at least a century, probably several centuries of use, at both sites,” said Parker Pearson. “Stonehenge is our biggest cemetery from that period. There is a very interesting contrast in terms of life and death.”
Stonehenge’s avenue is aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise, while the Durrington avenue corresponds with the midwinter solstice sunset, according to the researchers. Tourists are drawn to Stonehenge throughout the year but the most popular day at the site is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
Druids, a pagan religious order dating back to Celtic Britain, gather at Stonehenge, about 160 km west of London, during the summer solstice because they believe it was a centre of spiritualism.
“This is a place of enormous importance that has been remembered over a long period of time,” said Julian Thomas of Manchester University, who also worked on the project.