Durrington Walls: Surveys, Stones and Superhenges

When I got up last Monday I had little idea  it would turn out to be one of the most frenetic days I’d experienced since I first picked up a trowel thirty-odd years ago. At 6:45  in the morning I found myself  at Durrington Walls chatting with Karen Gardner of BBC Wiltshire as we waited to do a radio interview about the discoveries at Durrington Walls. After that I thought I’d head back to the office in Avebury, grab a coffee and settle down to work for the day.

In the quiet of a September morning with the sunlight breaking through the early morning mists as they swirled above the Avon it was almost possible to imagine the great sweep of the henge bank and ditch had always been there. But of course it hasn’t.

Few things are as you first imagine them. And although my day started peacefully enough within a few hours it had dissolved into a media frenzy. By the end of it I’d been interviewed by Radio 5, ITV, CNN, Sky (twice!), NBC,  BBC Points West, Channel 5 and finally – a full sixteen hours after I’d started my day – ABC Sydney’s breakfast show.

For a few days the eyes of the world’s media were focussed on one small patch of Wiltshire turf. There was talk of stones and superhenges, the  largest this and the biggest that and much more besides. So what was all the fuss about?

The Hidden Landscapes Project

The Hidden Landscapes Team using Ground Penetrating Radar in the Stonehenge Landscape

The Hidden Landscapes Team using Ground Penetrating Radar in the Stonehenge Landscape

Over the course of the last five years a team of archaeologists from across Europe led by Professor Vince Gaffney of Bradford University have been carrying out a vast geophysical survey covering almost  every blade of grass and acre of farmland that the National Trust care for in the Stonehenge Landscape (about 2100 acres) and a bit more besides.

The Hidden Landscapes team have used a battery of geophysical survey techniques including Magnetometry, Electrical Resistivity, Electro Magnetic Induction and Ground Penetrating Radar. Not only have they mapped a larger area than ever before but their results give us much more detail than is the case with traditional geophysical survey.

What did we already know about Durrington Walls?

Thanks to the discoveries made by Professor Mike Parker Pearson and the Stonehenge Riverside Project  just over a decade ago we already knew that before the bank and ditch of Durrington Walls henge was built the area that it surrounded and overlay was once the site of an enormous Later Neolithic Settlement. Radio Carbon dates suggest that it was in use at exactly the same time that the great grey sarsen stones of Stonehenge were being raised into position.

The settlement had its own timber circles (we might think of them as shrines or temples but the settlement was also a place of feasting). The Southern Timber Circle had an Avenue (a metalled road surface) leading out of it directly down to the River Avon. A journey downstream would have taken Durrington’s inhabitants to West Amesbury Henge and stone circle and the starting point of what only a few years later became the Stonehenge Avenue leading to Stonehenge itself. The two sites of Durrington and Stonehenge were  linked.

All of the evidence suggests that what we have at Durrington at this time is the settlement belonging to the builders of Stonehenge. The settlement seems to have been in use for about 40-50 years and within maybe another generation of it falling out of use the henge earthwork was constructed. It  surrounded the settlement site and in part overlay it. We also know that the timber circles continued in use – there is evidence for offerings being made in the tops of the post holes  in the Early Bronze Age.

What have the Hidden Landscapes team found?

The Hidden Landscapes team have used a variety of geophysical techniques at Durrington during the five years of the project. But a couple of weeks ago the team returned to the site for a final time to, as Vince put it, ‘dot the Is and cross the Ts.’

A plot based on GPR evidence showing the positions of the stones and pits within the area of the southern bank of Durrington Walls henge. Since this plot was produced it's become clear that there are more pits (and possibly stones) beneath the western and northern sides of the henge bank, together with some just to the east.

A plot based on GPR evidence showing the positions of the stones and pits within the area of the southern bank of Durrington Walls henge. Since this plot was produced it’s become clear that there are more pits (and possibly stones) beneath the western and northern sides of the henge bank, together with some just to the east.

As it turned out what they found has done rather more than that. Using Ground Penetrating Radar(GPR) in combination with a number of other techniques they have discovered a series of at least 40 large solid objects lying about a metre beneath the southern part of the henge bank. The largest of these are c.4.5m long and 1.5 metres wide. As with any form of geophysical survey without excavation we can’t be utterly certain they are stone. But given the nature of the GPR evidence we are certain whatever they are they’re pretty substantial.

ERT model showing the volume of one of the Durrington Stones

ERT model showing the volume of one of the Durrington Stones

The team have also found a whole series of enormous pits – certainly large enough to hold stones. So it is possible an enormous arc of stones may once have surrounded the southern and part of the western side of the area that was the site of the Durrington settlement.

So how do the new discoveries change what we know of Durrington Walls?

It’s been suggested that the stones were pushed over and then the henge bank built over the top of them. That may be the case but we actually don’t know that the stones  ( if that’s what they are) ever stood. It is equally likely that the people who brought them to the site changed their minds (or somebody else changed them for them) and the project was abandoned, opting instead to build a gigantic henge bank and ditch (which by the way is really what the phrase superhenge refers to – not  stones).

The only stones of comparable size in the Stonehenge Landscape are sarsens like this one at Stonehenge

In the Stonehenge Landscape the only stones of comparable size to those buried beneath the bank at Durrington are sarsens like this one at Stonehenge

It is also possible that some or all of the large pits are in fact giant postholes rather than  stone holes. In other words we might be looking at a monument that was built in (or going to be built in) wood which at some point someone decided should instead should be replaced by the henge bank and ditch.

If we look for stones of comparable size in the Stonehenge Landscape then we have to look to Sarsens not Bluestones. The stones buried at Durrington are simply too big to be Bluestones. We do of course have one Sarsen standing stone (now fallen) still in place today just south of Durrington Walls – the Cuckoo Stone.

So we do seem to have ourselves an enormous  monument involving a substantial number of very large stones or timber posts at Durrington. But its more complicated than that.  We don’t know if it was ever completed. We do know it’s earlier than the bank (unless the stones were dug into the bank – which seems highly unlikely, though not absolutely impossible). And that being the case we know that it was either put into place just after, at the same time as (or just possibly before, the settlement). Either way its been lying undetected for 4500 years – until the Hidden Landscapes team completed the very last part of their survey just a couple of weeks ago.

What does this mean for the story of the Stonehenge Landscape?

What all of this shows is that while the Stonehenge Landscape remained a place of pivotal importance throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Age it was not immutable. It was a place of frequent change. Elements of it were constantly being built, reworked and added to over many, many generations. Some places built in timber (such as Woodhenge just to the south of Durrington Walls) were rebuilt in stone, and places of timber and stone were buried and subsumed beneath giant earthworks.

And as those places were reworked their meanings changed. Places for the living became places for the dead and / or to commune with the gods. Places of settlement and feasting became places of offering. Places once associated with the hustle and bustle of everyday existence intertwined with celebration and ritual became revered and wholly set aside from  daily life. The past is not just a, ‘foreign place,’ it’s also a complicated and messy one: and all the more fascinating for that.

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