Remarkable new archaeological discoveries are beginning to suggest that Stonehenge was built at a time of particularly intense religious and political rivalry.
Just two miles north-east of the World Heritage site, at an important archaeological complex known as Durrington Walls, archaeologists have just discovered what appears to have been a vast 500-metre diameter circle of giant timber posts. The find is of international significance.
Originally archaeologists, using geophysics rather than excavation, had thought that they had found buried standing stones, so the discovery has totally changed their understanding of the site – the largest ancient monument of its type in Britain.
However, the most significant revelation is the discovery that the newly identified timber circle complex was probably never fully completed – and that, just a few months or years after construction had started, there was a dramatic change in religious – and therefore almost certainly also political – direction.
Work on the circle was stopped abruptly by around 2460BC – despite the fact that it was nearing completion. The 200-300 giant 6-7 metre long, 60-70 centimetre diameter timber posts were lifted vertically out of their 1.5 metre deep post holes – and were probably used to construct or expand other parts of the complex.
What’s more, within a few months or years, the post holes themselves were then deliberately filled with blocks of chalk and were covered up for most of the circuit by a bank made of similar chalk rubble.
Two of the post holes have just been fully excavated – and, at the bottom of one, the prehistoric people who decommissioned and buried the site, formerly occupied by the giant timber circle, had placed one of their tools (a spade made of a cow’s shoulder blade) at the bottom of the post hole before it was filled in. It certainly hints at the ritual nature of how the change of religious direction was implemented.
It was as if the religious “revolutionaries” were trying, quite literally, to bury the past. The question archaeologists will now seek to answer is whether it was the revolutionaries’ own past they were seeking to bury – or whether it was another group or cultural tradition’s past that was being consigned to the dustbin of prehistory.