Durrington Walls: The largest henge monument in Britain

20 05 2017

Immediately to the north of Woodhenge and spanning the A345 road is the largest henge monument in Britain – a massive banked and ditched enclosure over 400m across and nearly 1.5km in circumference.

Durrington Walls Aerial View

Long recognised on old maps as an ancient British Village, Durrington Walls’ true importance only became apparent in the late 1960s when the road through it was realigned on a straighter path. You can see the line of the old, smaller, road in the aerial photo running to the left of the new road.

A massive rescue archaeological dig carried out in advance of the roadworks, making use of large earthmoving equipment for the first time (rather than only spades, trowels and brushes), revealed the existence of two timber circles within, as well as evidence for a settlement dating back to the late Neolithic around 2,500BC.

Durrington Excavation Aerial

The scale of the ditch and bank is enormous – the ditch being over 6m deep, 7m wide at the bottom and 18m wide at the top, and the bank being over 3m tall and in places almost 30m wide.

Further excavations in the mid-2000s by the Stonehenge Riverside Project discovered the remains of Neolithic houses just outside the southeast entrance to the henge, other buildings – perhaps ceremonial in purpose – in the western half of the enclosure, as well as a short Avenue leading down to the Avon in the direction of the winter solstice sunrise.

Reconstructions of the houses were created at the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre, accurately based on the design and layout of those found at Durrington.

neoliothic houses

The archaeological evidence suggests that the settlement at Durrington Walls, which may have supported several thousand people, was relatively short-lived and perhaps was in use for only 50 years or so. The period of peak activity corresponds with the time when the large sarsen stones were erected at Stonehenge and so it’s believed that this was the place where the builders and their families lived while that monument was being constructed.

Careful study of the colossal amount of midden material left behind at the site shows that large gatherings were taking place, probably around the mid-winter time, with huge numbers of young pigs being eaten and their remains being deposited in feasting pits. Stable isotope analysis of tooth enamel proves that some of the animals were coming from as far away as the northeast of Scotland, Cornwall and the Lake District. This means that people were converging at Durrington from all over Britain, and suggests that Stonehenge was a “national” project rather than a local one.

A major geophysics research effort by the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, carried out in the last few years, discovered the existence of about 200 large features underlying the bank at Durrington Walls. The traces were such that they seemed to indicate the possible presence of buried stones all around the perimeter of the site.

In August 2016 a team of archaeologists excavated an area over two of these features to find out what the geophysics was telling them. Would the features prove to be large sarsen stones, which would overturn many ideas about the relationship of Durrington Walls to Stonehenge, or something else?

It rapidly became clear that in fact these features represented large pits with ramps leading into them which had been used to erect posts about 0.5m in diameter and perhaps 5m tall. Then these posts had been removed, after what seems to have been a very short time – perhaps less than a year—and the chalk blocks from the bank and ditch construction had fallen in, filling up the pits so that they appeared highly reflective features to the geophysics equipment.

The entire area was strewn with animal bone, including antler picks presumably used to excavate the pits in the first place, as well as pottery sherds and flint tools.

One interpretation is that as the settlement was going out of use, the people decided to memorialise the site by surrounding it with 200 large wooden posts but then changed their minds and embarked on a closing down project of constructing a huge henge bank and ditch instead, withdrawing the timbers for use elsewhere. It’s hard to be sure, especially since only two of the features have been exposed.

Durrington Walls is an integral part of the Stonehenge landscape and has a significance that were are only just beginning to appreciate. Trying to make coherent sense of its use by the people of the time is an ongoing task and there will be much more that we can learn in the coming decades.

For now, and to most people, it’s just a large field containing some sheep – but if you know a little bit about what lies beneath the surface it becomes a fascinating spot where you can walk in the footsteps of our ancestors from 4,500 years
Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton

More ways to explore the Durrington Walls and the Stonehenge landscape.
The Stonehenge Travel Company based in nearby Salisbury are considered the local experts and offer archaeological guided walking tours of Woodhenge, Durrington Walls and the greater Stonehenge landscape. Stonehenge Guided Tours offer tours from London and Bath including private group walking tours .  London Walks offer guided tours from London via the train. Stonehenge Walks offer 1 – 5 hour guided tours from the Stonehenge visitor centre throughout the year.  The Wiltshire Museum also offer guided walking tours throughout the year.

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The Stonehenge visitor centre and excellent English Heritage exhibition.

6 05 2017

From 1968 until 2013, the visitor facilities at Stonehenge amounted to a collection of brutalist concrete bunkers,  and a small car park almost opposite the monument alongside the old A344 road, with a subway below the road so that visitors could safely reach the stones. The old visitor centre was opened with much fanfare, and a ceremonial gold key.

subway opening 1968

key

As visitor numbers increased year on year these facilities (latterly expanded by the addition of some portakabins) rapidly became overwhelmed, eventually being described as “a national disgrace” in Parliament.

old_visitor_centre

After endless consultations and arguments, with almost a dozen options being tabled and rejected, eventually a location was found over a mile and a half away to the west that was chosen for the new Visitor Centre. The A344 road past the monument was closed and grassed over, the old facilities and car park decommissioned and in December 2013 the new centre opened.

Designed by an Australian firm Denton Corker Marshall, with an initial budget of £27M, the intention was to create a building that sat quietly in the landscape and deliberately didn’t reference the form of Stonehenge in any way.

Its elegantly curved roof was to evoke the sense of a leaf lightly resting on angled columns that called to mind the trunks of trees in a wood, with dappled sunlight falling through the perforations at the roof’s edge and a gentle breeze cooling the central corridor between the two independent building “pods” below it.

For those that geek out on these things, there is one direct reference to Stonehenge – the tallest columns supporting the roof at the NE and SW corner are each the same height as the tallest trilithon at Stonehenge was when first erected 4,500 years ago.

new vc

new vc closeup

There are two major advantages over the old centre – firstly, the café is now indoors and secondly there is an excellent exhibition which showcases artefacts from both the Stonehenge landscape and the monument itself.

There are two major advantages over the old centre – firstly, the café is now indoors and secondly there is an excellent exhibition which showcases artefacts from both the Stonehenge landscape and the monument itself.

Entrance to the exhibition is included in the ticket price and this part of the Stonehenge experience definitely shouldn’t be missed – it helps to place the monument in context without overwhelming a casual visitor, but has enough detail to interest the nerdiest Stonehenge enthusiast.

There is a walk-in 360° video theatre which places you in the centre of the monument at all the major stages in its development, from 3000BC when the henge bank and ditch was dug along with the Aubrey Hole circle of 56 post or stone holes, through the arrival of the large Sarsen stones around 2,500BC, the final rearrangement of the Bluestones in 2,200BC and the 3 minute presentation brings you up to the modern day appearance complete with traffic flowing by on the A303. As the seasons change, you see representations of both summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset as shadowy – almost ghostly – figures process around the circle.

A 360 degree virtual experience video display showing Stonehenge is played at  the new exhibition centre at Stonehenge in Salisbury, southern England

Passing through into the main exhibition space, you find five display cases containing genuine archaeological finds that are on loan from Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum (in Devizes) including some of the grave goods – flint arrowheads, bronze daggers, gold, amber and jet jewellery as well as ceramics – from the burial mounds along with the remains of two occupants. Both museums offer reduced price entry to Stonehenge ticketholders and each have recently enjoyed major upgrades to their own exhibition spaces.

exhibition cases

On one side is a huge dynamic video wall showing the evolution of the landscape and the sites of its key monuments over time, along the other are four large bronze models of Stonehenge at the main points in its evolution (feel free to touch the models, it’s encouraged).

As well as the permanent exhibition, there is a side gallery which houses temporary displays that are periodically replaced. Presently, the side gallery contains Julian Richards’ “Wish You Were Here” exhibition of Stonehenge collectibles and memorabilia down the ages, from postcards through Druidic regalia and some bizarre items that have used the Stonehenge image as part of their marketing. This includes phone cards, stamps and a wonderful brass Trilithon-topped crumpet-toasting fork. No such collection would be complete without a copy of the Spinal Tap Trilithon-shaped single record, and sure enough it’s here too.

Staff and volunteers in the exhibition are happy to explain the items on display in the main hall and the side gallery, so don’t fail to take advantage of their knowledge.

neoliothic houses

These houses were built by experts from the Ancient Technology Centre on Cranbourne Chase and a cohort of keen volunteers, some of whom can often be found in the houses giving demonstrations of ancient skills. It’s only by attempting to replicate the work of our long-dead ancestors that we gain new insights into the subtler aspects of their lives – the houses (not mere “huts”) are spacious, comfortable, sturdy structures and with periodic maintenance will easily last 25 years or more.

The new Visitor Centre may be a building that divides opinion, but within and without there are some fantastic displays that give a genuinely fresh perspective on Neolithic and Bronze Age life.

Just outside the visitor centre, at the back, sits the collection of replica Neolithic houses that are closely based on the remarkable archaeological discovery of such buildings at nearby Durrington Walls – the probable settlement site in use when the large Sarsen stones were being erected 4,500 years ago.

Entrance to Stonehenge is now managed through timed tickets and advance booking is the only way to guarantee entry on the day and time of your choice. By booking in advance you will also benefit from an advanced booking discount. It is also possible to purchase advance Stonehenge tickets here to beat the lines.

If you are short on time and would like to join an organised guided tour of Stonehenge, it is possible to do this from London, Salisbury or Bath. You can even arrange for local expert guide to meet you at the visitor centre for a guided walking tour.

Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton

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Loop in the Landscape Workshop. Stonehenge Event 13th / 20th May.

3 05 2017

Take your imagination for a walk in this outdoor writing workshop in the Stonehenge Landscape. Working with award-winning poet Holly Corfield Carr, you will explore the ancient contours and hidden corners of the World Heritage Site, learning how to use field writing techniques and observational excercises to draw inspiration from even the smallest rock. (13th and 20th May at 2pm £5)

loop2

This event is generously supported by the National Trust and English Heritage and tickets include parking, refreshments, access to Stonehenge and a return journey to the Visitor Centre on a shuttle bus.

All ages and writing experience welcome. We are keen to meet local residents from Amesbury and Salisbury and the surrounding areas, as well as National Trust and English Heritage members.

Participants will have the chance to have their writing published as part of loop, a book of poems, photographs and walking routes celebrating life in the landscape around Stonehenge and Amesbury, the UK’s longest continuously-occupied settlement. For more information, please visit loop.org.uk.

looproutemap.jpg

Please be advised that the workshop will take place on the move and we will be walking at a gentle pace across 4km of uneven ground so please wear suitable footwear, clothing and sunscreen if appropriate. There will be regular breaks for writing and sitting on chairs which will be provided and the workshop will end with refreshments in the Neolithic Huts at the Visitor Centre.

More details: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/loop-in-the-landscape-tickets-33924131992

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