Planet Earth

Houses of the Holy

Can the first homes unearthed near Stonehenge finally tell us what the world’s most famous megalith was for?

By David KeysMar 12, 2007 12:00 AM

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Nine Neolithic houses excavated near Stonehenge are astounding archaeologists and opening up a radical new interpretation of the purpose of the 4,600-year-old circular stone monument. The houses were excavated nearby a “timber henge” of enormous postholes at DurringtonWalls, a 1,500-foot-wide site that lies two miles northeast of Stonehenge along the river Avon. Recent excavations led by University of Sheffield archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson have led him to suggest the two sites were built as a single complex of complementary stone and wood circles linked by a river route.

Parker Pearson has found that, like Stonehenge, Durrington Walls hada wide, well-worn avenue to the river. But so far, houses have been found only at Durrington Walls. The structures contain central hearths, appear to have been inhabited, and may even have been part of a larger, town-size community, but it’s not clear whether they were occupied year-round or only at key seasonal times. 

Because the two sites have complementary alignments­—Stonehenge faces the midsummer sunrise, Durrington Walls faces the midwinter sunrise—Parker Pearson and his colleagues have suggested that a voyage on the river route between the circles represented a journey between the realms of the living and the dead. Chunks of flint found at the site in shapes resembling male and female genitalia suggest that the voyage may have been undertaken to obtain help with fertility from ancestors.

Tim Darvill, an archaeologist at England’s Bournemouth University, thinks Stonehenge was a sort of Stone Age healing center. As evidence, he points out that many of the monument’s stones were brought from an area 160 miles away that was associated with healing properties. Past studies of skeletal remains from the many prehistoric burials in the Stonehenge area have also shown higher than normal rates of disease.The presence of dwellings would also be consistent with the possibility that ailing pilgrims from distant reaches once flocked to the monuments.

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