Planet Earth

The Year in Science: Archeology 1997

Old Macdonald had a Henge

By Shanti MenonJan 1, 1998 6:00 AM


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Modern-day druids, who flock to Stonehenge each summer solstice, may be disappointed by the discovery of the oldest henge in Britain. At 5,800 years old, the Coupland Henge in Northumberland is 800 years older than that mystical site—and it was probably a cattle corral.

Henges are circular structures formed by an inner ditch and surrounded by an outer earthen mound, with one or two entrances. Although they vary in details—some, like Stonehenge, have standing stones inside, usually a later addition—archeologists have pretty much agreed that all henges were ceremonial centers and probably date back at most to 3000 b.c. But archeologist Clive Waddington of Durham and Newcastle Universities published a booklet last April suggesting that Coupland Henge is different.

Coupland Henge is more than 300 feet in diameter and is bisected by two linear ditches that connect entrances on opposite sides of the henge. In the center of the ring, Waddington excavated bits of pottery, flint and agate tools, and charred hazelnut shells. These objects overlay a bed of charcoal, which yielded a radiocarbon date of 3800 b.c. or even earlier. That pushes the henge tradition back almost 1,000 years.

At the circle’s northern entrance, on either side of the ditches, Waddington found two holes lined with stones that he thinks held gateposts. Stains in the soil suggest that the ditches held a wooden-plank fence as well. The ditches extend about half a mile north from the enclosure, in the heart of the region’s main settlement area, to a ford on the River Till. Pollen analyses showed that the uplands on the far side of the river were once open woodland, the natural habitat of browsing pigs and cattle. That land was useless agriculturally, he says. The most productive use to which it could be put was stock grazing.

Waddington thinks the ditches are what’s left of a fenced-in drove way through which cattle were herded into the enclosure after being brought across the river. The fences kept them from trampling crops in the settlement area. The henge may have had religious significance as well. They were using the fells—the upland pastures across the river—for summer grazing, then driving them down to this lowland enclosure for overwintering, says Waddington. There were probably rituals associated with these transitions from one phase of the year to another.

While Stonehenge itself might not have been a corral, Waddington thinks Coupland probably better reflects the original purpose of henges. Over time, the functional uses of these monuments degenerated, he says. They used that form and reworked it into something purely religious.

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