17 November 2000
Dr. Ringle, Professor
Stonehenge is without a doubt the most interesting monument in Europe. The ring of stones standing in the open vastness of Salisbury Plain is an evocative image of wonder and mystery. (Scarre, 130) Stonehenge is both traditional and unique in Britain colorful history. It is traditional in that it falls within a whole class of monuments characterized by circular banks and ditches, or by rings of standing stones. Its uniqueness is engulfed within the size of the stones, the complexity of their arrangement, and the balancing of the lintels atop the uprights. There are three other major monuments in Britain, and while they don’t receive the same consideration as Stonehenge, they too entice much scrutiny. While the unique characteristics of Stonehenge only help to intensify its marvel, the ambiguities of its intention pose questions that today are still not answered. This essay will discuss monumentality as it compares to the four major henge enclosures in Britain. The monuments, namely Stonehenge, Avebury, Marden, and Durrington Walls, will be used in conjunction with discussing what purposes monuments can serve, as well as what the remains of a site can tell us about the culture of a society.
The best-known neighbor of Stonehenge, the Great Circles at Avebury, was built between c. 2,500 and 2,200 BC. Together the two sites illustrate two important general characteristics of the culture of the Bronze Age: the large scale and self-confident view of man’s relationship with nature and the almost manic tenacity of a people gripped by an obsession. (Castleden, 93) The Avebury site consists of 2 huge stone circles within the frame of a larger circle spanning twenty-eight and a half acres. The stones of Avebury are remarkable in two ways. They seem to have been shaped naturally with no tooled dressing, such as distinguished the later Stonehenge stones, and they seem to have been placed alternately in two basic shapes-tall with vertical sides, and broad, diamonded shaped. (Hawkins, 83) It is thought that these two shapes symbolized the male and female principles and that their careful selection and alternation show that the builders honored some fertility cult. It has also been reasoned that Avebury was the most important temple meeting place in the area and probably in the whole British Isles, until Stonehenge surpassed it.
The source of the huge stone sarsens was site 17 miles south of Avebury. Although they were already formed for the most part, they were half buried in soil, so the first task was to lever them out onto sledges using timber beams. Ingenuity of this caliber indicates the efficiency of the thought processes involved with the construction of Avebury. Even factors like friction were taken into account.
The large circular earthwork situated north of the town of Amesbury in south Wiltshire, England has been one of the more neglected prehistoric monuments, overshadowed by the visual impact of Stonehenge. A prehistoric ceremonial circle, Durrington Walls was probably formed during the last glacial episode, between about 30,000 to 50,000 years ago.
The bank that Durrington Walls is built on tells us much about the land in that part of Britain. On the top of the soil and penetrating for a distance of about 7 cm is a rich but localized deposit of refuse which produced pottery of earlier Neolithic type, flints, bones, and charcoal. (Wainwright, 54) These items produced a radiocarbon date of 2450 BC. The environmental evidence, based on an investigation of the soil profile preserved beneath the bank of the enclosure and on an analysis of land snails and pollen from the soils, demonstrates a distinct phase of prehistoric woodland clearance and possible cultivation prior to the construction of the enclosure. (Wainwright, 54)
The discovery of more pottery, stone tools, bone, and antler provides much insight as to what resources were available to farmers and builders of this period. Their abundance and distribution, especially in the ditches surrounding the Walls demonstrates how tools were commonly used and discarded. The varying amount of artifacts found at different locations denotes that supplies were not always in such abundance that they could always be discarded at will. It is clear that the effort represented in the construction of Avebury implies a society sufficiently stable, prosperous, and amply motivated for the project to have been undertaken.
Woodhenge, as the name implies, is somewhat of a spin-off of Stonehenge. Lying about two miles northeast of Stonehenge, it was originally a circular area roughly 200 feet in diameter. The inside of this timber structure consisted of postholes that held the beams that supported the dome-like roof. While its purpose is still debatable, varying ideas include a temporary barrack for the workers who were building Stonehenge, or possibly it was Stonehenge; that is until the actual Stonehenge was fully erected.
Following the excavations at Durrington Walls in 1976, Woodhenge was of particular interest to those who were researching into the archaeology and environment of henge enclosures in southern England around 2000 BC. First, the relationship of Woodhenge to the comparable timber structure excavated at Durrington Walls was unknown, but could be clarified by radiocarbon dates. Secondly, it was clearly desirable to obtain soil samples for molluscan analysis from the fossil beneath the bank and from the ditch. This provided information relating to the environment of the time, which could be compared with that from Durrington Walls. (Wainwright, 107) The mollusca from the fossil soil beneath the enclosure bank indicated an early woodland environment followed by a forest clearance phase. Finally, there was a period of dry grassland when the environment was free of wooded vegetation. While the duration of this cycle cannot be determined conclusively, knowing small pieces of information about what went on continues to aid scientists and archaeologists in painting a picture of the past.