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Last Updated: Monday, 5 November 2007, 09:05 GMT
Stonehenge's huge support settlement
By Siān Price
BBC Radio 4's Secrets of Stonehenge

Stonehenge (BBC)
The Neolithic monument continues to fascinate

Archaeologists working near Stonehenge have uncovered what they believe is the largest Neolithic settlement ever discovered in Northern Europe.

Remains of an estimated 300 houses are thought to survive under earthworks 3km (2 miles) from the famous stone rings, and 10 have been excavated so far.

But there could have been double that total according to the archaeologist leading the work.

"What is really exciting is realising just how big the village for the Stonehenge builders was," says Professor Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University.

Allowing four per house, he estimates there could have been room for more than 2,000 people.

Join the party

Analysis of the houses has also showed that some were higher status than others. This is the first evidence for social difference and hierarchy at the time of Stonehenge, indicating that the organisation of labour for moving and raising the stones was not egalitarian.

The settlement is buried beneath the bank of Durrington Walls, a great circular ditched enclosure.

Durrington Walls (Parker Pearson)
Durrington Walls holds clues to the Stonehenge story
Geophysical survey and excavation work have revealed that the ditch and bank had been constructed in large sections, probably by separate work gangs.

A find of dozens of antler picks in one section of ditch gives some idea of the size of these work parties.

"From the number of antler picks left in the bottom of one section - 57 - if you allow two people with one pick plus a team of basketeers carrying the rubble away and you've got to have the sandwich makers as well.

"This suggests a minimum team size of 200. If the 22 sections of Durrington's ditch were all dug at the same time, that's a work force of thousands."

Animal incomers

The settlement beneath Durrington Walls dates from around the time of the construction of Stonehenge's sarsen stones, about 2600 to 2500 BC.

For Mike Parker Pearson, the new evidence throws an important light on how Neolithic society worked - how people organised themselves to build mega-structures.

Cow bones at Durrington Walls (Parker Pearson)
Bone and other artefacts are being dug up
Apply this to Stonehenge, and he believes there were groups of about 200-400 people working under a clan head, responsible for completing individual sections of the overall monument.

"It's possible that most of Southern Britain may have been involved at one stage or another," Parker Pearson says.

Other evidence from cow and pig bones found on the site suggests that people were coming into the area on a seasonal basis.

"This was a temporary settlement," he says. "They were not doing basic daily chores, not grinding corn, not raising animals. There were no baby pigs and cows. It looks like the livestock had been brought in."

Copper clue

And there is also evidence of feasting at Durrington Neolithic village such as bones still connected together.

"This is the sort of thing you are expecting at feasting occasions - discarded but still-edible joints of meat - when everyone has got enough to eat."

Excavation at Durrington Walls (Parker Pearson)
So far, only a fraction of the area has been excavated
The team has also found a tantalising artefact: a piece of chalk with cut marks that Parker Pearson believes was made by a copper axe.

He is not surprised at the evidence - as copper working in neighbouring parts of mainland Europe dates back to 3000 BC - but it would be the first evidence from Britain before 2400 BC.

The theory is also supported by the almost total absence of evidence of stone or flint axes in the village.

The current excavations at Stonehenge began four years ago and are part of a 10-year project.

Map of Stonehenge (BBC)

Secrets of Stonehenge is on BBC Radio 4 at 2000 GMT on Monday, 5 November

SEE ALSO
Stonehenge building riddle tackled
22 Aug 07 |  Wiltshire
Stonehenge builders' houses found
30 Jan 07 |  Science/Nature
Stonehenge burials unearthed
21 May 03 |  Wiltshire
'King of Stonehenge' from Europe
10 Feb 03 |  England

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