Many times have I visited the site of excavations conducted between 1926 and 1928 at ‘Woodhenge’, north-east of Stonehenge by a few miles and just south of the massive Durrington Walls henge complex. The site is free to visit under the custody of English Heritage, whose website about the monument is here. After a downbeat experience at Stonehenge, I want to write an upbeat report on my recent visit to this Woodhenge.
The concentric rings of pits within the ditch and bank are interpreted as the remains of huge timber posts, perhaps a timber version of the Stonehenge monument. This site is important for many reasons: it revealed the importance of timber architecture in Neolithic times and it was a superb excavation by a pioneering female British archaeologist, Maud Cunnington, whose work has been the subject of research by Julia Roberts (Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine for 2002, vol. 95).
The site has been informed by recent excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project. According to Mike Parker Pearon’s recent book – Stonehenge – Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery – C14 determinations for one cremation burial excavated by the Cunningtons date to the mid-third millennium BC. Moreover, the morphology of the pit containing the cremation grave might imply that this burial was, like the cremations from the Aubury Holes at Stonehenge in Parker Pearson’s view, memorialised by a stone marker, perhaps a bluestone. While human remains are spartan here compared with Stonehenge, mortuary and ancestral associations might also have persisted here too.
Excavations led by Josh Pollard (University of Southampton) show that, after the timber posts had rotted, a stone cove was constructed on the south side of the dig. The site was also subject to structured deposition of artefacts and animal remains. One inhumation grave, that of a child of around 3 years of age, was found near the centre of the site. This is now marked by a pile of flints. The EH website attributes the death to a human sacrifice but it is now postulated that the evidence that the skull was sliced might be a misinterpretation of the fragmentation of the skull due to the pressure of the soil. It is now thought to date to the Early Bronze Age, at or near the end of the site’s use.
I defer any coherent academic interpretation of this evidence until all the facts are reported from the recent work. It is clear that, upon publication, Woodhenge will be subject to new interpretation, and will its role within the monument complex postulated by Parker Pearson and colleagues linking Durrington Walls to Stonehenge via the River Avon and the Avenue. So far, it seems very clear that Woodhenge was a complex multi-phase monument involving wooden architecture and also elements of stone architecture and in use over many centuries. Death and the dead were undoubtedly a part of its use, even if wood is seen by Parker Pearson and his colleagues as associated with the living, whilst stone with the dead, a duality that is perhaps a little too neat.
A Perfect Display
As a student of archaeology, I found it hilarious how bad Woodhenge looks; ironic given its name and the eponymous atmospheric track by Mike Oldfield that evokes a sense of mystery that seemed utterly lacking to me in this stark presentation through the medium of concrete cylinders. Each post-hole is marked by arrays of different coloured hopelessly modern concrete cylinders to help the visitor see the concentric arrangements of posts. The posts are of different diameters, encouraging visitors to imagine the different heights to which the posts soared.
I was a naive fool. Now I see this site is the perfect heritage display. It is genius, giving the viewer full freedom to imagine all kinds of Woodhenges rising from the overtly modern pillar forms. Furthermore, English Heritage have not altered the original display, but have augmented it with a small, single display board that is equally perfect. It comprises of a map that puts the site in its landscape context, a timeline that puts it in the right chronology, a vivid artist’s impression, a photograph of Maud Cunnington and text celebrating her achievement.
Obviously the new results from Pollard and his colleagues work will have to be incorporated into the presentation of the site, but for now, it is difficult to complain. What a perfect antidote to the complexity and sophistication of the display of Stonehenge.
The Healing Concrete
What I hadn’t realised was that the concrete cylinders are curative. Jumping on them, lying on them, running around them: these were all great dimensions to the site as playground for kids of all ages. This made up for the lack of play space at Stonehenge. For those of us lucky to have reached adulthood, I still recommend stretching over them as superb for the lower back.
My advice: forget your pilgrimmage to Stonehenge. Instead, go to Woodhenge for physical, mental, and just possibly spiritual, recuperation through the magical power of concrete cylinders.
Honouring the Ancient Dead and Giving Birth to Tinker Fairies
The single child’s grave is a sad cenotaph to bones excavated and now lost. As such, it has been the focus of modern ritual deposition: copper coins placed beneath a smooth pebble. My kids adapted this deposit to one of their own choosing: I feel they have as much right to respond to the grave as anyone, and for them, a newly plucked daisy, placed upside down on one of the concrete cylinders, was envisaged as a legitimate way to bring forth magic to bring a new tinker fairy to life. The smooth pebble was co-opted – for some inexplicable reason – to accompany the daisy. Who am I to challenge these primordial folk beliefs? Disney may have a lot to answer for…
Very good, like you I hope English Heritage don’t spoil this site. It blends antiquity, contemporary art and archaeological history in a way that leaves much space for inspiration. As I wrote in Hengeworld, I think it’s likely that the site gave us the phrase “post pipe”. It was amusing to see, when Josh Pollard excavated there, that the concrete posts are in fact earth-filled and concrete-capped drain pipes!
The central burial could in theory be Roman (the bones do not seem to have survived). Among other human remains from Cunnington’s dig were “single fragments of human skulls” at three locations in the ditch, with Roman pottery; two cases of “bones of a very young infant” in the ditch with Roman pottery fragments, one either side of the entrance causeway; and, at a similar level but apparently with no associated artefacts, “fragments of a child’s jaw and milk teeth”. Given that Cunnington excavated relatively little of the ditch, and that her excavation techniques probably missed quite a few finds, there’s a strong suggestion that something was going on here in Roman times involving infant or child burials. The earthwork then was probably still quite substantial, as it seems there was a stabilised soil level with Roman pottery in it some 2m below the modern surface, where the infilled ditch is even now visible.