A while back I visited Woodhenge. On that occasion, I didn’t walk around the neighbouring, far larger and monumental late Neolithic Durrington Walls. In fact I never have done. It has always seemed just too big, too incomprehensible. Also, to be honest, I’ve always felt I could view enough of it from the site of Woodhenge and the road. Also, on my last trip, I knew my kids would complain about it not actually being at least part comprised of stones… So I confess publicly to be a shameful neophyte when it comes to experiencing the great DW.
This time, I tried. I walked its banks on the exposed western slopes of the River Avon in cold weather and with a strong wind insisting it was still wintry in late March.
I’m glad I did though. Walking so impressed on me regarding DW’s size and character. This was a monument far larger than any other in the Stonehenge and far different in its landscape situation.
DW is a landscape unto itself, at around 500m in diameter and 1.5km in circumference. Professor Vince Gaffney calls this a ‘superhenge’. Vince I feel talks like an astronomer and I approve. In a constellation of monuments, this is a supergiant.
DW has been the focus of systematic recent archaeological work between 2004 and 2006: The Stonehenge Riverside Project. This project considered revealed that initially – and for perhaps no more than half a century – DW was a place of seasonal rituals and feasting in the late Neolithic. It might have been a large ‘village’ near the river hosting activities centring on midwinter at a timber circle. This was possibly the habitation place of the builders of Stonehenge. It was connected by an Avenue to the River Avon which in turn was connected to the starting point of the Avenue, allowing processions to move between the henges over water and land.
Neolithic people surrounded this habitation and ceremonial site with a massive terrace and stone arc revealed by the recent Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project . It is estimated that this comprised of up to 200 stones. Moreover, this super-henge ‘arena’ was the focus of a series of burial grounds, pits and ‘chapels’/temples of which Stonehenge might be just one.
Only later was this stone arc toppled and the terrace was transformed into a vast chalk bank with internal ditch creating the super-henge whose traces are visible today.
However, it remained impossible for me to connect up the huge banks with the ephemeral activities described on the signboards; their chronology and character. I’m still not sure I ‘get’ it all. I concede I must read more but I also recognise that most of the research is still unpublished. The heritage boards are clearly new but evidently already out of date. Fixed signs simply cannot keep up with the pace of new discoveries!
Anyway, the fabulous artist’s reconstructions do give a sense of what the houses would have looked like near the river and the possible ‘temples’ above the henge.
So here’s a question as a non-Neolithic specialist: when will we start talking about the Durrington Walls Landscape, rather than the Stonehenge Landscape?
It really has to happen, since the last decade of work shows that much of what was important about this area focused on this monument and even the long-term landscape development into the Early Bronze Age focuses as much on Durrington and the Avon as it does on Stonehenge specifically. I’m not convinced that regarding Durrington as a staging post for processions to Stonehenge is sufficient. In my view, the shadow of Stonehenge is still far too long over this rich and complex prehistoric landscape, both in archaeological interpretations and in heritage communication.