From The Neolithic To The Sea: A Journey From The Past To The Present

Woodhenge & Durrington Walls

51° 11' 26" N 1° 47' 9.3" W
Neolithic and Bronze Age

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Woodhenge is a Neolithic henge and timber circle monument located in Wiltshire, 2 miles north-east of Stonehenge. Durrington Walls is the site of a Neolithic village and later henge enclosure located next to Woodhenge.

Durrington Walls is 500m in diameter and it is the largest henge in Britain. Recent evidence suggests that it was a complementary monument to Stonehenge. Although there is evidence of some early Neolithic activity at the site, most of the structures seem to have been built in the late Neolithic - early Bronze Age. At some point around approximately 2600BC a large timber circle now known as the southern circle, was constructed.

The circle was orientated south east towards the sunrise on the midwinter solstice and consisted of 4 large concentric circles of postholes that would have held extremely large standing timbers. A metalled avenue was also constructed on a slightly different alignment – towards the sunset on the summer solstice – that led to the River Avon, a similar feature to the Stonehenge Avenue. A large timber post lay on this orientation, about as far away from the circle as the Heelstone is from Stonehenge. At a similar time, but likely after the circle and avenue were constructed, a village began to develop around the site.

Excavations have revealed seven Neolithic house floors on the eastern side of the bank. Some of these floors were located underneath the henge bank itself, suggesting that settlement came first. The density of some of the houses suggests that there are many more house floors still under the field east of the henge, along the banks of the River Avon. One of the homes excavated showed evidence of a cobb wall and its own ancillary building, and was remarkably similar in layout to a house at Skara Brae in Orkney. The other houses seem to have had simple wattle and daub walls. Evidence also suggests that the houses continued around the north of the site.

It is probable that the village surrounded a large circular open area that contained the southern circle and several smaller enclosures – including two houses set within timber palisades and ditched enclosures that appear to have been kept clean. Sometime later, perhaps 200 hundred years after the circle was first constructed another two concentric rings were added and the henge enclosure was constructed. A ditch some 5.5m deep was dug, and the earth used to create a large outer bank some 30m wide and presumably several metres high. Several features of the village, including houses and midden pits were built over.

The henge seems to have been built in one continuous operation, not in phases, as there is no evidence of soil or turf developing in the bank. The ditch also seems to have been dug in sections, perhaps by different groups of labourers. Estimates at the number of people required to create the henge vary from 4000 – 6000. At a similar time another large timber circle and henge were created immediately south at Woodhenge.

It is unknown when the site fell out of use, but it was re-occupied during the Iron Age, when a settlement and field system was established inside the henge. A large drainage ditch was also dug above the north eastern entrance, possibly to complement the field system. What visibly remains of Durrington Walls today is the walls of the henge monument – in fact the eroded remains of the inner slope of the bank and the outer slope of the internal ditch. This now appears as a ridge surrounding a central basin. On the eastern side the separate ditch and bank are much more discernible although badly eroded by ploughing.

Originally the ditch was some 5.5m deep, 7m wide at its bottom and 18m wide at the top. The bank was in some areas 30m wide. There were two entrances through the bank and ditch – at the north western and south eastern ends. There may also have been an entrance to the south and the north east, although these may have been deliberately blocked. The henge enclosed several timber circles and smaller enclosures – not all of which have been excavated. Several Neolithic house floors have been found next to and under the eastern bank of the henge. Their density suggests that there was a very large village on the sloping river bank on this side. The henge sits on high ground that slopes south east toward a bend in the River Avon, and is considerably higher at its north western side than at its south eastern edge. The south eastern entrance is roughly 60m from the riverbank.

The henge has two roads passing through it – an old toll road, and a modern banked road constructed in 1967. In the past military barracks were constructed at the north eastern end of the henge, and some houses are constructed on the western bank. The land on the western side of the toll road is owned by the National Trust forming part of its Stonehenge Landscape property, and is free to enter.

Woodhenge was identified in 1925 after an aerial archaeology survey by Alexander Keiller and OGS Crawford. The site was believed by Cunnington to consist of a central burial, surrounded first by six concentric rings of postholes, then by a single ditch and finally an outer bank, around 85m wide. The burial was of a child which Cunnington interpreted as a dedicatory sacrifice. Unfortunately after excavation its body was destroyed in London during The Blitz.

Cunnington also found a skeleton of a teenager in one of the ditch sections she dug. Most of the 168 post holes held wooden posts, although Mrs Cunnington found evidence that a pair of standing stones may have been placed between the second and third post hole rings. Recent excavations have indicated that there were, in fact, several standing stones on the site, arranged in a "cove". The deepest post holes measured up to 2m and the height of the timber posts they held has been estimated at up to 7.5m above the ground. The posts would have weighed up to 5 tons and the arrangement was similar to that of the bluestones at Stonehenge. The positions of the postholes are currently marked with modern concrete posts which are a simple and informative method of displaying the site.

Pottery from the excavation was identified as being consistent with the Grooved ware style of the middle Neolithic, although later Beaker sherds were also found. So, the structure was probably built during period of cultural similarities commonly known as the Beaker. The Beaker culture spans both the Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age and includes both the distinctive bell-beaker type ceramic vessels for which the cultural grouping is known as well as other local styles of pottery from the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.