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7 January 2006
Throwing new light on the purpose of Stonehenge

Stonehenge: iconic, ancient, mysterious. Or perhaps not so mysterious any more, since research conducted jointly by the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Bournemouth, Bristol and UCL has shed new light on the purpose and function of the monument.
     "Our latest research developed out of a trip to Madagascar, surprisingly," says Professor Mike Parker Pearson, of the University of Sheffield. "A Malagasy colleague of mine paid a return visit to Stonehenge, took one look and said it was 'blindingly obvious' what it was for - that it was built for the ancestors."
It was explained that in Madagascar, monuments were built in stone for the ancestors and in organic matter for the living. This presented an interesting hypothesis - that the monuments at Stonehenge were linked to the nearby sites of Durrington Walls and Woodhenge. "It put forward the idea that Stonehenge was part of a wider complex, linked by the River Avon," says Parker Pearson, "which gave us a series of predictions. If they were linked by a ceremonial purpose, there should be an avenue from the Durrington Walls site to the river, as there is from Stonehenge, and the two should be contemporary."
     The research carried out this year - part of a project that will continue until 2009 - has borne out these predictions. New radiocarbon evidence indicates that the Durrington Walls henge was in use at the same time that the sarsen stones were erected at Stonehenge. "It used to be thought that Stonehenge was later," says Parker Pearson, "but that's not the case. And this was also in a cleared landscape - we think there were far fewer trees then than now, so they probably would have gone as far to get the timber as the stones. It seems that one was built of wood and one of stone for a reason."
     As predicted, the team found an avenue leading from Durrington Walls to the river. "It's the earliest road in Europe," says Parker Pearson. "It has a proper flint surface and has been well-trampled." Durrington Walls, and its annexe, Woodhenge, is about three miles from Stonehenge. "You can walk the whole thing easily," says Parker Pearson. "So the idea that processions would take place between the two is very viable."
     The evidence has led the team to believe the two sites were used for complementary purposes in the same funerary practices. The idea that Stonehenge's function was something to do with remembering the dead is well established. "Stonehenge is full of human remains and cremated bones, and it's in the middle of the densest concentration of burial monuments in the country," says Parker Pearson. "But ... there are very few humans remains at Durrington Walls. There's a different material culture in the two places - different pottery styles and so on. Now we know that the two sites are contemporaneous, there must be a reason behind that."
     As well as being built from different materials, their alignment in relation to sunrise and sunset at the solstices is directly opposite. "They are opposed but complementary, and that must be purposeful," says Parker Pearson.
"Everything now depends on getting more evidence," he says. "We're hoping to be able to do some digging around Stonehenge ... There are a lot of monuments in the area that aren't dated. Lots of material was dug up in the 1920s and then buried again because they weren't sure what it was, so we can have another look at it. There have been all sorts of exciting developments since then."

Source: The Guardian (3 January 2006)

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