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20 April 2013
Stonehenge occupied 5,000 years earlier than thought

New archaeological evidence from Amesbury in Wiltshire (England) reveals traces of human settlement 3,000 years before Stonehenge was even built. The archaeological dig, a mile from the stones, has revealed that people have occupied the area since 7,500 BCE. The findings, uncovered by volunteers on a shoestring budget, are 5,000 years earlier than previously thought.
     Over the past seven years, the site has yielded the earliest semi-permanent settlement in the Stonehenge area from 7,500 to 4,700 BCE. And carbon dating of material found at the site show people were there during every millennium in between. "Here we are in this little nook at the bottom of a hill with a river running round it and it probably had more people coming to it in the Mesolithic period than it's had people coming ever since," he said.
     The people occupying the site would likely have been responsible for erecting the first monument at Stonehenge, the Mesolithic posts, between the 9th and 7th millennia BCE.
Instead of being seen as a site which was abandoned by Mesolithic humans and occupied by Neolithic men thousands of years later, Stonehenge should be recognised as a place where one culture merged with the other, researchers said.
     The small-scale project has been led by Open University archaeologist David Jacques, who had to plough his redundancy money into it to make it happen. He first spotted the Amesbury site in aerial photographs as a student. The photographs, in an archive at Cambridge University, showed a site known as Vespasian's Camp just a mile from Stonehenge.
     Assumed to have been completely landscaped in the 18th Century, Mr Jacques realised the area had not been and decided to investigate. "The whole landscape is full of prehistoric monuments and it is extraordinary in a way that this has been such a blind spot for so long archaeologically," he said. "But in 1999 a group of student friends and myself started to survey this area of Amesbury."
     The site, which contains a natural spring, is the nearest source of fresh water to Stonehenge. And Mr Jacques, with the theory it may have been a water supply for early man, believed there could be pristine and ancient archaeology waiting to be discovered. "I suppose what my team did, which is a slightly fresher version, was look at natural places. Places in the landscape where you would imagine animals might have gone to, to have a drink," he said. "My thinking was where you find wild animals, you tend to find people, certainly hunter gatherer groups coming afterwards."  
     Professor Peter Rowley-Conwy, from Durham University, said: "The site has the potential to become one of the most important Mesolithic sites in north-western Europe." And Dr Pollard, from the Stonehenge Riverside Project, said "The team have found the community who put the first monument up at Stonehenge. The significance of David's work lies in finding substantial evidence of Mesolithic settlement in the Stonehenge landscape [which was] previously largely lacking, apart from the enigmatic posts, and being able to demonstrate that there were repeated visits to this area from the 9th to the 5th millennia BCE."

Edited from BBC News, The Telegraph (19 April 2013)

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