Friday, July 24, 2020

Avenue Walk and the Durrington Walls Pits

In mid 2020, the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project published findings from their extensive geophysics work in the World Heritage Site in which they revealed the discovery of "A Massive, Late Neolithic Pit Structure associated with Durrington Walls Henge" (https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.55.4).

This is a roughly circular arrangement of 10m wide by 5m (at least) deep pits centred on Durrington Walls with an overall diameter in excess of 2km - a truly enormous landscape feature.

The discovery has already prompted a remarkable event - the deferring of the decision by the UK Government's Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps MP, on whether to build the Stonehenge Tunnel. As this BBC News Story highlights, such a major find within the Stonehenge World Heritage site, very close to the proposed location of the Tunnel's Eastern Portal entrance, means that "further consultation" is required.

The decision has been put back until November 2020 to allow time for an analysis of the significance of this completely unexpected archaeological result.

LIDAR of Durrington Walls overlaid with the pit circle locations
I found myself wondering whether there was any significance to the arrangement and positioning of these "pits", but couldn't see anything obvious from the plan.

Then I decided to stop looking at the plan, and instead look at the landscape from ground level.

I georeferenced the pit locations into Google Earth, stuck markers in them, and took a virtual stroll along the course of the Stonehenge Avenue from West Amesbury Henge (aka Bluestonehenge) at the River Avon towards Stonehenge.

What I saw astonished me.

The pit locations occupy positions that serve to frame the eastern horizon from Larkhill Causewayed Enclosure via Sidbury Hill to the northern ridge running from Beacon Hill.

Each of these horizon features was important in the Neolilthic.

Larkhill Causewayed Enclosure 

Larkhill's enclosure pre-dated the Durrington Walls pits by almost 1000 years yet it is included in their circuit. Later Beaker period inhumations at the entrance, together with a pit alignment pointing off towards Barrow Clump and Sidbury Hill suggest strongly that this site retained its significance for generations.

https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/larkhill-causewayed-enclosure.htm
https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/our-work/larkhill
https://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue47/7/5-6.html

From the Intarch article above:
"Monuments may have formalised or commemorated movements and gatherings of different scale, though the emphasis on localised patterns of visual perception perhaps relates to movements around the landscape at a community scale."

Sidbury Hill

Sidbury Hill lies exactly on the Stonehenge summer solstice alignment from the stone circle, and appears to have been important as a source of a particular kind of flint associated with dozens of neolithic pits and a flint working industry discovered during the Army Rebasing Housing Development at Bulford.

Those pits contained an odd assortment of apparently deliberately deposited artifacts, and next to them was a peculiar "double henge". Opposite the housing development is the Bulford Stone - a natural sarsen boulder which was erected next to where it originally formed on top of the chalk, and next to it is a prehistoric grave which contains significant and unique grave goods.

Phil Harding (recognised as the leading expert on prehistoric flint working) regards the Bulford pits and double henge discovery as one of the most significant for decades. Sidbury Hill seems to have been of pre-eminent importance and focus to these neolithic people, and also to those who came later because three long Bronze Age linear ditches converge at Sidbury Hill - one from the west, one from the north and one from the east.

https://modmedia.blog.gov.uk/2016/04/15/bulford-dig-unearths-archaeological-treasure-trove/
https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/our-work/bulford
 

Beacon Hill Ridgeline

The ridge leading to Beacon Hill has been cited as a possible target for the alignment of the Stonehenge Greater Cursus. Although this earthwork monument runs roughly west-east, it is not accurately aligned on the equinox sunrise and set. Instead, it seems to be drawing attention to the eastern horizon, particularly the area immediately north of the summit of Beacon Hill.

In alignment with and east of the Cursus, between the Cursus and the River Avon, lies the Cuckoo Stone near to Durrington Walls itself. This stone is another natural sarsen boulder which was erected next to where it formed. It seems to have retained its importance down to Romano-British times as the discovery of the square Roman "wayside temple" right next to it indicates.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228804259_The_Stonehenge_Riverside_Project_exploring_the_Neolithic_landscape_of_Stonehenge

The Avenue Walk

Larkhill enclosure, Sidbury Hill and the Beacon Hill ridge are the primary features of the horizon that are framed by the Durrington Walls pit locations as you walk along the Avenue.

At every point along this route, the arrangement of pits neatly brackets this section of the horizon - the arrangement of pits in a circle neatly counteracts the parallax effect that an otherwise straight-line arrangement would suffer.

Once you reach King Barrow Ridge and Stonehenge comes into view, the eastern horizon frame fades away as you descend into Stonehenge Bottom and begin your final approach to Stonehenge itself.

Now that you have the background, have a look at the video I've created that shows the effect.

This video (which has no audio, by the way) makes use of Google Earth, into which I have georeferenced the locations of the Durrington Walls pits from the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project's recently published paper about their discovery. The line of the Avenue itself is taken directly from the Stonehenge Riverside Project's "Seeing Beneath Stonehenge" Google Earth dataset. Markers for Sidbury Hill and Larkhill Causewayed Enclosure were added by me.

It's best viewed full screen on YouTube (https://youtu.be/P-XvMyBrTxY), but here's an embedded version. (Update: I've added a commentary in the subtitles, so remember to switch them on before viewing)



Is it possible that the entire landscape is repeatedly and deliberately being memorialised by generations of ancient people through the careful framing of and drawing of attention to elements of their world that have achieved "specialness" through aeons of time?

I think so.

This, if true, indicates an outstanding aesthetic sense and a desire to undertake "landscape engineering" on an absolutely epic scale. It shows an interconnectedness not only in space but also through immense spans of time, reinforcing a people's relationship with the land and their past.

What I find most interesting is that the route of the Avenue has been a subject of controversy for a long time. It's not the easiest stone-transport route from the Avon to Stonehenge, but seems instead to have been designed (at the depths of the valley at Stonehenge Bottom) to induce a sense of expectation prior to the final approach along the solstice axis to Stonehenge. Indeed, at that final turn (the "Elbow"), Stonehenge disappears from view entirely, only re-emerging as you climb the slope towards the setting winter sun.

The part of the Avenue route leading from the Avon to King Barrow Ridge now seems to me to have its own crucial significance - keeping in clear view all the parts of the eastern horizon that have a meaning to those undertaking the journey.

Perhaps, given the idea that the Avenue was part of a ritualised journey from life to death from Durrington Walls to Stonehenge, this sharp focus on a particular sweep of the eastern horizon serves as an act of rememberance of all those who have gone before.

And those pits don't even have to be visible for that to happen - just an understanding that they are there and that they are positioned to induce this feeling would be enough.

What a majestic achievement, still appreciable across open farmland nearly 5000 years after it was laid out.

Pity it might all be spoiled by driving a 4 lane expressway directly through the critical part of the view.

Update: 11th August 2020 

Professor Vince Gaffney has kindly given me permission to include an animation that was generated in the 1990s. It shows the viewsheds and monument visibility that develop from the point of view of someone walking the line of the Avenue from the River Avon to just beyond King Barrow Ridge.

 (Credit: R. Yorston. Major monument animation from Exon et al. 2000. Stonehenge Landscapes)