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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Huge Pre-Stonehenge Complex Found via "Crop Circles"

A routine aerial survey by English Heritage, the U.K. government's
historic-preservation agency, found the "crop circles" , the surface
images of buried archaeological structures being reelected in the
plant growth. Photo of the "crop circles" at the citation/cite.


Huge Pre-Stonehenge Complex Found via "Crop Circles"
James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
June 15, 2009


Given away by strange, crop circle-like formations seen from the air,
a huge prehistoric ceremonial complex discovered in southern England
has taken archaeologists by surprise.


A thousand years older than nearby Stonehenge, the site includes the
remains of wooden temples and two massive, 6,000-year-old tombs that
are among "Britain's first architecture," according to archaeologist
Helen Wickstead, leader of the Damerham Archaeology Project.


For such a site to have lain hidden for so long is "completely
amazing," said Wickstead, of Kingston University in London.


Archaeologist Joshua Pollard, who was not involved in the find,
agreed. The discovery is "remarkable," he said, given the decades of
intense archaeological attention to the greater Stonehenge region.


"I think everybody assumed such monument complexes were known about or
had already been discovered," added Pollard, a co-leader of the
Stonehenge Riverside Project, which is funded in part by the National
Geographic Society. (The National Geographic Society owns National
Geographic News.)


Six-Thousand-Year-Old Tombs


At the 500-acre (200-hectare) site, outlines of the structures were
spotted "etched" into farmland near the village of Damerham, some 15
miles (24 kilometers) from Stonehenge (Damerham map).


Discovered during a routine aerial survey by English Heritage, the
U.K. government's historic-preservation agency, the "crop circles" are
the results of buried archaeological structures interfering with plant
growth. True crop circles are vast designs created by flattening
crops.


The central features are two great tombs topped by massive mounds—made
shorter by centuries of plowing—called long barrows. The larger of the
two tombs is 70 meters (230 feet) long.


Estimated at 6,000 years old, based on the dates of similar tombs
around the United Kingdom, the long barrows are also the oldest
elements of the complex.


Such oblong burial mounds are very rare finds, and are the country's
earliest known architectural form, Wickstead said. The last full-scale
long barrow excavation was in the 1950s, she added.


The Damerham tombs have yet to be excavated, but experts say the long
barrows likely contain chambers—probably carved into chalk bedrock and
reinforced with wood—filled with human bones associated with ancestor
worship.


(Related: "Stonehenge Was Cemetery First and Foremost, Study Says.")


During the late Stone Age, it's believed, people in the region left
their dead in the open to be picked clean by birds and other animals.


Skulls and other bones of people who were for some reason deemed
significant were later placed inside the burial mounds, Wickstead
explained.


"These are bone houses, in a way," she said. "Instead of whole bodies,
[the tombs contain] parts of ancestors."


Later Monuments, Long Occupation


Other finds suggest the site remained an important focus for
prehistoric farming communities well into the Bronze Age (roughly 2000
to 700 B.C. in Britain).


Near the tombs are two large, round, ditch-encircled structures—the
largest circular enclosure being about 190 feet (57 meters) wide.


Nonintrusive electromagnetic surveys show signs of postholes,
suggesting rings of upright timber once stood within the circles—
further evidence of the Damerham site's ceremonial or sacred role.


Pollard, of the University of Bristol, likened the features to smaller
versions of Woodhenge, a timber-circle temple at the Stonehenge World
Heritage site.


Damerham also includes a highly unusual, and so far baffling, U-shaped
enclosure with postholes dated to the Bronze Age, project leader
Wickstead said.


The circled outlines of 26 Bronze Age burial mounds also dot the site,
which is littered with stone flint tools and shattered examples of the
earliest known type of pottery in Britain.


Evidence of prehistoric agricultural fields suggest the area was at
least partly cultivated by the time the Romans invaded Britain in the
first century A.D., generally considered to be the end of the regions'
prehistoric period.


Riches Beneath Ravaged Surface?


The actual barrows and mounds near Damerham have been diminished by
centuries of plowing, but that, ironically, may make them much more
valuable archaeologically, according to Pollard, of the University of
Bristol.


The mounds would have been irresistible advertisements for tomb
raiders, who in the 18th and 19th centuries targeted Bronze Age
burials for their ornate grave goods.


And "even if the mounds are gone, you are still going to have primary
burials [as opposed to those later added on top] which will have been
dug into the chalk, so are going to survive," Pollard added.


The contents of the Stone Age long barrows should likewise have
survived, he said. "I think there's good reason to assume you might
have the main wooden mortuary chambers with burial deposits," he said.


Redrawing the Map


An administrative oversight may also be partly responsible for the
site remaining hidden—and assumedly pristine, at least underground—
project leader Wickstead said.


When prehistoric sites in the area were being mapped and documented in
the 1890s, a county-border change placed Damerham within Hampshire
rather than Stonehenge's Wiltshire, she said.


"Perhaps people in Hampshire thought [the monuments] were someone
else's problem."


This lucky conjunction of plowing and politics obscured Damerham's
prehistoric heritage until now.


The site shows that "a lot of the ceremonial activity isn't
necessarily located in these big centers," such as Stonehenge, Pollard
said. "But there are other locations where people are congregating and
constructing ceremonial monuments."
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