Why Stonehenge was built is still a mystery. How the the giant stones were transported almost defy belief. And now, archaeologists are about to sink their trowels into an even bigger mystery.
In a press release well timed to coincide with the summer solstice, a team based at the University of Reading have announced that they’re about to start a three-year excavation at Marden Henge, an archaeological site close to, but ten times bigger than, the iconic and superstar celebrity monument of British prehistory; Stonehenge.
The Vale of Pewsey is a vast area that runs between the two very famous prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury. In 2008, aerial mapping by English Heritage showed that this vast area is full of monuments and features, the most striking of which is Marden Henge; the largest, but least known henge in the British Isles.
In fact, Marden Henge sits right on the line that connects Stonehenge and Avebury, which poses some fascinating questions about how and why the monuments were connected. Despite being incredibly rich in Neolithic archaeology, the area is poorly understood.
Probably because there are no surviving standing stones, so it’s hard to see from the surface unless you know what you’re looking for.
Although it’s ten times the size of Stonehenge, today it’s just a giant earthwork covering some 15.7 hectares, broken by two entrances.
What’s amazing is that at 4,400 years old, it’s one of the earliest archaeological sites in the entire Vale. Not only that, but excavation within the Henge will focus on finding clues from what is thought to be one of the oldest houses in Britain, a Neolithic building revealed during earlier excavations.
Archaeologists think that the people who used this building would have been among those who would have seen Stonehenge in full swing, perhaps even helped to haul the huge stones upright.
Interestingly, Marden Henge’s formation simulates the surrounding landscape, as the sinuous course of the henge ditch closely resembles the path of the river that runs through the valley.
But Neolithic communities weren’t the only ones in the area. Farming communities lived and worked in the Vale for thousands of years; Bronze Age burial mounds, as well as Iron Age, Roman, and Medieval settlements show that it has been settled pretty much continuously ever since.
Large earthwork terraces on the steep slopes of the vale reveal medieval farming techniques, and along the streams there is evidence for the remains of post-medieval water meadows (areas of controlled irrigation for use in agriculture).
The sheer wealth of archaeological data in the area makes it an incredibly important landscape, and one which deserves detailed investigation. After all, the information it contains could reveal the secrets to one of the country’s most famous and most mysterious prehistoric monuments!
Communities settled and thrived there and one aim is to understand how use of the landscape changed from prehistory to history. The project hopes to find out about the lives of those who lived within the Stonehenge landscape, and find out how these incredible henge monuments were constructed and used by local communities and the people who built them.
But the really big questions the archaeologists want answers to is how the three monuments – Stonehenge, Avebury and Marden Henge – are connected. Were they in competition with each other? Or did they form a single network used for different occasions and ceremonies?
Whatever they discover it’s clear that this mysterious landscape could reveal some significant secrets about prehistoric life and the role of these henge monuments within local communities. We can’t wait to hear more.
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