Archaeologists have discovered a mysterious square slap bang in the middle of one of the UK’s most well-known Neolithic monuments
The associated standing stones, barrow, and avenues near Avebury, located in Wiltshire in the south west of England, are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that also includes Stonehenge. Avebury is best known as a Neolithic henge, meaning it comprises a bank and ditch where the ditch is inside the bank, and features a large outer stone circle (330 metres in diameter) and two smaller stone circles. The complex monument is believed to have been constructed over several centuries in the third millennium BCE.
A team funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council did a geophysical survey and historical research which revealed evidence for a square formation of stones in the centre of a 100-metre-diameter stone circle.
Archaeologists from the University of Southampton and the University of Leicester, with additional support from the University of Cambridge and Allen Environmental Archaeology, undertook electrical resistivity survey and used ground-penetrating radar to piece together a picture of what lay under the ground-surface. These non-invasive techniques revealed buried stones and the likely positions of stones that were removed, perhaps as recently as various phases of destruction during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The side of the square is 30 metres, situated near the large upright standing stone known as the Obelisk. In recent years, this same area had been discovered as the site of an even earlier Neolithic timber structure, likely a house approximately 30m by 6m. The house seems to be the earliest structure on the entire complex, from around 3500BCE.
The archaeologists now see a link between this house and the square, and in turn, must reassess the role of these pieces of the monument as a whole. Mark Gillings (Leicester) explains: “Our working interpretation is that the house is the first thing. It falls into ruin but they’re still remembering and respecting it.”
He theorizes the square was erected around the house-site some time around 3000BCE. Alexander Keiller, Scottish archaeologist (and marmalade heir), had initially observed part of the unique square in his 1939 excavations. Joshua Pollard (Southampton) notes that Keiller’s stone alignment near the Obelisk is actually one side of the square; he also points to a series of radii from the square extending to the surrounding circle. Both Gillings and Pollard acknowledge Keiller’s efforts, even though he erroneously dated postholes associated with the Neolithic house to the medieval period.
The various occupations of Avebury in prehistory, the medieval period, and even modernity are rooted in the confluence of a millennia-old union of technology and social organization.
What this discovery means to archaeology at large cannot be overstated: there are still secrets to be revealed at some of our most-studied sites, and the development of new technologies in both non-invasive survey and actual excavation may be the key to unlocking these mysteries.
In the almost 80 years from Keiller’s investigations, both the science and humanities arms of archaeology have advanced beyond early antiquarians’ dreams; just imagine what archaeologists a few decades from now will be able to do!
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