Giant temple sheds new light on the Stone Age

The largest prehistoric building ever found anywhere in the world has been discovered at a sacred Stone Age site in South-west England. David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent, says the structure would have even dwarfed Stonehenge.
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The Independent Online
Archaeological tests carried out by English Heritage scientists have revealed that the 5,000-year-old structure - almost certainly a huge temple - had a diameter of 95 metres, extraordinarily large and one-third that of the giant, Millennium Dome now under construction at Greenwich, in east London.

The Stone Age building was probably at least ten metres high, possibly with a thatched roof supported by more than 400 massive wooden columns, each around a metre in diameter. It was at least six times the size of Stonehenge and four times the size of any of the other known timber temples built in England during the Neolithic era.

The structure was surrounded by a huge 135-metre diameter, six-metre wide ditch with a large 40-metre wide entrance in the north-east.

The building, the remains of which - mainly massive column holes - lie underground in a field at Stanton Drew seven miles south of Bristol, was completely unknown until scientists started surveying the area a few weeks ago. Using the archaeological equivalent of an X-ray, a magnetometer, a scientific team from English Heritage probed deep beneath the surface of the field without digging a single hole. The discovery is without doubt one of the most important archaeological finds made anywhere in the world this century.

Although there are no gold and no inscriptions, the sheer scale of the newly discovered building suggests that prehistoric south-west England was even more sophisticated than has been thought until now.

At the centre of the building, the scientists detected five large pits which may have been for sacrificial offerings. Evidence from other similar but much smaller sites has in the past shown that human and animal sacrifices were almost certainly carried out in such temples.

In the 17th century, when one of the stones at Stanton Drew fell over, human remains were apparently discovered in the hole where the stone had been.

The picture that is increasingly emerging of the Neolithic age in the Wiltshire/Somerset area, is of a very complex hierarchical society in which massive power must have rested with either kings, paramount chieftains or priests.

The economy appears to have been based on cattle ranching - but huge amounts of manpower were diverted to the construction of vast monumental buildings and other structures including the huge 130-foot high conical "pyramid" of Silbury Hill, the vast 1,400-foot diameter standing-stone complex of Avebury and the early stages of Stonehenge itself.

Archaeologists have always been impressed with stone circles such as Stonehenge and Avebury - but this giant building with its forest of massive columns is likely to force a total re-examination of the nature and scale of Neolithic Britain.

Some archaeologists have already suggested very controversially the existence of small towns or even states. This extraordinary discovery will force academics to consider whether it is evidence of an embryonic civilisation which failed to survive in the long term.

English Heritage officials say the structure was "at least as old and of comparable significance too Stonehenge". The key scientist involved in the magnetometry survey, Dr Andrew David, described the discovery as "amazing".

It was always known that the site was of religious importance in prehistoric times because three stone circles survive there to this day. The circles, which all together consist of around 60 standing stones, date from approximately 2700 BC. And it's likely that the giant wooden building dates from several hundred years earlier. Perhaps around 3000 BC.

The largest of the three stone circles was actually built on exactly the same site as the giant building and was probably its immediate successor.

Dr Aubrey Burl, one of Britain's leading experts on stone circles and henge monuments, describing the discovery as "magnificent", predicted that other similarly massive buildings could be discovered through new magnetometry surveys and air photography in the future.

The newly discovered giant building at Stanton Drew, was probably used for sky worship of some sort. The main entrance faces towards the point on the horizon where the sun would have risen on midsummer's day.

Precisely what went on at such sites remains for the time being largely a mystery. As well as having a probable sacrificial function, it could also have been associated with fertility and water rituals. Ancient legends about the site link it with wedding rituals and the stones are described in myth as celebrants who dared to dance through the night into Sunday - and were therefore turned to stone.

At some similar yet smaller sites large numbers of human jawbones have been found and such places may have been used as temples for communing with the spirits or gods through the ancestors.