Stone Age temple discovery offers scientific first

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ONE OF the world's largest prehistoric stone buildings has been discovered in the Channel Islands by archaeologists.

The perfectly preserved 33ft- high (10m), 6,000-year-old structure - probably a temple - was found inside a large grass-covered mound three miles north-east of St Helier in Jersey. Made of millions of blocks of stone, the 150ft- wide (46m) building is likely to have been used for ancestor worship.

The first evidence of prehistoric activity at the site was found almost 70 years ago when archaeologists burrowed deep into the grassy mound and found a tunnel and three small burial chambers. However, no clue to the existence of the stone building was discovered until excavation over the past few weeks uncovered its monumental facade.

So far, archaeologists - funded by a local organisation, the Societe Jersiaise, and the Jersey government - have uncovered 1,350sq ft (125sq m) of this facade; and, using ground-penetrating radar, they have succeeded in locating the probable entrance to what may be a second series of burial chambers. If this proves right, it will be the first opportunity for modern science to examine undisturbed human bones from a prehistoric European tomb.

If and when they reach these 6,000-year-old chambers, the archaeologists plan to don surgical gloves and masks so as not to contaminate the remains. The bones will then be taken to a laboratory at Manchester University where samples of DNA will be extracted to ascertain whether the bones belonged to the same family group or lineage. Other tests - to date the material - will determine age, and should reveal whether individuals were buried at the same time.

The entire building consists of 430,000 cu ft (12,178 cu m) of stone - and archaeologists estimate that it would have taken 250 people two years to construct, a fact which has substantial implications for the level of social organisation and control which must have existed at this period, the Neolithic or New Stone Age.

Dr Mark Patton, the excavation director, says the structure is in superb condition: 'The two-tier 10ft-high (3m) facade is beautifully built. There isn't a stone out of place. It is exactly as it was when it was first constructed.'

Previously all that was known about the site, La Hougue Bie, were the three burial chambers found in the 1920s. These contained 21 pottery vessels marked with a burnt, resin-like material. Archaeologists believed that this was from drugs, possibly opium or hashish.

If they are right, the Stone Age worshippers would probably have sat around the bones of their ancestors in a drug-induced trance designed to put them in contact with the spirits or gods.

The building would have been a focus therefore for religious activity over a long period - and archaeologists believe that it was in use for around 1,000 years.

Stones to build the sacred central chambers appear to have been gathered from five different sites on Jersey, while the mass of the stone for the building itself came from just one quarry. The entire building appears to have been deliberately buried inside a shroud of earth between 3500BC and 3000BC.

'Passage grave' religious buildings like La Hougue Bie are found throughout western Europe - although the Jersey discovery is one of the largest and is certainly the best preserved.

In various sizes they can be seen in Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Orkney, the Hebrides, Portugal, southern Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Germany - and all date from the fourth and fifth milleniums BC.

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