10 September 2023

Woodhenge - in the Stonehenge Sacred Landscape

20th century concrete pillars at Woodhenge. White, light blue, & red tops showing. Image by (c) Linda Acaster

What happened to August? In fact, where’s September disappearing to?

Normally regarded as ‘high summer’ in the UK, in late August Summer finally arrived. Friends visited, the vegetable and flower beds went into true English Country Garden mode (and with them the weeds), and we did a bit of travelling – back to Wiltshire.

This time we visited Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, both longstanding on my must-see list. They proved as fascinating as I’d hoped, as much because of the little that is known against what has been gleaned from recent archaeology. Both are within the World Heritage Site of the Stonehenge Sacred Landscape, and yes, we went to Stonehenge, too – in thick drizzle.

Woodhenge is the least known and most enigmatic of the three. It was discovered only in 1925 when early aerial photography showed rings of concentric darker spots in the dry vegetation not noticeable at ground level. Maud Cunningham, born 1869 and a pioneering archaeologist in the area, undertook the first investigation. She and her husband promptly bought the site to preserve it, in turn giving it to the nation.

Woodhenge, as it became known, is 160ft (50m) in diameter, though not quite a true circle. Within its outer bank and inner ditch (the henge) were found six rings of post holes which would have supported individual oak timber uprights. Different rings had posts of different thicknesses. At its centre was found the grave of a child about three years old.

Today, knee-high concrete pillars, in equivalent thicknesses, stand in place of the long-decayed oak posts, their tops painted in different hues for ease of visitor recognition. It gives the site a somewhat questioning appearance.

Despite of a corresponding age - 2500BC - to the raising of the first sarsen stones at Stonehenge a mere two miles distant, the site was no blueprint test. Were the posts open to the elements? Were the post heights uniform or as irregular as their diameters? Did they support wooden lintels? Did they support a massive roof, long gone? The questions seem endless. What’s more, it wasn’t the only one in the area, just the largest. Or largest found so far.

One thing is certain, it wasn’t a giant building providing shared accommodation. Durrington Walls close by was the contemporary place of settlement. Its enormous bank and inner ditch, most of which remain visible, was some 1500ft (470m) in diameter, making it, in modern classification terms, a super-henge.

More on Durrington Walls in a future blog

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