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Dig Site Near Stonehenge Reveals Wealth of Information on Neolithic Life

Nov 29, 2013 11:24 AM EST
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Archaeologists working just miles from the Stonehenge monument have found a wealth of evidence of life dating back to the Neolithic era.

The material may hold vital information about plant species that thrived in the area about 6,000 years ago, according to the archaeologists.

Researchers, led by a team from London's Kingston University, were digging on farmland when they came across a change in soil composition in an 40-meter-long opening at the dig site. The composition change was marked by a layer of orange sand and clay considered to be uncharacteristic among the surrounding geologic evidence.

"The site at Damerham is on chalk land, so we don't often find materials like this that capture and preserve the plant remains -- pollen or phytoliths -- from a specific time period," said archaeologist Helen Wickstead, who noted that the find was initially confusing to the team. "The sink hole contained orange sand with a yellow and grey clay and we are very hopeful that, within this material, there will be evidence of plant life that will help us continue to piece together the puzzle of human habitation on this significant site."

Wickstead said it was evident that prehistoric people living in the area had also come across the sink hole when it opened up.

"We didn't expect to find this and suspect it would have surprised the original architects of the site too," she said. "Moments of unexpected discovery could have had cultural significance for prehistoric people. The henge itself was a focus for rituals, life and death, so questions about the impact such a discovery would have had on their activity will be interesting to consider."

Also among the dig site at Damerham, about 15 miles away from Stonehenge, was an ancient temple complex. Wickstead said the site is unusual because a number of the temple structures are located in one area.

"The diversity of burial architecture here is intriguing," she said. "What is special about this place that meant generation after generation returned to the site to live, hunt, build and commemorate life?"

Researchers learned the site at Damerham was of archaeological significance in 2003 when researchers spotted crop marks from an aerial photo.

"During the six years since we first opened the site, we've not only involved the local community but also brought together expertise from a range of specialists from geochemical analysts to artists, to make sure we make the most of the opportunity while we can," Wickstead explained. "Doing the dig is only a tiny portion of the work required to document these important sites, but it is the more urgent part because erosion by farming and other environmental factors will gradually diminish what's there."

Wickstead said she expects the site could reveal many more secrets about human life in the Neolithic period.

"The clues to earlier human life are all around us in the landscape and I would love to return and undertake a larger-scale dig at Damerham," Wickstead said. "For now, the team will be examining and compiling the data already gathered and, as well as analyzing the soil samples, plotting the artifacts and mapping the earthworks, we may also be able to undertake some gene sequencing on the bone fragments we found. All of this will help tell us more about how the people of this period lived and died in Damerham more than 6,000 years ago."

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