Rare Photo Reveals Ingenious Stonehenge Engineering Secrets

Rare Photo Reveals Ingenious Stonehenge Engineering Secrets

England’s famous stone circle, Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, was built in four major phases with the first being completed around 5,000 years ago and what we see today, the final stage, was completed about 3,500 years ago by Neolithic builders using primitive dear antler tools, and has been subject to much mystery. And now a rare photograph has shed new light on the enigma revealing some Stonehenge engineering secrets.

Secret to Longevity

While the immense towering stones are a thing of marvel, so too is the structure’s longevity, which archaeologists now know was enhanced because the ancient slabs were cleverly interlocked using holes and protruding studs.

This innovative construction method was much more sophisticated than the stone building formats applied in contemporary stone circles and English Heritage says the use of this technique “allowed the monument to stand the test of time.”

The charity says an aerial photograph taken from a cherry picker, which they recently posted online, shows how the ancient creators of Stonehenge built their monument “just like Lego,” a comment to which according to the Daily Mail , the Danish toy-making giant replied with an affectionate message saying: “ah, where it all began.”

The ingenious Stonehenge engineering pictured during sunset. ( Terry / Adobe stock)

Let’s Go Beyond “Lego”

The photograph reveals how the immense stones interlocked with protruding studs corresponding with holes of a slightly wider diameter carved in others. It is unfortunate that English Heritage, and all subsequent media reports, keep repeating the mundane party line that this ancient interlocking mechanism is equatable with the toy Lego, rather than explaining the engineering behind what is an incredibly simple “mortise and tenon” system of stabilizing stones.

A system which in its simplicity played a crucial role in the monument enduring for over five millennia, with 17 of Stonehenge's original upright stones still standing with five lintels still in their original positions.

English Heritage, which looks after the ancient Wiltshire monument, wrote in a tweet accompanying the remarkable photograph, that it displays a rarely seen view of the top of the giant sarsen stones in which protruding tenons are clearly visible with corresponding horizontal lintel stones featuring mortise holes for the tenons to slide into.

But their reference to the system being “a bit like early Lego!” might, or should be, at the very least annoying to the average Ancient Origins reader, who doesn’t have a childlike brain, which the Lego analogy aims to stimulate.

Despite what some people say, the Stonehenge engineering was not just like Lego. Pictured: Aerial shot of Stonehenge during the summer. ( Alexey Fedorenko / Adobe stock)

Stonehenge Engineering is More Like “Meccano”

For us, the ancient building system applied at Stonehenge is more like “Meccano”, Lego for the higher brow reader, which better accounts for the “mechanics” applied by the builders of the ancient monument.

“Lego” suggests sticking one stone upon another and sliding them into position with a click, but this says little for the A-frames, gravity defeating pulleys and scaffolding structures described by British Academy archaeologists as invisible, but essential skills underlying the locking system demonstrated in the newly publicized photograph.

Regarding this relative complexity when compared with other stone circles built at the same time, Susan Greaney, an archaeologist with a specialism in British prehistory who works for English Heritage, told The Guardian , “one of the big questions is why Stonehenge was constructed with such precision engineering? Answering her own question, the archaeologist says it “may well be simply that they wanted to make sure it lasted a very long time.”

If the builders had set unworked sarsens on top of the vertical upright stones, as crowing lintels, the relative instability would have left them vulnerable to earthquakes, the wind, frost and to the A3 bypass and impending substructural road tunnel.

The archaeologists presumption is that there were similar timber monuments being built around the time utilizing mortise and tenon joints that were mimicked by the Stonehenge engineers. And then again, summarizing all these engineering feats, the English Heritage spokesperson said, “we sometimes say to our schoolchildren who visit that Stonehenge it’s just like Lego.”

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We Want Details!

That’s fine for the children. According to Richard Morin, Washington Post Polling Director, in a 1999 article raising concerns about “dumbing down”, especially in journalism, marketers and reporters gleefully drive “the controversy rather than merely report the facts.”

The news media, according to Morin, were getting “increasingly careless with the news” condescending its audiences by boiling down anything that sounds challenging to its lowest common denominator: God forbidding that readers might have to learn something. And now, twenty years later, when English archaeologists gain a richer understanding of the underlying mechanics of one of the world’s most iconic ancient buildings, these days we get the “Lego” version.

Lego can be made into some wonderful creations, and it’s longevity as an immensely popular children’s toy is laudable, but it is almost disrespectful to those ancient people who with bone tools carved, transported, shaped, raised and locked into time a magnificence unrivaled anywhere in the world. Meccano, is just far more appropriate.


Drought Has Revealed Spain’s Long-Submerged ‘Stonehenge’

Spain

This summer has been unusually scorching across Europe and beyond, and things have only grown more intense in the already hot and dry region of Extremadura in Spain. Months into an official drought that could be developing into a mega-drought, local farmers are facing the loss of hundreds of millions of euros. Many think this is just a sign of things to come.

Droughts, and the way that they strip the land of plant cover and drain lakes and reservoirs, for all the problems they cause, are often a boon for archaeologists. The water level of the Valdecañas Reservoir in the province of Cáceres has dropped so low that it is providing an extraordinary glimpse into the past.

“All my life, people had told me about the dolmen,” says Angel Castaño, a resident of Peraleda de la Mata, a village just a couple miles from the reservoir, and president of the local cultural association. “I had seen parts of it peeking out from the water before, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in full. It’s spectacular because you can appreciate the entire complex for the first time in decades.”

The dolmen he’s talking about is known as the Dolmen of Guadalperal, the remains of a 7,000-year old megalithic monument consisting of around 100 standing stones—some up to six feet tall—arranged around an oval open space. It takes hours of hiking to get to the dolmen, which is now a few dozen yards away from the edge of the tranquil blue water. Visitors today are more likely to see deer than guards. Traces of aquatic plant life in the sand show that the site is dry and accessible only temporarily.

The Dolmen de Guadalperal was excavated and studied in the 1920s, drowned in the 1960s, and dry again in 2019. 1080 Wildlife Productions

“When we saw it, we were completely thrilled,” Castaño says. “It felt like we had discovered a megalithic monument ourselves.”

Archaeologists believe the dolmen was likely erected on the banks of the Tagus River in the fifth millennium BC, as a completely enclosed space, like a stone house with a massive cap stone on top. And though it had been known, perhaps even damaged, by the Romans, it had faded beyond memory until German archaeologist Hugo Obermaier led an excavation of the site in the mid-1920s. Obermaier’s work wasn’t published until 1960, but by then the tide of the 20th century was on its way to the ancient site.

In his quest to modernize Spain, Francisco Franco’s regime carried out a number of massive civil engineering projects, including a dam and reservoir that flooded the Dolmen of Guadalperal in 1963. Archaeological studies and environmental impact reports before such projects weren’t regular practice at the time, says Primitiva Bueno Ramirez, a specialist in prehistory at the University of Alcalá. “You couldn’t believe how many authentic archaeological and historic gems are submerged under Spain’s man-made lakes.”

The Valdecañas Dam in Extremadura, Spain. age fotostock / Alamy

The Valdecañas Reservoir brought water and electricity to underdeveloped parts of western Spain, but that came at a cost. “The flooding was tragic on many levels,” says Castaño. “From the historic point of view, it drowned these megalithic monuments and most of the remains of a Roman city called Augustóbriga. [Portions of the ruins were relocated to a nearby hilltop.] From the human point of view, an inhabited town was flooded and people were forced to move out of their homes.”

As water levels in the reservoir have fluctuated over the years, the tips of the tallest stones sometimes become visible, but it is a rare occurrence—so far—for the entire structure to be high and dry. Dolmens like this one were tombs or sites for ritual—think Stonehenge—and ones like it appear in different cultures all over the world, from Ireland to India to the Korean Peninsula. One of the standout attributes of the Dolmen of Guadalperal is a large stone, or menhir, that marked the entrance. A human figure is engraved on its front, along with a long squiggly line on another face. Scientists believe it is a representation of a snake.

A temple from the Roman ruins of Augustóbriga was relocated to a hilltop when the rest of the city was flooded. age fotostock / Alamy

When Castaño, a philologist by trade, saw it, he saw an ancient map of the now-flooded portions of the Tagus River. It’s not a widely accepted theory, but there are similarities between the “squiggle” and the course of the river. If he’s right, it could represent one of the oldest maps ever found. “It was intuition,” he says. “Before the area was flooded, the river had a strange bend that matched where the snake’s head was supposed to be. I rushed to consult an old map of the river, and I realized that the curvy line corresponded nearly 100 percent to the river’s path.”

Bueno, who studied the monument in the 1990s, when the waters were low enough for the top half of the dolmen to emerge, has her doubts. “I appreciate his enthusiasm, but from my archaeological understanding, I would say that the line is geometric and similar to ones found in megalithic art across Europe. In this case, it could be identified as a serpent.” She adds that further studies are needed.

The large, engraved menhir at the Dolmen of Guadalperal. Ruben Ortega Martin/ Raices de Peraleda

While the Dolmen of Guadalperal has widely been compared to Stonehenge—and rightly so—the Spanish example was once an entirely enclosed space. And it could also be around 2,000 years older.

When it was intact, according to Bueno, people would have entered through a dark, narrow hallway adorned with engravings and other decorations, probably carrying a torch. This would lead to an access portal into the more spacious main chamber, which had a diameter of around 16 feet, where the dead would be laid to rest. It’s also likely that the monument was oriented around the summer solstice, allowing, for just a few moments a year, the sun to shine on the community’s ancestors. Construction of such a large space, with such heavy materials, would have taken a great deal of both effort and ingenuity.

Extremadura, where the Valdecañas Reservoir is located, is a dry region, grown even drier. YAY Media AS / Alamy

According to Bueno, archaeologists have also found that this region presents some of the earliest evidence of humans making flour (more than 8,000 years ago) and using honey (more than 7,000 years ago). By the third and fourth millennium BC, they were even brewing their own cerveza.

Odd as it might seem for something that is 7,000 years old and made of stone, the fate of the dolmen now depends on Madrid. The granite stones are porous and vulnerable to ongoing erosion. After more than 50 years underwater, some stones that were standing when Obermaier studied them now lie flat, others that were once intact are now cracked. Castaño and his organization are urging the government to move the stones to permanently dry land, but Bueno worries that this could just accelerate the damage, especially if the process is rushed, without extensive study first. And within a month the dolmen could again be swallowed up by the lake.

“Whatever we do here, needs to be done extremely carefully,” Bueno says. “We need high-quality studies using the latest archaeological technology. It may cost money, but we already have one of the most difficult things to obtain—this incredible historic monument. In the end, money is the easy part. The past can’t be bought.”


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It is believed the Celts living in Iberia 4,000 years ago may have built the structure.

'The stones have been brought from about five kilometres away to form this temple, which we think was used to worship the sun,' Ángel Castaño, president of the Peraleda Cultural Association, told the Times.

'In that way it has similarities to Stonehenge, but is obviously smaller.

'People here had heard about them but had never seen them. We want the authorities to move these stones to the banks of the reservoir and to use them as a tourist attraction, as few people come to this area.'

Stonehenge's enormous rocks are up to 30 feet in length, dwarfing the six-foot tall single monoliths uncovered in Spain.

There are more stones at the Spanish site, 1144 compared to 93 in Wiltshire.

However, Stonehenge's monument covers 10,800 square feet (10,000 square metres), a far bigger area than the Spanish site.

Radiocarbon dating of the rocks found they range in age from around 4,000 to 5,000 years old and this ties them in curiously to the history of Stonehenge (pictured)

Radiocarbon dating of the 'Spanish Stonehenge' found the stones range in age from around 4,000 to 5,000 years old and this ties them in curiously to the history of Stonehenge. The first monolith structure in Europe was found in Brittany dating back as far as 4,794 BC and other early monuments (red) were found in northwest France, the Channel Islands, Catalonia, southwestern France, Corsica, and Sardinia from a similar time period

The site was thought to be condemned to the history books in the 1960s when a Spanish general ordered the construction of a hydroelectric dam in Peraleda de la Mata, near Cáceres in Extremadura

Long-term plans for the preservation of the site are yet to be laid out, but Mr Castaño met officials from the regional government yesterday to discuss the matter.

If action is not taken now, he said, it could be many years before they are seen again.

A prolonged submersion could also be catastrophic for the stones, which are made of granite,a porous material prone to erosion,

The monoliths are already showing significant signs of wear, he said, and if they are not saved now, it may be too late.

Radiocarbon dating of the rocks found they range in age from around 4,000 to 5,000 years old and this ties them in curiously to the history of Stonehenge.

Neolithic people, often prone to building monolithic structures, emerged throughout time across Europe.

It is widely accepted Stonehenge's bluestones were quarried from Priesli Hills in Wales and moved to the current location, but how the idea for Stonehenge arrived on British shores remains a mystery.

Various pieces of recent research have looked at what likely led to this, and a scientific paper published in February put forward the idea that the knowledge and expertise to create such monuments was spread around Europe by sailors.

The authors from the University of Gothenburg said the practice of erecting enormous stone structures began in France 6,500 years ago and then made its way around Europe as people migrated.

Further research into the Spanish Stonehenge' could allow for a more detailed picture to emerge of the practices popularity in different areas at different times.

Currently, inhabitants of Anatolia, what is now Turkey, are thought to have moved to Iberia and settled before eventually heading north and entering the British Isles.

STONEHENGE'S CONSTRUCTION REQUIRED GREAT INGENUITY

Stonehenge was built thousands of years before machinery was invented.

The heavy rocks weigh upwards of several tonnes each.

Some of the stones are believed to have originated from a quarry in Wales, some 140 miles (225km) away from the Wiltshire monument.

To do this would have required a high degree of ingenuity, and experts believe the ancient engineers used a pulley system over a shifting conveyor-belt of logs.

Historians now think that the ring of stones was built in several different stages, with the first completed around 5,000 years ago by Neolithic Britons who used primitive tools, possibly made from deer antlers.

Modern scientists now widely believe that Stonehenge was created by several different tribes over time.

After the Neolithic Britons - likely natives of the British Isles - started the construction, it was continued centuries later by their descendants.

Over time, the descendants developed a more communal way of life and better tools which helped in the erection of the stones.

Bones, tools and other artefacts found on the site seem to support this hypothesis.


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Other monuments built at a similar time to Stonehenge were large blocks of stone raised upright with little assistance to ensure their longevity, but the craftspeople working at Stonehenge were more attentive and added locking mechanisms to keep the huge stones in place

Pictured: A March photo of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, where English Heritage discovered a series of slots and holes on the top of the stones

The similarities between Lego and Stonehenge are clear, with interlocking blocks being used to create a large structure. Pictured, an image of Lego Stonehenge used as part of a Lego advertising campaign

The Stonehenge monument standing today was the final stage of a four part building project that ended 3,500 years ago

Stonehenge is one of the most prominent prehistoric monuments in Britain. The Stonehenge that can be seen today is the final stage that was completed about 3,500 years ago.

According to the monument's website, Stonehenge was built in four stages:

First stage : The first version of Stonehenge was a large earthwork or Henge, comprising a ditch, bank and the Aubrey holes, all probably built around 3100 BC.

The Aubrey holes are round pits in the chalk, about one metre (3.3 feet) wide and deep, with steep sides and flat bottoms.

They form a circle about 86.6 metres (284 feet) in diameter.

Excavations revealed cremated human bones in some of the chalk filling, but the holes themselves were likely not made to be used as graves, but as part of a religious ceremony.

After this first stage, Stonehenge was abandoned and left untouched for more than 1,000 years.

Second stage : The second and most dramatic stage of Stonehenge started around 2150 years BC, when about 82 bluestones from the Preseli mountains in south-west Wales were transported to the site. It's thought that the stones, some of which weigh four tonnes each, were dragged on rollers and sledges to the waters at Milford Haven, where they were loaded onto rafts.

They were carried on water along the south coast of Wales and up the rivers Avon and Frome, before being dragged overland again near Warminster and Wiltshire.

The final stage of the journey was mainly by water, down the river Wylye to Salisbury, then the Salisbury Avon to west Amesbury.

The journey spanned nearly 240 miles, and once at the site, the stones were set up in the centre to form an incomplete double circle.

During the same period, the original entrance was widened and a pair of Heel Stones were erected. The nearer part of the Avenue, connecting Stonehenge with the River Avon, was built aligned with the midsummer sunrise.

Third stage : The third stage of Stonehenge, which took place about 2000 years BC, saw the arrival of the sarsen stones (a type of sandstone), which were larger than the bluestones.

They were likely brought from the Marlborough Downs (40 kilometres, or 25 miles, north of Stonehenge).

The largest of the sarsen stones transported to Stonehenge weighs 50 tonnes, and transportation by water would not have been possible, so it's suspected that they were transported using sledges and ropes.

Calculations have shown that it would have taken 500 men using leather ropes to pull one stone, with an extra 100 men needed to lay the rollers in front of the sledge.

These stones were arranged in an outer circle with a continuous run of lintels - horizontal supports.

Inside the circle, five trilithons - structures consisting of two upright stones and a third across the top as a lintel - were placed in a horseshoe arrangement, which can still be seen today.

Final stage : The fourth and final stage took place just after 1500 years BC, when the smaller bluestones were rearranged in the horseshoe and circle that can be seen today.

The original number of stones in the bluestone circle was probably around 60, but these have since been removed or broken up. Some remain as stumps below ground level.

The stone seen in the image is part of the outermost circle of the monument, which features 30 sarsen stones which were topped with horizontal lintels.

Original architecture and building methods have proved durable and effective as 17 of Stonehenge's original upright stones are still standing. Five lintels also exist in their original position.

Other monuments built at a similar time to Stonehenge were large blocks of stone raised upright with little assistance to ensure their longevity, but the craftspeople working at Stonehenge were more attentive.

As well as the protrusions on the vertical stones nestling inside complimenting nooks in the horizontal lintels, the end of the lintels were tied together.

This is another adapted woodworking technique, called a tongue and groove joint.

STONEHENGE'S CONSTRUCTION REQUIRED GREAT INGENUITY

Stonehenge was built thousands of years before machinery was invented.

The heavy rocks weigh upwards of several tonnes each.

Some of the stones are believed to have originated from a quarry in Wales, some 140 miles (225km) away from the Wiltshire monument.

To do this would have required a high degree of ingenuity, and experts believe the ancient engineers used a pulley system over a shifting conveyor-belt of logs.

Historians now think that the ring of stones was built in several different stages, with the first completed around 5,000 years ago by Neolithic Britons who used primitive tools, possibly made from deer antlers.

Modern scientists now widely believe that Stonehenge was created by several different tribes over time.

After the Neolithic Britons - likely natives of the British Isles - started the construction, it was continued centuries later by their descendants.

Over time, the descendants developed a more communal way of life and better tools which helped in the erection of the stones.

Bones, tools and other artefacts found on the site seem to support this hypothesis.


Fun time is serious time

Most stone structures of the time were constructed mainly through balance, setting the stones upright against each other, but this Lego-like formation proves that the Stonehenge was much more sophisticated. The joins actually follow a mortise and tenon-like structure that is commonly used in carpentry. In the Stonehenge, the protruding domes act as the tenon while the concave circles are the mortise. Each tenon and mortise correspond so that when connected they produce a strong grip.

The image was taken in 1994 www.nickwhite.uk/English Heritage

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Stonehenge mystery may be solved as new light shed on prehistoric monument

As one of the world's most famous prehistoric monuments, Stonehenge still holds many secrets despite centuries of study. For the first time, new research is lifting the veil on the people who are buried at Stonehenge.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports on Thursday.

Much of the previous research around the monument in Wiltshire, England, has centered around how or why Stonehenge was built -- not the people buried there or who built it.

But studying the human remains at Stonehenge is no easy task. In addition to dating back to 3,000 BC, the remains were also cremated. During the early phase of Stonehenge's history, it largely served as a cemetery.

Fortunately, lead study author Christophe Snoeck, post-doctoral researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, combined his passions for archeology and chemical engineering to pioneer developments in archaeological analysis.

The results revealed that 40% of the people buried at Stonehenge likely came from west Wales, the suggested origin of the site's smaller bluestones, and they most likely helped transport the stones and build Stonehenge. Signals from the bone analysis suggested that within the last ten years of their lives, these people were not living at Stonehenge nor originally from the area around Stonehenge, known as the Wessex region.

"Our results are the first one to provide direct evidence on the origin of those buried at Stonehenge, shedding light on the importance of the site in the Neolithic landscape," Snoeck said in an email.

Investigating cremated remains

When Snoeck was working on his doctoral research at the University of Oxford's School of Archaeology, he was able to show that cremated bones still retain vital information.

"My research goal was to assess what information could still be obtained from archeological human remains even after cremation," Snoeck said. "I managed to demonstrate that some geographical information still remained in cremated bone and this new development is what enable us to go back to the human remains from Stonehenge and carry out this exciting study. "

The Historic England and English Heritage that looks after historic sites across England gave Snoeck and his colleagues permission to use this new technique, called strontium isotopic analysis, on cremated human remains from 25 individuals. The chemical element strontium is a heavy alkaline earth metal that is about seven times heavier than carbon. This can reflect the average of the food eaten over the last decade before death. Geological formations and soil also reflect strontium isotope ratios, like the signature of the chalk that the Wessex region sits on.

By performing this analysis on the remains, the researchers would be able to figure out where these people had lived during the last ten years of their lives because the signature would still be in the bones.

The remains, dating from 3,180 to 2,380 BC, were initially uncovered by Colonel William Hawley during excavations that occurred during the 1920s. He reburied them in pits within the Stonehenge site that are known as Aubrey Holes, named for 17th century antiquarian John Aubrey who first discovered the pits. Three of the individuals were juveniles, while the others were likely adults, and they were able to identify that nine were possibly male and six were possibly female.

"Cremation destroys all organic matter [including DNA] but all the inorganic matter survives and we know, from the study of tooth enamel, that there is a huge amount of information contained in the inorganic fraction of human remains," Snoeck said.

But temperatures during cremation, depending on the method, can reach over a thousand degrees Fahrenheit. How would that affect any information left within the bones?

"When it comes to light chemical elements (such as carbon and oxygen), these are heavily altered but for heavier elements such as strontium no alteration was observed," Snoeck said. "On the contrary, thanks to the high temperatures reached, the structure of the bone is modified and making the bone resistant to post-mortem exchanges with burial soil."

The analysis of the bones was also matched with results from plants, water and teeth data from modern-day Britain. They discovered that 15 of the individuals were locals, but the other ten weren't connected to the region and likely spent at least the last ten years of their lives in western Britain -- which includes west Wales.

"We did not expect to see so many individuals having a signal that shows they did not [live] near Stonehenge in the last decade or so of their life," Snoeck said.

"To me the really remarkable thing about our study is the ability of new developments in archaeological science to extract so much new information from such small and unpromising fragments of burnt bone," said Rick Schulting in a statement, study coauthor and associate professor of scientific and prehistoric archeology at the University of Oxford.

Unraveling more mysteries

The cremations weren't uniform, either, utilizing different fuel or occurring under different conditions. For instance, the locals were cremated likely using a pyre built with wood that was grown in an open setting, like the landscape around Stonehenge. The others were cremated with wood that came from dense woodlands, exactly like the landscape in west Wales.

But if these people were cremated in Wales, how did they end up at Stonehenge?

During his 1920s excavations, Hawley noted that some of the cremated remains in the Aubrey Holes were stored in leather bags, which led him to believe that they "had apparently been brought from a distant place for interment."

Perhaps their remains were brought from Wales and buried when the bluestones were being raised at Stonehenge, the study authors suggest. This knowledge is compelling to the researchers, given that a recent theory suggests the bluestones initially stood within the Aubrey Holes themselves.

Being able to connect the stones and human remains to Wales provides more intriguing theories and rare insight for researchers as well.

This suggests that the construction of Stonehenge required connections that were 140 miles apart. As early as 5,000 years ago, Neolithic people and materials were going back and forth between west Wales and Wessex to build and use Stonehenge.

Snoeck hopes to develop new methods and apply his technique at other sites containing cremated remains. But the gravity of working with human remains from Stonehenge was a privilege.

"It was extremely exciting and terrifying at the same time," Snoeck said. "In a way, it was like giving them a new life."


Stonehenge Reconstructions Show Brits Have Always Been Houseproud

This month English Heritage opened five recreated Neolithic houses, in the shadow of Stonehenge, revealing how the builders of the monument lived 4,500 years ago. At first glance, we could be forgiven for thinking they were built in the modern age. Certainly, their building techniques are very similar to those used on Victorian cottages in nearby Wiltshire villages. The walls were made from cob, a mixture of the local chalk and hay, slapped, when wet, onto seven-year-old hazel stakes. These walls were then topped with thatched roofs, made from knotted straw tied onto a woven hazel frame.

Far from being dark, little Hobbit spaces, the interiors are surprisingly bright, illuminated by the white chalk walls and floors, and open door. A tall man can easily stand up straight inside. In the middle of the room, the ash-log fire on the hearth sends up smoke, which seeps through the thatch. As the smoke slowly dissipates, it creates a thin carbon dioxide layer against the straw that stops any spark from the fire igniting the thatch. As if that weren't ingenious enough, the thatch expands in the rain, providing an even more waterproof membrane.

The houses are pretty small - around 5m across &ndash but they were certainly big enough to hold a family: English Heritage has managed to fit in 15 people easily into a single house, gathered around the fire.

It wasn't just the architecture that was astonishingly avant-garde. Furniture in 2,500 BC, when Stonehenge and these cottages were thought to have been built, was pretty advanced too. Neolithic man slept on animal skins on wooden beds, with cupboards and shelves carefully inserted into the wall. In the house and outside the front door, there were handy pits, filled with handsome, striped pottery, known as "grooved ware", the first pottery in Britain with a flat base. The pits also contained a selection of flints and animal bones, carved to create every conceivable mod con. Near Stonehenge, archaeologists have found chalk axes, bone tweezers, flint awls for piercing holes in bone and leather, flint saws and flint "fabricators" to create sparks for igniting fires.

The beauty of these objects &ndash and the advanced engineering of the houses &ndash seems particularly astonishing when we consider how early on in European, and global, civilisation they were made. In 2,500 BC, the Great Pyramid was being built at Giza, in Egypt. It was 500 years before the Minoan civilisation flourished at the Palace of Knossos 900 years before the Mycenean civilisation in mainland Greece and 2,000 years before the Parthenon was constructed. Jesus Christ is 500 years closer to us today than he was to the people who lived in these houses.

Constructed over five months by 60 English Heritage volunteers, the buildings were closely based on the remains of Neolithic houses discovered in 2006 and 2007 at Durrington Walls, a ceremonial earthwork enclosure just north-east of Stonehenge. Radiocarbon dating has placed that settlement at about the same time that the mammoth sarsen stones from north Wiltshire, and the smaller bluestones from south Wales, were being raised at Stonehenge. So they're among the earliest houses ever found in Britain.

Just like those nearby Wiltshire villages today, Durrington Walls consisted of a series of these cottages &ndash and there may be 100s more, yet to be found &ndash clustered closely together, but separated by woven wooden fences.

Again like lots of modern villages, Durrington Walls was built next to the River Avon &ndash a crucial water source, home not just to trout and salmon, but to beavers and otters, much prized for their fur. Edible plants grew in the nearby damp soil, and red deer came to drink at the water's edge. Deer antlers were used both as pickaxes and rakes to build the ditch and banks that circle Stonehenge. One red deer antler pick was found, laid carefully right on the floor of the ditch, perhaps to celebrate the end of the work.

The Flintstone diet wasn't so different to ours, either: surviving cow and pig bones, some of them still with butchering marks on them, reveal a meat-rich diet, although there's little trace of any cereal grain.

Already at this early stage, there are plenty of signs of human migration by water, too. The Amesbury Archer &ndash whose burial was discovered in 2002, 5km east of Stonehenge &ndash was born in the Alps, probably in what is now Switzerland. His origins were found thanks to chemical analysis of his teeth. The Amesbury Archer is thought to have been buried in 2,400 BC, a century after Stonehenge was built.

His body was surrounded by a glittering array of treasures: three copper knives, 16 flint arrowheads and a pair of gold hair ornaments, the earliest gold found in Britain. He was also buried with two archers' stone wrist-protectors, which gave him his moniker. Alongside him, there were five delicately-carved and shaped Beaker pots, which gave their name to the neolithic Beaker culture, which spread right across western Europe, from present-day Holland to Spain, France and Germany.

The more archaeological research is made into Stonehenge man, the more evidence emerges that Britain wasn't some remote backwater in the Neolithic Age, waiting for the Romans to provide it with the basics of civilised life. In the new Stonehenge visitors' centre, hidden in a fold of Salisbury Plain close to the stones, there stands the skeleton of another early Neolithic Briton &ndash whose recent bone analysis reveals quite how advanced this supposedly primitive civilisation was. The skeleton &ndash excavated from a long barrow at Winterbourne Stoke, 3km west of Stonehenge &ndash belonged to a man active in 3,000 BC, when the first earthwork enclosure at Stonehenge was built. Examining the enamel in his teeth &ndash and the levels of strontium and oxygen, elements which vary in quantity from location to location &ndash archaeologists have determined that he was probably born in Wales, moved to Wiltshire at two, went back to Wales at nine, and then shuttled between Stonehenge and Wales from 11 to 15. These regular journeys might explain the Welsh bluestones at Stonehenge - they were religious and sentimental reminders of the old country. This Neolithic man wasn't so different from us. He was 1.72m, only 25mm shorter than the average British male today. He was 76kg, and lived off a classic West Country diet of dairy products and meat &ndash mostly beef, mutton and venison.

Dr Simon Mays, the English Heritage scientist who carried out the bone analysis, determined that he'd led a peaceful life, with no injuries apart from a damaged knee ligament and a torn back thigh muscle. There was no sign of any illness, disease or nutritional stress in the body. He seems to have died in his late 20s or 30s. Life expectancy was a lot shorter, then, but what's clear is that the great British obsession &ndash class &ndash was already alive and well 5,500 years ago. Our man was buried in one of the area's grandest mausolea &ndash and was initially the only body there, until he was joined around a thousand years later by other bodies in less prominent spots in the 82m-long grave.

There are around 350 of these long barrows in Britain. Half of them had no one buried in them at all another quarter had five to 15 people in them and only a quarter were allotted to a single person. So we are dealing with a major toff here, moving between his various smart residences in Wales and Wiltshire. A second home for the rich is nothing new.

The Durrington Walls houses may also help unlock one of the great secrets of mankind -&ndashwhat was Stonehenge actually for? No one can be definitively sure but one of the most popular current theories is that it was a sort of holy cemetery. Its circles of cold stone, with cremated human bones all around, have been called "the land of the dead". This is contrasted with "the land of the living" &ndash with the timber houses of Durrington Walls, next door to another circular monument, Woodhenge, also built out of timber. Just walking around the Neolithic houses, we begin to see why this part of the West Country is so rich in Neolithic and Bronze Age finds. Not only is the open, rolling country so well-suited to farming &ndash as it still is today &ndash but also it's purpose-built for house construction.

As visitors stroll around Stonehenge, they still kick up great lumps of chalk, studded with fragments of flint &ndash the same chalk that built those ancient houses, the same flint that lit those long-extinguished ash fires. Suddenly, the Stone Age doesn't seem so far away.


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‘If you were a decent bunch of builders what you’d do then is, after a great deal of screaming and complaining, chuck the two broken bits away and bring another one intact and do it properly.

‘They didn’t. They put one broken bit on top of the other broken bit, jammed a lintel on top and hoped they’d stay together. They didn’t, they fell over quite soon after.

‘So these people are working under pressure, they don’t have the resources or the time to get another stone. This is the heart of the disaster that Stonehenge ended up being.

Sunrise: A professor said it was 'a unique and possibly failed experiment - as much a triumph as a disaster'

Wide view: Stonehenge, the prehistoric wonder on Salisbury Plain, near Amesbury in Wiltshire

‘Because of shoddy or high-pressure, efficiency-gaining, new Stone Age engineering, we have lost the great engineering feat of Stonehenge.’

The avenue that leads into Stonehenge is aligned directly on the mid-summer sunrise so that two of the stones frame the sunrise ‘like the sights of a camera or gun’.

But Professor Hutton said the ‘even more stunning effect’ at the mid-winter sunset was lost – because of another mistake by the builders.

He said they built a trilithon – two massive upright stones with a lintel on top – but one of the uprights was not rooted deeply enough in the ground.

‘At some time, that stone skidded out,’ said the professor.

‘It fell headlong across the altar stone, knocking the altar stone to the ground and breaking in half itself. That massive lintel tumbled down and still lies where it fell. They never tried to fix it.

‘So Stonehenge was built by cowboys. It is on the one hand one of the greatest building successes in the story of the human race and from another point of view one of the greatest catastrophes.’

CONTROVERSY AT THE STONEHENGE TALKS

King Arthur Pendragon, the Battle Chieftain of the Council of British Druid Orders and Titular Head and Chosen Chief of the Loyal Arthurian Warband Druid

King Arthur Pendragon (pictured right), the Battle Chieftain of the Council of British Druid Orders and Titular Head and Chosen Chief of the Loyal Arthurian Warband Druid order, the ‘political warrior arm of the modern druid movement’, caused a stir during a question and answer session after Professor Hutton’s talk.

Having listened intently throughout, the druid suddenly sprung to his feet when another audience member asked the historian: ‘It’s a heinous thought, but has anyone ever proposed to rebuild Stonehenge?’

King Arthur shouted: ‘That’s my heinous thought!’, reducing festival-goers to laughter, before sitting down quietly again next to his partner Kazz, a ‘priestess’ whose druid name is Caliope Muse.

Professor Hutton said: ‘It’s a valid proposal and there is this kind of sneaking wish than more archaeologists have so far liked to admit that to put up the great trilithon and this time anchor it properly would actually restore Stonehenge to its ancient glory - we’d get the point of the whole monument again.’

Afterwards, King Arthur told the Mail: ‘I went on record at the turn of the millennium and said a far better thing for the modern druids to do and a legacy to leave to our grandchildren would be to rebuild Stonehenge and put the lintels back up.

‘It would certainly stand the test of time - unlike the Millennium Dome, which they did put up. I still feel it would be a good legacy to leave to future generations if we did in fact rebuild it.’


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