Stonehenge is one of the most intriguing monuments in human history, with its construction and significance puzzling scientists for centuries. Archaeologists now believe that Stonehenge was constructed starting sometime in 3000 BC. While that may seem like forever ago, humans were active around the Stonehenge area before the monument was erected — and judging by a new study, they were very active.
A team led by Samuel Hudson of the University of Southampton, UK, tried to reconstruct the environmental conditions of Blick Mead, a pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer archaeological site. Blick Mead is a spring in Wiltshire, England, just a couple of kilometers away from Stonehenge. It’s an area that’s full of history — another Neolithic site also lies very close.
Blick Mead has been explored by archaeologists since 2005, with previous research showing that it was inhabited from 8,000 BC to 4,000 BC. It was a very active site, with excavations already uncovering 35,000 worked pieces of flint and 2400 animal bones, many belonging to aurochs, a type of extinct cattle. Research at the site has also shown that Blick Mead hosted extravagant feasts that were likely ritualistic in nature.
Blick Mead would have been a very attractive site to ancient people. For starters, having a spring that never freezes makes it a good place to camp. But the spring also hosted a rare algae called Hildenbrandia, which causes stones taken from the spring to turn bright red in only a few hours -- which may have made people attribute a special significance to it.
Now, Hudson and colleagues have found that, in its heyday, Blick Mead would have had partially open woodland conditions, which would have been an excellent environment for large grazing herbivores such as aurochs, as well as the hunter-gatherer communities who wanted to prey on them. The team analyzed pollen, spores, sedimentary DNA, and animal remains to characterize the pre-Neolithic site.
They found that the site was an excellent habitat for creatures like aurochs and deer, and perhaps more importantly, for humans as well. Humans seemingly occupied the site for four thousand years, which the researchers believe suggests a connection between Stonehenge and Blick Mead. If Stonehenge was a movie series, Blick Mead was the prequel.
It's not the first time Blick Mead and Stonehenge have been linked by researchers. It's tantalizing that two sites of such significance would be so close to each other (both in space, and in time), but so far, a "smoking gun" piece of evidence hasn't been found linking the two.
These new results suggest that at the very least, the first farmers and monument-builders in the Stonehenge area encountered habitats already used by hunter-gatherers. Most likely, the researchers say, the two groups were related.
"Given its archaeology and longevity, this strongly supports the arguments of continuity," the team concludes in the study.
Another takeaway of the study is that it's possible to determine the environmental conditions of this type of environment (which has generally proven very challenging) by analyzing a combination of DNA, other ecological data, and stratigraphic data, which could prove useful for analyzing other archaeological sites.
Journal Reference: Hudson SM, Pears B, Jacques D, Fonville T, Hughes P, Alsos I, et al. (2022) Life before Stonehenge: The hunter-gatherer occupation and environment of Blick Mead revealed by sedaDNA, pollen and spores. PLoS ONE 17(4): e0266789. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266789