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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

New findings announced today reveal the origins of one of the world's most enduring and mysterious sites: Stonehenge. That's the looming circle of huge, hewn stone in the British countryside about 100 miles southwest of London. It was built about 4,500 years ago at the time of the Egyptian pyramids. Beyond that, we haven't known much.

BRAND: Now, excavations funded in part by the National Geographic Society suggests that Stonehenge was part of a much larger religious complex. On this NPR National Geographic radio expedition, NPR's Rob Gifford takes a look.

ROB GIFFORD: The mystique of Stonehenge has somehow permeated every age of English history. It's located here, beside a rather busy main road in an otherwise very beautiful but blustery part of southwest England. And the man behind the recent discoveries here at Stonehenge is Mike Parker Pearson, professor of archeology at the University of Sheffield. And he's going to give me a tour of his recent excavations.

Now, this recent discovery of yours, which is now being announced by National Geographic, tell me more about that. What's the significance of that?

Professor MIKE PARKER PEARSON (Archeology, University of Sheffield): Yes, we've just found an enormous village site. And what we think it is is the village of the builders of Stonehenge, the place where they actually lived while they were putting up the great monument.

GIFFORD: And why is that significant?

Prof. PEARSON: That's really given us a whole insight into how they lived their everyday lives. And I think one of the really exciting things to come out of this is the rubbish. We have a huge amount of what we call feasting debris. In other words, it's party city. So they're not just working hard, but they're playing hard as well. They are eating vast quantities of meat. I suspect that they've got lots of alcohol with them as well, though it's difficult to find traces of that.

GIFFORD: A sort of Neolithic Woodstock, perhaps.

Prof. PEARSON: Yeah, very much so. This is the first free festival.

GIFFORD: And apart from the trash, apart from the rubbish that you found in the houses, you've also found another avenue, is that right? Just tell me briefly about that.

Prof. PEARSON: Yes, that's right. Stonehenge has his own avenue, aligned on the midsummer sunrise. And we found another one with the wooden version of Stonehenge, which is just less than two miles away. Just like the Stonehenge one, it also leads down to the river. This time, it's aligned on a different axis - that is midsummer sunset.

So what's really interesting is the wooden monument in its avenue, and stone one in this avenue form a pairing, if you like. They're opposites within the same grand scheme.

GIFFORD: Great, well, let's go over and take a look at this other avenue.

(Soundbite of car engine)

Prof. PEARSON: Now we're two miles away from Stonehenge, up the river. And this is the area I was talking about. It's a valley, in the middle of which there's a timber version of Stonehenge, and an avenue leading from that, down the valley to the river. On the other side of the avenue, this is where there were houses everywhere.

This entire valley was filled up with them. Of course, you can't see them now. And I think this is the beginning of the processional route to Stonehenge.

GIFFORD: And having said that, let's do our little re-enactment down to the river, shall we? I'm afraid I didn't bring my bearskin tunic, and you'll have to imagine the drums and the trumpets. But okay, we're walking down. We'd be carrying, will we? Or several bodies?

Prof. PEARSON: Well, given what we find at Stonehenge, it's more likely we'll have the ashes of our ancestors with us in little bags. And we're taking then now to river to deposit. Yes, probably all manner of noise, and, of course, there's going to be thousands of people on this.

The river was the gate to the underworld. It's the way that you moved out of this transient life represented by things that decayed - the timbers - into that world of eternal permanence, of eternal life beyond the grave. And that is what Stonehenge is all about. It's the great monument to the transition into the afterlife.

GIFFORD: Well, bang those drums and blow those trumpets. We're just reaching the river now, and then we'll head back to Stonehenge to see the end of the journey of these Neolithic people.

(Soundbite of car engine)

GIFFORD: So now, we're back at the Stones themselves. And from the river, this other avenue will, what? Bring the dead up to the stones in front of us here themselves, yeah?

Prof. PEARSON: Yes. Our guess is that most peoples' remains ended up in the river - the ashes being thrown into the river, maybe the bones or even the bodies as well. We've actually re-enacted the voyage, the journey that was made on Midwinters day four and a half thousand years ago.

GIFFORD: So finally, you've made yourself this amazing archeological discovery just in recent months. But do you think we're ever going to really know all the secrets of Stonehenge?

Prof. PEARSON: I think we've made some huge jumps, some huge new insights. That said, it's archeology, it's prehistory, it's before there was writing, and I think this monument and the surrounding landscape will keep various aspects of its mystery for eternity.

GIFFORD: Well that's a rather good note to end on. Thank you very much indeed, Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield. For Radio Expeditions, this is Rob Gifford, NPR News at Stonehenge.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

There are photos from this dig, including one overhead shot of the foundation of an old home from there. It's tiny. Go to npr.org/radioexpeditions. You can get the Podcast there too. And Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society.

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