Mount Pleasant And Other Mega-Henges: Evidence Of A Construction Boom
England’s 4,500-year-old “mega henges“ were a tremendous Stone Age development that took place just before the new waves of European settlers landed in Britain. Ancient henges were ceremonial fasting sites that attracted visitors from all over Britain. Along with Avebury, Marden, Durrington Walls and Knowlton, the Mount Pleasant Neolithic site near Dorchester is one of five so-called “mega henges” in southern England. Built when Stonehenge was still under development, the Mount Pleasant ceremonial site was first excavated in the 1970s AD. New dating technologies applied in a recently published scientific study have revealed that the Mount Pleasant site was constructed during what is being called a "Stone Age construction boom.”
Mega Henge Construction: Digging With Antler Tools
The Mount Pleasant site is described as a final Stone Age construction “triumph” before the arrival of European settlers in around 2500 BC. Archaeologist Susan Greaney of Cardiff University and her team have published a new study in the journal Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society concluding that “frantic building activity” led to this site being constructed in less than 125 years. According to the researcher, the new dating of the site is helping scientists understand Neolithic life in Britain during the “pivotal 2,500 BC period.”
An antler pick, used for digging, found at the Mount Pleasant site. (Cardiff University)
Contrary to what most modern-day Britons may think, the new study shows that British people are not the descendants of the indigenous Neolithic farmers who built Stonehenge 5,000 years ago. The people of Britain, based on the new findings, are more likely descendants of the “Bell Beaker people” who travelled from modern-day Holland across the channel.
Just before the arrival of the Beaker people, southern England witnessed an explosion in building activity, including the construction of the Mount Pleasant mega henge. The archaeologists who published the new study say the vast circular ritual enclosure would have involved “a huge number of people – digging out the enormous ditches with simple tools like antler picks.”
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Early diffusions of the Bell Beaker culture circa 2800 BC. (Fulvio314 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
New Study Used Radiocarbon Dating And Bayesian Analysis
According to a report in the Daily Mail, Ms. Greaney and her colleagues radiocarbon dated organic samples that were gathered from antler picks discovered at the Mount Pleasant site in 1970. This revealed that the ceremonial center had been constructed in “several phases” and the researchers think successive generations worked on the construction project for just over a century.
"Bayesian analysis,” or inference, refers to statistical inference where uncertainty is quantified using probability. These statistical models specify assumptions and processes that represent how the sample data is generated, and they have a number of parameters that can be modified. This method of analysis enabled the researchers to reconstruct models to determine the mega henge's construction dates.
Mount Pleasant Site Once Enclosed By A Huge Wooden Fence
The researchers stated in their study that a huge wooden fence once enclosed the concentric timber and stone monument of Mount Pleasant. And the study determined that this megastructure, built at the dawn of the Stone Age, occurred around 150 years before the arrival of people from continental Europe.
This representation of the Perdigões’ Neolithic “Woodhenge” and it's wooden "fence" enclosure may have been very similar to how the outer edges of the Mount Pleasant mega henge may have looked. The only difference was that the center of the Mount Pleasant site included giant stones and timber constructions. (ERA Archueologia)
When these newcomers from Europe arrived, new ways of thinking, skills and crafts, including metal working, making new forms of pottery all “exploded” in Britain. Furthermore, new superstitions, religious beliefs and rituals spilled across Stone-Age England, which led to new architectural styles and new sacred ceremonial building projects.
While so much has been learned about the transition in England from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, we still don’t have a clear understanding of why mega henges like Mount Pleasant were built in the first place, or how were they used.
It has been suggested that people in England at that time knew of the increasing numbers of European arrivals. And that they built such monuments as a “last hurrah because they could see change coming,” stated Ms. Greaney.
Cracked Centre Stones At The Site Provides New Clues
Further speculating on the cultural transitions in England some 4,500-years-ago, Ms. Greaney noted that part of Mount Pleasant's central stone monument was dismantled or damaged at some point. The new study says that the damaged center stones at the Mount Pleasant site are a very significant clue.
“Was it destroyed during a time of unrest? Or did the effort and labor of building these monuments lead to a rebellion, a collapse in belief in the leaders or the religion, that created a vacuum in which new people could come in from the continent?” are some of the questions raised by the archaeologist and her team in the new study.
Top image: Part of the Mount Pleasant mega henge under excavation in the early 1970s. Source: Cardiff University
By Ashley Cowie