Wiltshire is historically known as one of the most weird and wonderful counties in the United Kingdom, being home to the Wiltshire "White Horses" carved into the rolling downs, the enigmatic Avebury stone circle, numerous longbarrows and burial mounds, the mysterious Silbury Hill and, perhaps Wiltshire’s most famous ancient treasure, the curious and still unexplained monoliths of Stonehenge.
Not surprisingly, it now appears that Wiltshire is also the site of the oldest continuous human settlement in the whole of the United Kingdom. Experts have declared that Amesbury, the closest town to the Stonehenge monument, has been continually occupied since BC8820, a fact that has now been officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records. The previous record-holder was Thatcham in Berkshire, 40 miles to the east of Amesbury, which has been consistently occupied since 7700 BC.
Andy Rhind-Tutt from Amesbury Museum said Amesbury was now thought to pre-date Stonehenge by as much 5,000 years, and that this information could help to explain why Stonehenge is located nearby.
"No-one would have built Stonehenge without there being something really special about the area," he said. "There must have been something there beforehand and Amesbury may well be it – [it could be] one of the greatest Mesolithic sites in the country."
Amesbury also has other historical significance as it is thought to be the final resting place of Queen Guinevere, the wife of the legendary King Arthur, who was said to have retired to Amesbury Abbey to become a nun after Arthur’s death. More recently, it has become the home of RAF training and research centre Boscombe Down, said to be the U.K’s equivalent to Area 51 in Nevada.
The most recent news unveiling the secrets of its ancient past comes after a study conducted by the University of Buckingham, which tracked the activities of the ancient communities responsible for the construction of Stonehenge. The iconic stones were placed there at the beginning of the Neolithic era, replacing the first monuments on the site which were thought to be assembled from giant pine posts.
David Jacques, research fellow in archaeology at the University of Buckingham and leader of the dig, outlined the importance of the discovery:
"The site blows the lid off the Neolithic Revolution in a number of ways," he said. "It provides evidence for people staying put, clearing land, building, and presumably worshipping, monuments.
"The area was clearly a hub point for people to come to from many miles away, and in many ways was a forerunner for what later went on at Stonehenge itself.
"The first monuments at Stonehenge were built by these people. For years people have been asking why is Stonehenge where it is, now at last, we have found the answers."
Mr Jacques said the River Avon, which runs through Amesbury, would have been a significant factor in the development of the settlement, acting as a major route for travel.
Jaques described other fascinating details of life in the ancient settlement that have been uncovered by the recent dig, including the type of diet that the residents ate:
"We have found remains of big game animals, such as aurochs and red deer, and an enormous amount of burnt flint from their feasting fires," he said. There was also evidence that the British were eating frog’s legs 8000 years before the French!
Despite years of research the purpose of Stonehenge is still unclear, though many hypotheses have been put forward, with ideas ranging from ancient burial site to Druid temple. A recent study found that the stones had exceptional acoustic qualities, so therefore it is possible that the use of sound may have been very important at the site in some way.
In 2008 archaeologists Geoffrey Wainwright and Timothy Darvill proposed that Stonehenge was an ancient hospital site, a Neolithic equivalent of the healing town of Lourdes in France, as many of the human remains recovered from the area were found to be those of obviously sick or injured individuals. The ancient stones were thought to have been transported all the way from their source in Wales across to Wiltshire because of their magical healing powers.
The University of Buckingham dig was filmed and made into a documentary by the BBC, Smithsonian, CBC and others and should be screened later this year.
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