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Knowledge of mankind is a knowledge of their passions. - Disraeli

Woodhenge Find Rivals Stone Circles
By Nigel Hawkes

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have discovered traces of a huge and elaborate wooden temple dating back 5,000 years. Evidence shows that it was once one of the most important ceremonial sites in England, comparable in significance to Stonehenge.

Nine concentric rings of oak pillars once stood on the site at Stanton Drew in Somerset, surrounded by an enormous ditch. Each upright would have been up to a metre across and probably stood eight metres above the ground. All that can be seen today is a later stone circle. Such wooden henges are unique to Britain, and this one is twice as large as any of the other seven known.

The traces were found by archaeologists from English Heritage while they were carrying out a routine survey, using instruments that can detect small magnetic anomalies in the soil without disturbing the surface.

"To our surprise and delight what emerged was a timber temple of about 3000 BC," said Geoffrey Wainwright, chief archaeologist at English Heritage. "There is now no timber left? It would have decayed long ago. But the disturbance of the soil when the pits were dug to take the uprights shows clearly."

Andrew David, head of archaeometry at English Heritage, estimates that there would have been between 400 and 500 oak uprights making up the nine rings. Each would have weighed five tons or so, nearly as much as the stones at Stonehenge.

Some wooden henges had a roof, but Dr Wainwright said Stanton Drew was far too large to roof over. He sees it as a local centre where people would go ask the supernatural powers to provide them with plentiful crops, or healthy herds of animals.

"By this period, a social structure was developing, with distinct tribal areas. The temples were focal points for these tribes, where they gathered and held feasts. Other wooden henges contain masses of pig bones, along with decorated fragments of pottery. It looks as if the people deliberately broke the pots and scattered them around."

At the time, the population of Britain may have been as great as one million, according to Dr Wainwright. "It's a great mistake to think the people who built this place were rude, untutored, starving individuals. They were very sophisticated with successful agriculture and made beautiful items such as carved stone axes used for barter."

The technique used to find the hidden rings makes use of the fact that any disturbance of soil tends to affect its magnetism. Until a few years ago, magnetometers sensitive enough to detect the anomalies at Stanton Drew did not exist. The existence of the post holes could have been found by conventional digging, but the site has not been dug in recent times.

The ring shows no evidence of having been orientated with any astronomical purpose in mind. Nor is it known whether the uprights were carved or decorated, although Dr. Wainwright believes that they were. "It is very hard to think of a structure like this with nine concentric circles not being carved in some way," he said.

He suspects that the carving might have been like that on contemporary pottery, which carries geometrical patterns and spiral motifs. "The patterns are quite stylised and relate to tribal territories, we believe. It would be very surprising if these motifs were not replicated on the timber uprights."

A complete excavation of the site is not planned, as it would be unlikely to provide much more information than the magnetic survey. A small dig may be conducted to confirm that the rings are indeed the remains of post holes, although there is little doubt that they are.

Sir Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, said that Britain was apparently the only place in the ancient world where these extraordinary temples were built. "They were expressing their power by building these great rings, just as we are celebrating the Millennium by building a huge dome.

This is clearly a very British habit, and it is 5,000 years old."

Builders of the oak tree marvel beat Great Pyramid by four centuries

The Great Pyramid at Giza was not even on the drawing board when the wooden henge at Stanton Drew was built. The building of the henge dates from about 3000 BC, while Cheops did not build the pyramid until 2590 BC.

The builders of the henge were near-contemporaries of those who invented the wheel in Mesopotamia, and the sail in Egypt, both in about 3500 BC. Bronze casting and the plough were known in the Middle East, but not in Britain. Writing had just been invented in Sumer. Stonehenge itself existed, but like the temple at Stanton Drew it was made of wood, not stone. The Stonehenge we know today did not assume its final form until 2000 BC.

The henge was built in much the same way as Stonehenge. Pits up to four metres deep were dug, and ramps arranged alongside them. The oak pillars were dragged and pushed until they overbalanced into the pits, and were then pulled upright. The wooden henges would have lasted for up 400 years before needing replacement.

Bride eager to dance had Devil to pay

The ancient mysteries of Stanton Drew are no secret to the landlord of the Druid's Arms. John Newcombe has three of the standing stones in his beer garden, the largest 12ft high.

"The local legend is that they were the guests at a wedding party who were turned to stone, " he said. "The ones in my back garden are the bride, bridegroom and best man."

Every midsummer's eve, he says, a small group of strangely dressed people arrive to dance around the stones. "I don't know who they are but they aren't druids," he said. "They wear little capes and hats and carry things like Devil's forks.

"As long as they don't scare away my regulars I don't care what they get up to. They have these little candles like night-lights and I go out in the morning to clear them away but they never make any other mess."

According to Robin Bush, the Somerset historian and member of Channel 4's Time Team, Stanton Drew means "Drew's town near the stones " and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. One of the stones has a hole in it and was once much larger. Mr Bush said: "It was called Hautville's Quoit, after a medieval lord, Sir John Hautville, whose tomb is in a church near by went home before midnight to avoid playing on the Sabbath and the bride announced that she would "go to hell for another fiddler". Another fiddler appeared and played until dawn, when he revealed himself as the Devil and turned the assembled throng to stone.

No one believes that story any longer. Except, of course, on midsummer's eve.

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