Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Discovered during a routine aerial survey by English Heritage, the U.K. government's historic-preservation agency, what at first looked like "crop circles" are actually the results of buried archaeological structures interfering with plant growth. (True crop circles are vast designs created by flattening crops.)

The central features are two great tombs topped by massive mounds-made shorter by centuries of plowing-called long barrows. The larger of the two tombs is 70 meters (230 feet) long.

Estimated at 6,000 years old, based on the dates of similar tombs around the United Kingdom, the long barrows are also the oldest elements of the complex.

Such oblong burial mounds are very rare finds, and are the country's earliest known architectural form, one expert said. The last full-scale long barrow excavation was in the 1950s. Nonintrusive electromagnetic surveys show signs of postholes, suggesting rings of upright timber once stood within the circles-further evidence of what has been called the Damerham site's ceremonial or sacred role.

Damerham also includes a highly unusual, and so far baffling, U-shaped enclosure with postholes dated to the Bronze Age, project leader Wickstead said.

The circled outlines of 26 Bronze Age burial mounds also dot the site, which is littered with stone flint tools and shattered examples of the earliest known type of pottery in Britain.

Evidence of prehistoric agricultural fields suggest the area was at least partly cultivated by the time the Romans invaded Britain in the first century A.D., generally considered to be the end of the regions' prehistoric period.

The actual barrows and mounds near Damerham have been diminished by centuries of plowing, but that, ironically, may make them much more valuable archaeologically, according to Pollard, of the University of Bristol. And "even if the mounds are gone, you are still going to have primary burials [as opposed to those later added on top] which will have been dug into the chalk, so are going to survive," Pollard added.

An administrative oversight may also be partly responsible for the site remaining hidden-and assumedly pristine, at least underground-project leader Wickstead said.
When prehistoric sites in the area were being mapped and documented in the 1890s, a county-border change placed Damerham within Hampshire rather than Stonehenge's Wiltshire, she said. "Perhaps people in Hampshire thought [the monuments] were someone else's problem." This lucky conjunction of plowing and politics obscured Damerham's prehistoric heritage until now.



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