History of Woodhenge

Woodhenge is an atmospheric Neolithic site, probably built about 2300 BC. It was originally believed to be the remains of a large burial mound, surrounded by a bank and ditch almost completely destroyed by ploughing, but aerial photography detected rings of dark spots in a crop of wheat.

The shape of Woodhenge revealed by aerial photography

The shape of Woodhenge revealed by aerial photography

Excavations

When the site was excavated these dark spots proved to be empty sockets that had formerly held large upright timbers.

The timbers in the third ring seem to have been larger and more deeply set than the others, so the posts may have been the uprights of a large roofed building with a small courtyard or light-well in the centre.

It is also quite possible that the site was completely open to the sky with the posts carved and painted like totem poles.

 

Purpose

It is impossible to know for certain what the rings of timbers were for.

One clue was the discovery at the centre of the site of the burial of a three-year-old child whose skull had been split open with an axe – apparently a sacrificial victim.

A structure similar to Woodhenge may have stood at the centre of Stonehenge before the great stone circle and trilithons were erected. Traces of two more have been found within the large enclosure known as Durrington Walls that lies just 230 feet (70 metres) to the north of Woodhenge.

The exact appearance, purpose and status of these structures remains unknown. If they were indeed roofed buildings, they may have served many functions, just as churches and cathedrals did in the Middle Ages.

It appears that structures like Woodhenge mark a particular stage in the evolution in human religious belief and community organisation – one that was to achieve its final and most permanent form at Stonehenge nearby.

 

Later Use

Radiocarbon dating of finds from within the henge indicate that it was still in use around 1800 BC.

During the Iron Age and Roman periods evidence of later settlement in the immediate vicinity demonstrates continued use beyond its ceremonial function. It is possible that the banks and ditches were used for defensive purposes.

A reconstruction drawing showing how Woodhenge might have looked in Neolithic times

A reconstruction showing how Woodhenge might have looked in Neolithic times
© Historic England

Description

There are six concentric rings of post holes which are marked today by concrete blocks. The rings are oval-shaped, with the longer axis pointing towards the winter and summer solstice.

The circular bank and ditch surrounding the rings covered an area measuring 360 feet (110 metres) in diameter overall with a single entrance to the north-east.

Although these are hardly visible on the ground now, excavations in 1926–8 revealed that the bank was about 33 feet (10 metres) wide and that the ditch is flat bottomed, up to 40 feet (12 metres) wide and 8 feet (2.4 metres) deep.

   

FIND MORE PROPERTY HISTORIES

Two symbolic chalk axes excavated at Woodhenge

Symbolic chalk axes excavated at Woodhenge

Further Reading

 

Cunnington, ME, Woodhenge: a description of the site as revealed by excavations carried out there by Mr and Mrs B H Cunnington, 1926–8; also of four circles and an earthwork enclosure south of Woodhenge (Devizes, 1929)

 

Note 

The text on this page is derived from the Heritage Unlocked series of guidebooks, published in 2002–6. We intend to update and enhance the content as soon as possible to provide more information on the property and its history.

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