An intense burst of building work took place in Britain at the end of the neolithic period, possibly as a “final hurrah” by stone-age man and woman as they sensed the approach of fundamental change, research on a prehistoric monument in Dorset has suggested.

A study of the Mount Pleasant “mega henge”, a sprawling site near Dorchester, has found it was not constructed over centuries as had previously been thought but in as little as 35 years.

The finding has led researchers from Cardiff University to put forward the theory that a frantic building programme was under way in southern Britain in around 2,500BC, just before people arrived from what is now mainland Europe with other belief systems, ways of life and materials.

The lead researcher, Susan Greaney of the university’s school of history, archaeology and religion, said: “The picture emerging is an explosion in building activity with large and labour-intensive monuments being constructed across southern England, and perhaps further afield.

“The building of Mount Pleasant would have involved a huge number of people – digging out the enormous ditches with simple tools like antler picks. This was right at the end of the stone age, just before people came from the continent with metal goods, new types of pottery, new styles of burial and so on.

“You could look at it as the last hurrah of the stone age. They could see the changes coming and decide to resist them – they may have been thinking: ‘We don’t need these changes. We’ll build bigger and better monuments to our gods. We’ll knuckle down and stick with what we know’.”

Mount Pleasant included a henge – a circular enclosure surrounded by bank and ditch – and a palisade, a fence made of huge tree trunks.

It is huge – the size of nine football pitches – and one of five known mega-henges in southern England from around the same period. Others include Durrington Walls and Avebury in Wiltshire.

An antler pick found at the Mount Pleasant site in Dorset. Research on it and other objects suggests a stone-age building boom.
An antler pick found at the Mount Pleasant site in Dorset. Research on it and other objects suggests a stone-age building boom. Photograph: Cardiff University

The stone circle of Stonehenge was also built at about the same time. The henges are believed to be significant ceremonial sites where people probably gathered for feasting and rituals, sometimes travelling over long distances to get there.

Mount Pleasant, the site of which is now ploughed fields, was excavated in the early 1970s by archaeologists who found items including antler picks, pieces of charcoal and human bone.

As part of the new research some of these items, which are held at the Dorset County Museum, were dated using techniques not available 50 years ago. The conclusion was the bulk of the site was constructed in between 35 and 125 years.

Greaney said the “last hurrah” was just one theory. “It may also be that the effort of building these monuments led to a rebellion or a collapse in belief that created a vacuum that allowed people to come in from the continent.”

She pointed out that part of a central stone monument appears to have been broken. “Was it destroyed during a time of unrest?”

Peter Marshall, of Historic England, said: “This research shows the importance of archaeological collections stored in museums. Even though the site was excavated 50 years ago, it has been possible to use utilise new scientific techniques to examine the material held in Dorchester.

“As archaeological practices evolve, the value of these museum collections and the importance of their long-term preservation cannot be underestimated.”

The research has been published in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society journal.



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