Two 6,000-year-old “halls of the dead” were unearthed by archaeologists in Herefordshire, UK. The halls were later burned and incorporated in the larger burial mound but may have served as a way to memorialize the community and an ancient pilgrimage for Neolithic communities.
The discovery of the pair of Neolithic halls of the dead was led by teams of archaeologists from the University of Manchester and Herefordshire Council. The archaeologists excavated the site at Dorstone Hill and discovered two ancient halls that may have been used by Neolithic communities living in the region. The halls were built between 4,000 and 3,600 BC and later burned down by the community as a way to memorialize the site. The remains were incorporated in the larger burial mound and became part of the natural landscape.
Archaeologists were able to trace the structure of the two halls based on imprints in the larger burial mounds including postholes, remains of stakes used to create partitions within the hall and the charred remains of structural timbers. Inside the mound, researchers found burnt clay which was used to coat the interiors of the halls of the dead. The halls of the dead may have been as long as the burial mounds, the larger hall measuring 70 meters, approximately 230 feet, in length and the other measuring 30 meters, 98 feet, in length.
The halls were used as a temporary resting place for bodies prior to being moved to tombs as part of the burial process of Neolithic communities. The smaller hall also contained a mortuary chamber, or morgue, and researchers discovered evidence of a long pit they called a “trough” which would have been used to store the deceased.
Julian Thomas, from the University of Manchester, co-directed the excavation and said finding a hall of the dead inside a burial mound was a “discovery of a lifetime.” Archaeologists believed these halls also served a symbolic purpose and the unearthing of the halls further confirmed those theories, notes Thomas.
The site also contained other artifacts that led researchers to believe the burial mounds served as an ancient pilgrimage for Neolithic communities that would have traveled great distances, up to 200 miles, to return to the site. A cremation burial site as well as a flint axe and a flint knife were also discovered at Dorstone Hill. The knife and axe are similar to artifacts that date to 2,600 BC and the researchers believe they may have been left at the site as part of a ceremony.
Keith Ray, Herefordshire Council's County Archaeologist, said the location served as link between Neolithic communities in Herfordshire and east Yorkshire. “So we witness an interconnected community linking Herefordshire and East Yorkshire by marriage and by descent 5000 years ago,” Ray said.
The halls were later burnt down as part of a larger ceremony that allowed for the site to become an important location for Neolithic communities for hundreds of years. Thomas said, “By turning it into part of the landscape, it becomes a permanent reminder for generations to come,” he continues, “Just think of how the burning of the hall could have been seen for miles around, in the large expanse of what is now the border country between England and Wales.”