The Dorchester Henge

Dorchester’s vast historical roots run all throughout the town, with many being excavated or built upon they are not all able to be witnessed today, however, that should not take away from the magnificent monuments which once were. It should be remembered that whilst walking through Dorchester we pass over this history in every step, whilst shopping in Waitrose you stand upon what once was one of the largest Neolithic monuments in Britain.

During the construction of the supermarket in 1984 archaeologists found signs of huge wooden posts and a curving ditch. Each post measured about a metre across and had been cut from a mature oak tree, these posts were regularly spaced about a metre apart. Twenty one post holes were found in an arc shape and some had also been found earlier in Church Street. Archaeologists worked out that the posts and the ditch must have been part of a huge circular monument – about 380 metres across.

Large circular monuments like this are known as henges, named after Stonehenge. The Dorchester henge was about three times the size of Stonehenge, and although it was never a stone structure, it would have been extraordinary to witness. It wasn’t the only one in the neighbourhood; there were also henges at Maumbury Rings and Mount Pleasant, just outside Dorchester.

Maumbury Rings

The three large local henges were built about 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic period. This henge in particular appears to have fallen out of use in the Early Bronze Age, allowing the wooden posts to rot and the site to return to grassland. Mount Pleasant also fell out of use, but Maumbury Rings remained and the Romans converted it into an amphitheatre.

What was it?

Stonehenge has been thought to be a religious centre, an astronomical observatory, a calendar for ensuring crops are planted at the right time and to have many other uses. Nobody knows exactly what Dorchester’s henges were for, but they are part of a very rich archaeological landscape. Perhaps we will one day learn more about these marvellous sites and their meaning within Dorchester’s past.

Evidence of later buildings was also found on the site of the henge monument, with one of the most interesting being a dovecote. It was a round building with ledges for the birds to nest, in the centre was a pit for the bird droppings, and these were used to tan leather and to make gunpowder.

Find out more...

Visit the henge circle marked out on the car park floor under Waitrose – be careful of cars

Read Discover Dorset: The Prehistoric Age by Bill Putnam.