Whoever built stonehenge, that mysterious circle of stone boulders on Britain's Salisbury Plain, may have had a lot of company. Archaeologists have uncovered a large Neolithic settlement--possibly once home to hundreds of people--that dates from about 2,600 B.C. and shows, among other things, the outlines of beds and cupboards used by the potential builders of Stonehenge. Scientists have also unearthed an ancient stone road running from the settlement, which is enclosed by the lesser known Durrington Walls henge, to the nearby River Avon. A similar road connects the river to Stonehenge, which sits about two miles from the settlement and is theorized to have been a funeral site. "We knew these were from broadly the same period, but the idea that they form a single integrated complex is quite new," says Julian Thomas, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester.
It's a huge step toward figuring out the truth about Stonehenge and the people who erected it. So far, researchers have excavated only the clay floors and hearths from six of the houses and two nearby structures that, fringed with timber palisades, may have been chiefs' homes or shrines. The six houses are strewn with animal bones and broken pottery--so many signs of feasting and ceremony that archaeologists wonder whether the site was used for funerary practices before remains were deposited at Stonehenge. Says Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology: "For the very first time, it's creating a social world into which we can place Stonehenge."