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Almost 6,000 years ago, the early Neolithic inhabitants of what is now Herefordshire built two huge timber-framed assembly halls on Dorstone Hill, beside an impressive mortuary chamber. A few decades later they burnt down their splendid buildings in a ceremonial conflagration and encapsulated the remains in a pair of long barrows (elongated burial mounds).
The remarkable – and still unpublished – story of Dorstone Hill is emerging in a dig directed by Keith Ray, Herefordshire county archaeologist, and Professor Julian Thomas of Manchester University. They say the site’s richness and complexity makes it one of Britain’s most revealing prehistoric excavations.
The evidence suggests that the two buildings were deliberately burnt around 3800BC (1,000 years before Stonehenge was built), perhaps after the death of an important leader or some event of religious significance. It would have been a spectacular fire, visible for many miles across the Wye Valley.
The charred remains of the buildings were then covered up and converted into a pair of long barrows. However, enough of the structure survived the fire to provide valuable evidence of the halls’ original appearance. Within the larger mound there is carbonised wood from the main wall and roof timbers, post-holes showing the position of the uprights, and burnt clay from the lining of the wattle-and-daub walls.
The two halls – placed end-to-end rather than side-by-side – were long structures with central aisles, framed by upright posts and with internal partitions. The roofs were thatched. They were 8m wide and, though their overall lengths are not yet known, they may have been as long as the barrows that later covered them. If so, one was 70m and the other 30m long.
Next to the halls was a mortuary chamber measuring 7m by 2.5m, with an oak tree trunk at each end. Between these posts ran a linear trough lined with planks, where the dead would have been laid out.
“This find is of huge significance to our understanding of prehistoric life,” says Thomas. “It makes a link between a house and tomb more forcefully than any other investigation ... These early Neolithic halls are already extremely rare, but to find them within a long barrow is the discovery of a lifetime.”
The archaeologists do not know how long the two halls and their associated mortuary chamber were used before the community decided to destroy them – perhaps for two or three generations. During this period, they were not communal living spaces but ceremonial halls where people would have gathered to feast and commemorate the dead on special occasions.
“At some point the people would have decided to end that phase of communal life with a great commemorative bonfire, and then turn the site into part of the landscape as a long barrow,” says Ray. “The early Neolithic period was a time of change and excitement in Britain,” he adds. “Pottery was new, clear-felling hillsides with axes was new, and so were these large timber buildings.”
People continued to use Dorstone Hill for at least another thousand years. One intriguing find from the excavation is a pit dug around 2600BC, which contained a finely worked flint knife and axe. Their material and workmanship shows they were made in East Yorkshire.
Although these could have been traded goods, Ray believes they were brought from Yorkshire in an ancestral pilgrimage for a ceremony at Dorstone. “We are beginning to understand that people were more mobile in prehistory than we had realised,” he says. “A thousand years after the mounds were made, the site is still important to later generations living 200 miles away – a vast distance in Neolithic terms.”
Ray is convinced that the finds show “an interconnected community linking Herefordshire and East Yorkshire by marriage and by descent 5,000 years ago”.
The Dorstone site is on private land without vehicular access and is not open to visitors.
Dermatology: a burning question answered
Doctors warn about the long-term harm that excessive exposure to the sun can do to our skin, accelerating ageing and increasing risk of cancer. But for many people trying to get a summer tan, such consequences decades in the future are less important than the immediate pain of sunburn.
Relief for this may be in sight, following US research that identifies a skin protein responsible for the painful rash associated with too much time in the sun. Blocking the molecule, called TRPV4, protects against sunburn – and could relieve other forms of pain, according to the study carried out in live mice and human skin cultures.
“We have uncovered a novel explanation for why sunburn hurts,” says Wolfgang Liedtke, a neurologist at Duke University. “If we understand sunburn better, we can understand pain better because what plagues my patients day in and day out is what temporarily affects otherwise healthy people who suffer from sunburn.”
The researchers genetically engineered a strain of mice lacking TRPV4 in skin cells. They exposed the hind paws of these, and of normal mice, to UVB rays simulating sunshine. The paws of the normal mice blistered, while those of the engineered mice showed little reaction. Further work with cultured skin revealed the “biological pathway” behind these effects. TRPV4 is an “ion channel”; when activated by sunlight, it triggers an influx of calcium ions into skin cells. This in turn brings in a molecule called endothelin, which is known to cause pain and itching.
When the scientists applied an experimental drug that inhibits TRPV4, it stopped the mice getting burnt paws. Before the findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, can be applied to humans, more research will be needed to establish whether TRPV4 inhibition has unwanted side-effects on the skin. Any cream that switches off the sunburn response will also have to include strong UVB blockers, so that people do not use freedom from immediate sunburn to do even more long-term damage to their skin.
Meteorology: halos shed light on big storms
Intense thunderstorms can be identified and tracked by the electrical “halos” they generate in the upper atmosphere, according to a study by Reading University and Biral, a meteorological equipment company in Bristol.
Storms with lightning flashes at least 10 times stronger than normal produce these pancake-shaped electrical disturbances at high altitude. Halos are not visible to the naked eye but can be detected with special equipment. The latest Biral detector shows that halos extend several hundred kilometres from the storm – much further than scientists had realised.
This opens up the prospect of tracking dangerous storms from further away than the 100km or so that is achievable by detecting the radio waves generated by lightning flashes. The study appears in Physical Review Letters.