What have archaeologists discovered about Stonehenge?

New find in the British Stone Age landscape : Stonehenge and the mystery of the sacred precinct

The people of England today, 4,500 years ago, must have had amazing skills. Not only did they start farming and discovering ornament, but they also thought big, leaving behind amazing monuments. The best known and most famous from this period is the Stonehenge stone circle in southern England.

It is located in the midst of a landscape of other Stone Age complexes - called "Henges", which consisted of a round or oval mound with an interior ditch. Durrington Walls three kilometers northeast of Stonehenge with a diameter of 500 meters is the largest and oldest monument to date.

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An international team of researchers has now discovered another ring of initially puzzling shafts around Durrington Walls. Over 20 shafts with a diameter of ten meters and a depth of five meters in a radius of 800 meters each to the center of Durrington Walls.

[For an animated version of this graphic, see the University of St. Andrews press release: New circle discovered near Stonehenge]

The ring thus formed has a diameter of two kilometers and exceeds all known Neolithic sites in the United Kingdom to date. The shafts were drilled around 4,500 years ago, at exactly the same time as Durrington Walls, which five years ago was found to be surrounded by at least 200 solid wooden posts. In addition, there were two rows of menhirs under the complex, i.e. a double circle made of large stones.

"Expressed Cosmological Belief Systems"

But what about these mysterious shafts that encompass the area over a large area? It is certain that the size of the shafts demonstrates the importance of Durrington Walls Henge, explains Vince Gaffney, professor at the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences in Bradford, who leads the research team.

"The complexity of the monumental structures within the landscape of Stonehenge" stands for "the ability and the desire of the Neolithic communities to express their cosmological belief systems in a way and to a degree that we would never have assumed before".

The ring of shafts could represent a kind of boundary with a sacred area, warning people not to simply cross that boundary, the prehistorians suspect. Rows of stakes within the complex could then have led to the sanctuary as signposts.

New technologies helped in the discovery

But why this diameter and this size? Scientists are certain that this was not a coincidence, as the older prehistoric monument Larkhill Causeway Enclosure, which is 1500 years older than Durrington Walls, is also located on the border.

So people 4500 years ago must have known exactly what they were doing. "The area around Stonehenge is one of the best-explored archaeological landscapes on earth, and it is remarkable that the application of new technologies can still lead to the discovery of such a huge prehistoric structure," said Gaffney of the Austrian newspaper "Der Standard".

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Scientists from Austria played a key role in the discovery, above all Wolfgang Neubauer from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archeology and employees of the Applied Geophysics Department at the Central Office for Meteorology and Geodynamics in Vienna.

Using ground penetrating radar and magnetic field measurements, the researchers and their colleagues from the Universities of Bradford and Birmingham explored an area of ​​16 square kilometers from 2010 to 2016 in the “Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project”. They no longer wanted to look at the individual “Henges” in isolation, but rather set out to find a larger context together.

A method that has now also been used to track down the shafts: after the radar scans, special software was used to obtain detailed 3D images of structures hidden in the subsurface.

On the trail of the "hidden landscapes"

The Neolithic people planned this gigantic complex precisely, but the archaeologists were long in the dark, as can be seen from an article in the specialist journal "Internet Archeology". Individual shafts had already been discovered - but not the monumental ensemble.

Only the systematic collection of geophysical data and the dating of the 20 huge shafts with the help of boreholes made the connection to the monument of Durrington Walls. And since this is only three kilometers away from Stonehenge, the youngest and last monument of the Stone Age, there must also be a connection between these "henges".

This makes this cultural landscape, which is already a UNESCO World Heritage Site, even more important. The sediments in the drill cores contained a rich and fascinating archive of previously unknown environmental data, explains Tim Kinnard of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at St. Andrews University.

A detailed history of the landscape around Stonehenge 4,000 years ago can be read from this. An excavation should now provide more information about the function of the shafts.

The discovery of this sensational large-scale facility is also a triumph of interdisciplinary cooperation. Geoscientists and archaeologists have made this possible by combining the latest geoscientific technology with classic archaeological detective methods, as Nick Snashall of the National Trust for Stonehenge puts it.

In addition to the pride in these results of modern research, the fascination remains with the know-how of the people 4500 years ago who designed and built these systems.

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