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1 December 2011
Significance of Stonehenge pre-dates the famous stone circles?

Since the summer of 2010 an international team of archaeologists, lead by the University of Birmingham (England), and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology, from Vienna (Austria), have been conducting a large scale non-intrusive survey of the Stonehenge site and surrounding area. Known as The Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project, they have been using ground penetrating radar and geophysical imaging and have recently discovered evidence which, if proved to be true, could push back the importance of the area as a sacred site to over 500 years before the first of the Stone Circles was erected.
     In essence the team has found evidence of two large pits, which may have contained standing stones, wooden posts or even fire pits. Without a physical excavation of the sites none of these conjectures can be proved. So why is the discovery of two pits so significant? Well, to those familiar with the Stonehenge site, they occur at opposite ends of the feature known as the Cursus, which is located to the North of the main Stone Circles. The Cursus comprises two parallel ditches, flanked by banks and with closed ends which runs for approximately 1 kilometre in a roughly east-west direction.
     Nothing unusual in that you might think, but when the team started to map the finds they noticed something quite exciting. At the summer solstice, the pit at the eastern end of the Cursus appears to be perfectly aligned with the rising sun and the Heel Stone (which stands just outside the entrance to the Stone Circles). Similarly there would have been an alignment with the western pit, the setting sun and the Heel Stone. Further conjecture has noted that, if a procession were progressing along the Cursus, from the 'sunrise pit' to the 'sunset pit', following the sun, then the mid part of their journey would coincide with midday, when the sun was at its highest, directly over the Stone Circles.
     The news of this discovery has spread throughout the world's press but one note of caution has been raised by Mike Pitts, the archaeologist and writer, who is Editor of British Archaeology, on his blog. He notes that the anomalies (pits) have not been excavated or cored and so their age and function remains as speculation. A comment on his blog also notes that there could be quite a margin of error in the assumed alignments.

Edited from University of Birmingham, The Independent (26 November 2011), BBC News (28 November 2011), Discovery News, MSNBC, Mike Pitts (29 November 2011), ArtDaily (30 November 2011)

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