23 July 2010
Neolithic monument discovered close to Stonehenge
Archaeologists have discovered a second henge at Stonehenge, described as the most exciting find there in 50 years. The circular ditch surrounding a smaller circle of deep pits about a metre (3ft) wide has been discovered using the ground-penetrating equivalent of an X-ray at the world-famous site in Wiltshire (England). Archaeologists conducting a multi-million pound study believe timber posts were in the pits.
Project leader Professor Vince Gaffney, from the University of Birmingham, said the discovery was 'exceptional'. The new monument - apparently contemporary to the 5,000-year-old stone circle - is situated about 900m from the giant stones on Salisbury Plain. Images show it has two entrances on the north-east and south-west sides and inside the circle is a burial mound on top which appeared much later, Professor Gaffney said.
The newly discovered monument is thought to have consisted of 24 wooden posts, each around 75cm in diameter and therefore potentially up to 8m high. The circle of posts was enclosed by an inner ditch and probable outer bank. Roughly 25m in diameter, it was almost the same size as the central part (the circle of standing stones) at Stonehenge itself. Of potential significance is the fact that the newly found henge 'mirrors' a similar monument (this time long known to archaeologists) on the other side of Stonehenge - 1,300m south-east of the famous monument.
"You seem to have a large-ditched feature, but it seems to be made of individual scoops rather than just a straight trench," Professor Gaffney said. "When we looked a bit more closely, we then realised there was a ring of pits about a metre wide going all the way around the edge. That's a henge monument - a timber equivalent to Stonehenge. From the general shape, we would guess it dates backs to about the time when Stonehenge was emerging at its most complex.
The archaeologists - from Birmingham, Bradford, St Andrews and Vienna Universities - are trying to map the unknown aspects of the Stonehenge landscape without digging a single hole. Instead of conventional excavations, they are using X-ray-style systems which look beneath the ground surface. The techniques - including magnetometry, ground-penetrating radar, electrical imaging and resistivity - are likely to yield huge amounts of previously unknown information about what the Stonehenge landscape looked like 40 to 50 centuries ago.
Archaeologist Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazin, said: "The first thing to ask is, is it a henge? The geophysics plot seems to show two arcs on a circle or oval of 10 or so large pits in total. These pits might have held large posts. They might indeed have held megaliths, but they might just be very big pits: there is a henge in Dorchester, Dorset, known as Maumbury Rings, that fits that description. On the other hand, the site could be something quite different. It was previously known as a ploughed-out burial mound or barrow of probable bronze age date (2,000-1,200 BCE). It may still be that, but with an unusual ditch or pit arrangement around it. So perhaps a henge, perhaps not, but an important discovery whose significance will be fully realised only with excavation."
Amanda Chadburn, the archaeologist responsible for Stonehenge at English Heritage, added: "This new monument is part of a growing body of evidence which shows how important the summer and winter solstices were to the ancient peoples who built Stonehenge. The discovery is all the more remarkable given how much research there has been in the vicinity of Stonehenge, and emphasises the importance of continuing research within and around the world heritage site."
"Some 90 per cent of the Stonehenge landscape is still terra incognita. Our survey will hopefully begin to remedy our current lack of knowledge," explained Professor Gaffney. "The discovery will significantly change the way we think about the landscape around Stonehenge," he concluded.
Sources: BBC News, The Independent, The Guardian (22 July 2010)