In June last year, archaeologists in Britain announced that they had made an amazing discovery near Stonehenge. They detected a massive circular monument near the world-famous Neolithic site. When they suggested that it may be the largest monument from the Neolithic period found in the British Isles they faced heavy criticism from some colleagues, who dismissed the features as natural. But now they have come back with more scientific proof that the gaping pits they found were definitely human-made.
Discovering the Exceptional Neolithic Circle
A team of experts from several universities found the site while collaborating on a project known as the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project (SHLP), led by the University of Bradford . They were using the latest technology when they came across their astonishing find less than 2 miles (3.2 km) from Stonehenge. Experts were using ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry to identify anomalies in the ground. Dr. Tim Kinnaird, part of the study and of the school of earth and environmental sciences at the University of St Andrews, stated, according to 7 News , that “With optically stimulated luminescence [OSL] profiling and dating, we can write detailed narratives of the Stonehenge landscape for the last 4,000 years.”
The experts identified a number of anomalies which had been noted before but which were assumed to be only sinkholes. To their amazement, they found 20 deep shafts that were in the shape of a circle, covering an area of 1.2 miles (2 km). These shafts, which were filled in with earth, are more than 30 feet deep (10 m) and 15 feet wide (5 m). Based on samples taken from the site, it is approximately 4,500 years old. Archaeologists were amazed at their find because the Stonehenge area has been thoroughly investigated in the past.
Previously discovered ‘Woodhenge’ at Durrington Walls is tiny in comparison to the new monument. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
At the center of the circle of shafts is Durrington Walls , a massive henge, and one of the largest of its kind in Western Europe. Based on the archaeological record it seems that there was once a large settlement at the site, and it was inhabited by the builders of Stonehenge. Durrington Walls was also an important ceremonial and ritual site.
Prof. Vince Gaffney, 50th Anniversary Chair of the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Bradford, said it was extraordinary that such a major find had been made so close to Stonehenge:
The area around Stonehenge is amongst the most studied archaeological landscapes on earth and it is remarkable that the application of new technology can still lead to the discovery of such a massive prehistoric structure which, currently, is significantly larger than any comparative prehistoric monument that we know of in Britain, at least. When these pits were first noted it was thought they might be natural features – solution hollows in the chalk. Only when the larger picture emerged, through the geophysical surveys undertaken as part of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project, could we join the dots and see there was a pattern on a massive scale.
But some critics dismissed the claims and suggested that the pits were just natural features.
More Proof for the Prehistoric Site
According to The Guardian , Gaffney says that “Some of the debate about the discovery and Stonehenge seemed bonkers to me.”
Now the team of researchers has come forward with the results of new scientific tests that prove that the pits forming the circle that measures 1.2 miles (2km) in diameter were definitely human-made and dug almost 4,500 years ago.
Gaffney says that the team’s latest fieldwork involved studying nine of the pits, which means they’ve analyzed “nearly half of them and they’re all the same. So effectively this really does say this is one enormous structure. It may have evolved from a natural feature, but we haven’t located that. So it’s the largest prehistoric structure found in Britain.”
Dr. Kinnaird says that the OSL tests, which were used to date the last time that sediment was exposed to daylight, “proved beyond doubt that the pits date to around 2400BC.” Furthermore, he says that “the remarkable consistency across the cores, the identification of multiple and distinct fills, the suggestion that the pits were infilled at a similar time [suggest that] these were not natural features. It’s confirmed that the [pits] are all very similar, which is fascinating.”
If the pits were natural features, such as sinkholes as some critics claimed, they would be different sizes.
This Appears to Be a Sacred Stone Age Site
In the journal Internet Archaeology , the researchers wrote that ‘The degree of similarity across the 20 features identified suggests that they could have formed part of a circuit of large pits around Durrington Walls’. Based on an analysis of the structure it appears that the monument was a boundary entranceway that guided people to the sacred site at its center. The circular structure may also have encircled the Neolithic Larkhill causewayed enclosure.
Landscape setting of the Durrington pit group, major monuments and the average distance from Durrington Walls to identified features as a line. ( © University of Bradford )
Archaeologists concluded that there could have been 10 more shafts and that over 30% of the site may have been lost to modern building projects. However, there is also evidence that the site may have been ‘maintained through to the Middle Bronze Age ’ the researchers wrote in Internet Archaeology .
Reconstruction of one of the Neolithic houses previously discovered at Durrington Walls.( CC 4.0 )
Relationship of the Neolithic Circle to Stonehenge
The size of the shafts makes the find extremely important and nothing like them has ever been found before. It is believed, according to Gaffney, that the circular structure demonstrates the “capacity and desire of Neolithic communities to record their cosmological belief systems in ways, and at a scale, that we had never previously anticipated,” reports The Guardian . It has been theorized that while nearby Stonehenge was concerned with the movement of the sun, this large structure was an effort to make a “huge cosmological statement and the need to inscribe it into the earth itself,” Gaffney told The Guardian .
Map showing the position of known and probable pits around Durrington Walls henge ( © University of Bradford )
The circular structure also gave experts a new perspective on Durrington. It appears that while Stonehenge was associated with the dead, Durrington was associated with the living and the natural world. It seems likely that the structure reflected the relationship between people and nature and related to Stone Age rituals and ceremonies. Dr. Richard Bates, who took part in the study, told 7 News that “Sophisticated practices demonstrate that the people were so in tune with natural events to an extent that we can barely conceive in the modern world we live in today.”
Stone Age Society was More Complex than We Thought
The sheer scale of the site has amazed experts, as it would have taken a great deal of resources, labor, and organization to create such a monument. Moreover, the planning of the circular structure indicates that the Neolithic people who constructed it were familiar with numbers, if not arithmetic. Dr. Bates is quoted by The Independent as stating that the discovery “shows an even more complex society than we could ever imagine.”
It also offers us new perspectives on Neolithic society. Dr. Nick Snashall, an archaeologist with the English National Trust, told The Independent that “this astonishing discovery offers us new insights into the lives and beliefs of our Neolithic ancestors.”
The find is incredibly significant because it also provides data on the environment in which the Neolithic people lived. Dr. Kinnaird is quoted by Nine News as stating “The sedimentary infills contain a rich and fascinating archive of previously unknown environmental information.” This can help us to understand the lifestyle and society of the builders of Stonehenge and even their fate.
A full report on the findings of the study has been published on the open-source online journal Internet Archaeology , https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.55.4. The discovery will also be discussed in a documentary titled ‘Stonehenge: The New Revelations,’ which will air in the UK on Channel 5 on December 9.
Top image: A massive Neolithic circle has been detected in the landscape of Durrington Walls. Source: offcaania / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Updated November 24, 2021.
Gaffney, V. et al. 2020 A Massive, Late Neolithic Pit Structure associated with Durrington Walls Henge , Internet Archaeology 55. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.55.4