June 24, 2020
A major discovery by archaeologists at an ancient village in southern England near Stonehenge is likely to be confirmed as the largest prehistoric structure in Britain—and, possibly, in Europe—according to a member of the team, Professor Vincent Gaffney of the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford.
The archaeologists unearthed a circle of trenches about two miles away from Stonehenge—each of which is about 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep. Together, they are believed to have been part of a ritual boundary area between the two sites.
Uncovered through remote sensing technology and ground sampling, the discovery could amount to one of the most significant finds ever made at the site, archaeologists and experts said.
The find promises to offer significant clues about life more than 4,500 years ago in the Neolithic period—the last stage of the Stone Age—and could even “write a whole new chapter in the story” of the Stonehenge landscape, the experts say.
Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the English countryside, has long drawn visitors to admire its 100 looming, vertical stone slabs, even as its origins and purpose are still being explored.
“As the place where the builders of Stonehenge lived and feasted, Durrington Walls is key to unlocking the story of the wider Stonehenge landscape,” Nick Snashall, the National Trust archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, said in a statement.
Calling the finding an “astonishing discovery,” she said it would “write a whole new chapter in the story of the Stonehenge landscape.”
Over the past decade, the ancient site at Stonehenge slowly has been revealing its secrets—as well as details about the lives of those who built it; thanks largely to the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, a partnership among several universities and research institutions that was behind the latest discovery.
Stonehenge is positioned to align with the sunrise and sunset on the winter and summer solstices. And while the biggest questions about the structure —why was it built, and what purpose did it serve?— have yet to be definitively answered, many experts say it was probably a sacred site that people visited for significant ceremonies, including burials.
Whereas much archaeology in decades past relied on excavation to understand a site, the sensors used on this project allow a greater understanding of features that are unseen on the surface of the landscape, Gaffney told The New York Times.
The result has been a growing insight into daily life experienced by people several millenniums ago.
“Stonehenge was for the dead, Durrington was for the living,” Gaffney said. “But now, what we are probably looking at was this great big boundary around them probably warning people of what they are approaching.”
He said that the pits had been set at a deliberate distance and that their locations would have had to be paced out from a central point. That is a significant clue about people living in the area at the time, he said, because it “means they could count” — making it among the earliest evidence for counting in what is now Britain.
Dr. Gaffney said that exploration would continue, but that there would be no rush to excavate. “Remote sensing has taken us a long way,” he said, “and I think its going to take us further still.”
Research contact: @nytimes