Previously unknown archaeological monuments have been discovered around Stonehenge as part of an enormous digital mapping project that has transformed scientists’ knowledge of this iconic landscape. A team from the University of Birmingham’s Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project have used remote sensing techniques and geophysical surveys to map the area to a depth of three meters below ground, resulting in the most detailed archaeological digital map of Stonehenge and its surroundings ever produced. Startling new discoveries include 17 previously unknown ritual monuments dating to the period when Stonehenge was developed into its iconic ring shape.
The team made many breakthroughs in their use of new technology to produce the map, which covers an area of 12 square kilometers. Using multichannel motorized magnetometer and ground penetrating radar systems and exact satellite positioning systems it became possible to map large areas quickly and with very high resolution. Dozens of burial mounds have been mapped in minute detail, including a long barrow dating to before Stonehenge that covered a massive timber building. The team believe this was probably used for burial rituals, which at the time included defleshing the bodies of the dead.
The team also discovered evidence of what could be up to 60 huge stones or pillars at the nearby Durrington Walls site. Referred to as a “super henge,” this immense ritual monument has a circumference of more than 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles) and is believed to be the largest of its type in the world. Of the abundant new information, head of the project Professor Vince Gaffney stated: “This radically changes our view of Stonehenge. In the past we had this idea that Stonehenge was standing in splendid isolation, but it wasn’t … it’s absolutely huge.”
Further discoveries include two new pits found inside what is known as the Cursus. This is an enormous prehistoric trench that reminded its original discoverers of a Roman racing track, hence the misleading name. Predating the Stonehenge ring by 300 to 500 years, the trench runs in an east-west direction and the pits were found at either end, facing dawn and dusk. The team surmises that the large gap in time between the two constructions indicates that they were not planned as a whole environment, yet Stonehenge is closely aligned and oriented to the Cursus. Professor Gaffney notes, “The structures guide the builders. Once you have some things in place, other things happen because those already exist.” The wealth of new discoveries will continue to reshape how archaeologists understand the landscape of Stonehenge and its development over a period of more than 11,000 years.
If you are in the U.K., BBC Two will be screening the first of the two-part series on the project, Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath, on 11 September, 2014, at 8 p.m. GMT.