The landscape around Stonehenge has yielded hidden treasure: 17 previously unknown ritual monuments, a “house of the dead” predating the stone circle, and what appears to be a ceremonial route around Stonehenge itself.
Instead of today’s solitary monument, Stonehenge was the focus of “a completely theatrical arrangement,” says archaeologist Vincent Gaffney of the University of Birmingham in the UK.
Gaffney and his colleagues have produced a detailed map covering 12 square kilometres around Stonehenge. No excavation was involved. Instead, Gaffney’s team spent four years surveying the landscape with magnetometers, radar, electrical resistance measurements and lasers, creating a detailed picture of what lies below the visible landscape. They unveiled the map this week at the British Science Festival in Birmingham.
A hidden world
One of the most striking discoveries was also one of the oldest: a long burial mound dating from before Stonehenge was built between 5000 and 4000 years ago. The mound was built over the remains of a huge, 6000-year-old timber building thought to have been a “house of the dead”, used to store bodies that had been ritualistically defleshed and disassembled. The building has a slightly trapezoidal shape, similar to much older buildings on mainland Europe, although those were always in or near settlements.
The survey turned up 17 small ritual monuments, many of them circular, thought to be contemporary with Stonehenge’s busiest period. Gaffney suggests they were the equivalents of small “chapels”.
The nearby Durrington Walls “super-henge” holds even more secrets. At almost 500 metres across, it is one of the biggest earthworks of its kind. Gaffney’s team has found evidence that early in its history it was flanked by a row of around 60 huge stones or posts up to 3 metres high. Some of them may remain intact beneath the banks of the monument.
The map also shows many linear features, which Gaffney says suggest that the land was divided up at some point, perhaps into fields or proto-estates.
Walk the path
What’s more, the team found many ditches and paths running across the landscape. They hope these will help explain how prehistoric visitors to StonehengeSpeakerMovie Camera navigated and used the site.
For example, the survey revealed two 5-metre pits that form a gigantic triangle with Stonehenge. A person walking the paths between them would have experienced a spectacular succession of sights as different natural and artificial features of the landscape were alternately concealed and revealed, says Gaffney.
“People look at this map and say, ‘oh, there was a plan!’ But actually, I don’t think there was a plan; it’s something that emerged,” says Gaffney. “What you’re seeing is a perpetual re-emphasis on this piece of land.”
“In the 300 years that people have been seriously looking at Stonehenge, ours is the first generation who will have the chance to really understand how it evolved,” says Henry Chapman of the University of Birmingham.
To find out how people used the site, Chapman is using agent-based modelling, in which simulated individuals move around a given landscape by following simple rules. With Philip Murgatroyd, he plans to drop a few hundred agents at a time into a simulation of the landscape, and see what paths and significant places emerge.
That could offer some insight into how StonehengeMovie Camera, which presumably started out as just one of many minor ritual sites, came to occupy an important position not just in Britain, but across Europe. The teeth of at least two people buried there have a chemical makeup suggesting they came from elsewhere: the “Boy with the Amber Necklace” hails from the Mediterranean and the “Amesbury Archer” is from the Alps.