Archaeologists investigating the ancient prehistoric landscape of Stonehenge have uncovered a series of previously unknown mysterious monuments.
Using a special detection method to analyze the ground, they have, for the first time, revealed how prehistoric people dug vast circular holes in the limestone rock of the Stonehenge landscape.
About 100 of these recently discovered mysterious rock-cut pools and pits measured between 4 and 6 m in diameter and, in some cases, at least 2 m deep.
Some of the holes would have required the systematic removal of at least 25 cubic meters (about 60 tonnes) of solid chalk – a time-consuming task for prehistoric people, equipped only with stone and wooden tools, antler pickaxes – and possibly fire (to help break up the chalk).
Indeed, a small number of rock-cut pits and basins may have involved the mining and removal of 40 to 60 cubic meters (100 to 150 tonnes) of chalk.
The vast rock-cut prehistoric monuments recently discovered, scattered across the sacred landscape of Stonehenge, baffle archaeologists – because, so far, they have not been able to firmly deduce why they were created.
The available evidence suggests that they are a class of prehistoric monument previously largely unknown, but built at very different times from prehistory.
Archaeological investigation has so far demonstrated that the oldest example was made around 8,000 BC (at least 5,000 years before Stonehenge existed), while others were excavated from bedrock 500 years before Stonehenge – still others were created while Stonehenge was in decline. .
The wide time range for this type of recently discovered large rock-cut monument suggests that in each era their Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age creators made them for very different purposes.
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During the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period, some may have been created as elaborately designed hunting traps.
But in the Neolithic and Bronze Age it is likely that many were dug for ritual purposes. Indeed, the major clusters of these newly identified rock-cut pits appear to have been deliberately sited so as to overlook Stonehenge itself, much of which is thought to have been built in the Bronze Age.
“The new discoveries we have made demonstrate that the prehistoric landscape of Stonehenge was even more complex than we thought. Our work suggests that Britain’s most famous archaeological area still has many mysteries to unravel,” said University of Birmingham archaeologist Professor Paul Garwood, one of the project’s investigators.
The specific detection system used by the archaeological team to analyze the soil is known as electromagnetic induction (EMI) – and this is the first time this system has been used on such a large scale. It is also the first time that the effectiveness of the system has been verified in the field by excavating samples.
Using the EMI system, archaeologists and other scientists – from the University of Birmingham and Ghent University in Belgium – studied a full square kilometer of the prehistoric landscape at Stonehenge.
“The geophysical survey allows us to visualize what is buried under the surface of entire landscapes,” said Professor Philippe De Smedt, geophysics expert from Ghent University.
In total, they found up to 2,500 rock-cut pits – around 300 of them with diameters of over 2.5 m (of which around 100 had diameters of 4–6 m).
The oldest example is a pit 4 m in diameter and 2.2 m deep dating from the early Mesolithic (around 8000 BC). It had a very unusual Y-shaped profile and may have been an animal trap.
The upper part of the “y” consisted of a pit cut into the rock in the shape of an inverted (albeit truncated) cone, while its lower half (the tail of the “y”) comprised a vertical shaft in the shape of a cylinder of 1, 5m in diameter.
Perhaps significantly, it was located only 10m from another circular rock-cut feature 1m in diameter (some of which would originally be up to 75cm deep) and may have been a level platform (deliberately cut into the slope of the hill) for a wooden windbreak or rudimentary shelter. This possible temporary dwelling (possibly some form of wigwam or tent) has not been dated – but may also be Mesolithic and, if so, may well have been used by the hunters who built the trap likely.
Mesolithic structures are extremely rare in Britain. Indeed, if the shallow rock-cut platform (which has several small possible pile holes immediately adjacent) is the floor of some kind of Mesolithic dwelling, it would be the oldest “house” site in the landscape. of Stonehenge.
Although Mesolithic-era structures are very rare, there is evidence that hunter-gatherers of this period built a probable ritual monument in the area around what, millennia later, would become Stonehenge. This discovery (evidence of a series of three massive wooden totem-style obelisks) was made in the mid-20th century – and the recently discovered Mesolithic pit (and potentially the “house” platform) is further evidence of the the importance of the Stonehenge area at this very early time.
Data from the Stonehenge landscape survey has just been published in the Journal of Archaeological Sciencesavailable here, starting today.
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