Stonehenge: 'Mind-blowing' new discoveries discussed by experts
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The story of Stonehenge took a dramatic turn this year after researchers uncovered the remains of the Waun Mawn site at Pembrokeshire’s Preseli Hills in southwest Wales. It quickly proved to be one of Britain’s biggest and oldest stone circles — potentially consisting of the original building blocks of Stonehenge. Experts believe the stones may have been taken apart and rebuilt 150 miles away on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, where the structure stands today.
Last night, during Channel 5’s documentary, ‘The Stonehenge Enigma: What lies beneath?’, another breakthrough discovery was made which saw researchers move a step closer to understanding how people once used the monument and the surrounding ancient lands.
The study, led by Professor Vince Gaffney, a landscape archaeologist at Bradford University, charted the grounds around Stonehenge, finding something unusual.
His team’s observations and field research revealed a number of deep pits, lined up in an arc.
These pits sit to the east of Stonehenge, just outside another Neolithic era site, the Durrington Walls.
Initially, it was difficult for Prof Gaffney and his team to say what exactly the pits — some of which were two stories deep — were, and what they may have been used for.
Previous building surveys at the site suggested that they could be sinkholes, formed naturally due to an ancient river.
However, after extracting soil samples deep from within the ground, the team was able to date much of what was found within the pits with new cutting-edge technology known as optically stimulated luminescence.
What they found was chalk, soil, bones and animal remains dating to over 4,000 years ago.
This timeframe transported the pits to the exact period in which Stonehenge stood, also in date with Durrington Walls.
They went on to describe the arc as the “Great Durrington Ring” — believed to be the largest Neolithic prehistoric monument ever found.
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The documentary’s narrator, Rob Bell, noted that the findings “turned everything we thought we knew about our most loved monument on its head”.
This is because the pits are believed to have been created and used by the thousands of Neolithic people who once lived at Durrington Walls.
Previous studies had turned up ancient house structures at the site, which was contemporaneous with Stonehenge, suggesting that the Wall’s inhabitants had a hand in building the stone circle.
But why, the researchers asked, might the ancient people have dug out giant holes in a perfect curvature that enclosed Durrington Walls?
Professor Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at University College London (UCL), suggested that the discovery of captive pig bones pointed towards the site having been used as a mass hunting grounds, perhaps something akin to a ritual.
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This would have seen thousands of people from across ancient Britain travel to the site with animals like pigs, to perform a mass ritual within the arc’s sphere, later gathering in a procession to walk to Stonehenge for the winter — not summer — solstice.
A completely different way of using the site than what was previously believed, Mr Bell noted: “Professor Gaffney’s discovery is set to redefine the entire Stonehenge landscape forever.”
While the people who first lived at Durrington would have helped with the construction of Stonehenge’s sarsen stone circles 500 years after its initial formation, the Great Durrington Ring was built right at the very end of the Neolithic period.
This means that Prof Gaffney’s discovery could, in fact, be the very last Neolithic mega monument ever created.
Prof Pearson said this was significant in understanding why the ring had been erected, and explained: “This was the last gasp of that whole way of life.
“It’s a real swan’s song moment for a way of life that was about to vanish forever.”
With new people coming to Britain from Europe, new metals and ways of working were brought, as well as boundaries being set up.
In just a few generations, the Neolithic people who built Stonehenge were replaced, and their lands overrun.
Researchers believe that the pits could have marked the passing of this ancient community and their way of life.
Prof Pearson said: “You have to have a boundary, you have to have a point where you say, ‘Beyond this, something else happens’.
“That conditions are utterly different, and what better than to create that boundary in a great encirclement of Durrington Walls.
“What they were doing was making it off to say that this was something great once, and this is now the area that it is that will remain special for eternity.”
He added: “We’re coming up, now I think, with the most extraordinary view of seeing Stonehenge for the first time in its proper context.”
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