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article imageNeolithic circle near Stonehenge a 'masterpiece of engineering'

By Karen Graham     Jun 22, 2020 in Science
Archaeologists have discovered a massive series of Neolithic-era shafts surrounding a settlement at Durrington Walls, very close to the Stonehenge site in southern England. The sheer scale of the site has left scientists in awe.
The geophysical features - located south of the Durrington Walls henge monument, were identified during a fluxgate gradiometer survey undertaken by the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project (SHLP). The findings were published in the open-access journal, Internet Archaeology on June 21, 2020.
The Neolithic peoples who constructed Stonehenge 4,500 years ago, also dug a series of shafts aligned to form a circle spanning 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) in diameter. This strange series of shafts formed a structure that appears to be a boundary encircling the smaller Durrington Walls"superhenge" site, which is still a large structure compared to the familiar circle at Stonehenge, reports CBS News.
The newly discovered structure and its apparently close relationship to other structures in the area from the same time period indicate "an even more complex society than we could ever imagine," according to one of the scientists who led the research. "Clearly sophisticated practices demonstrate that the people were so in tune with natural events to an extent that we can barely conceive in the modern world," said Dr. Richard Bates, from St Andrews University's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
An animated digital map created by the research team, and shared online by the European Association of Archaeologists, shows the location of the pits in relation to Durrington Walls superhenge site, all of which sits only about two miles from Stonehenge itself.
The archaeology team found manipulated flint and bone fragments in the soil at the bottom of at least one of the shafts that dated to the Late Neolithic period. "The degree of similarity across the 20 features (pits) identified suggests that they could have formed part of a circuit of large pits around Durrington Walls," the paper says.
Professor Vincent Gaffney, one of the leading archaeologists on the Hidden Landscapes team, told The Guardian that the pits were "an unprecedented find of major significance within the U.K.," saying experts on Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape were, "taken aback by the scale of the structure and the fact that it hadn't been discovered until now so close" to the iconic stone circle.
Semi-circle impression of how  superhenge  looked
Semi-circle impression of how "superhenge" looked
Ludwig Boltzmann Insitute
Gaffney added, “The size of the shafts and circuit surrounding Durrington Walls is currently unique. It demonstrates the significance of Durrington Walls Henge, the complexity of the monumental structures within the Stonehenge landscape, and the capacity and desire of Neolithic communities to record their cosmological belief systems in ways, and at a scale, that we had never previously anticipated.”
Shafts may have cosmological significance
With Stonehenge, the stones were positioned in a precise way in relation to the solstices, or the extreme limits of the sun’s movement. Gaffney suggests the newly discovered circular shape of the shafts may be a “huge cosmological statement and the need to inscribe it into the earth itself."
He added: “Stonehenge has a clear link to the seasons and the passage of time, through the summer solstice. But with the Durrington Shafts, it’s not the passing of time, but the bounding by a circle of shafts which has cosmological significance.”
The western wall of Durrington Walls near Durrington  Wiltshire. As seen from within the enclosure o...
The western wall of Durrington Walls near Durrington, Wiltshire. As seen from within the enclosure of the site itself. Image dated November 6, 2017.
Ethan Doyle White
And the precise and sophisticated way in which the pits were positioned suggests that the early inhabitants of Britain used a tally or counting system to track pacing across long distances.
Some archaeologists, including Michael Parker Pearson at University College London, have suggested that, while Stonehenge, with its standing stones, was an area for the dead, Durrington, with its wooden structures, was for the living.” Parker adds that while a number of ancient civilizations had counting systems, the evidence lies primarily in texts in various forms that they left behind.
This leads Parker and others to believe that positioning each shaft would have involved pacing more than 800 meters from the henge outwards.
The publishing of this latest discovery - right next to Stonehenge - makes up for the cancellation of the summer solstice celebration this year. We can add that with the use of the latest technology – including geophysical prospection, ground-penetrating radar, and magnetometry - archaeologists are opening up new lines of investigation into the origins of ancient structures without digging everything up.
More about Durrington Walls, Stonehenge, Geophysics, Late Neolithic, Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project
 
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