A series of deep pits which were discovered near Stonehenge last year have been confirmed as having been made by ancient Britons – after some experts dismissed them as mere natural features.
The 20 pits, which are more than 30 feet across and 16 feet deep, were found in June 2020 by a team of archaeologists.
They were arranged in a circle shape around the Durrington Walls Henge, which is just two miles from its more famous man-made neighbour on Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire.
Initial data had suggested that the features dated from the Neolithic period and had been excavated by humans around 4,500 years ago – around the time that the Durrington Walls were built.
Soon after the discovery, one archaeologist called the pits ‘blobs on the ground’ whilst another said they were not man-made, adding they could be ‘trusted to recognise a natural feature when they encounter one’.
But now, scientists have confirmed that the pits were definitely made by early Britons.
Whilst scientists are not certain about the reason for the pits’ construction, it is believed they may have served as a boundary to a sacred area or could have some kind of cosmological significance.
An incredible 3D map produced with special technology that can search below ground and is revealed in the Channel 5 documentary Stonehenge: The New Revelations shows the extent of the pits.
A series of deep pits which were discovered near Stonehenge (pictured) last year have been confirmed as having been made by ancient Britons – after some experts dismissed them as mere natural features
The 20 pits, which are more than 30 feet across and 16 feet deep, were found in June 2020 by a team of archaeologists. Now, scientists have confirmed that the pits were definitely made by early Britons. Above: An incredible 3D map produced with special technology that can search below ground and is revealed in the Channel 5 documentary Stonehenge: The New Revelations shows the extent of the pits
Another CGI image gives viewers a chance to see the pits how they might have looked when being used by ancient Britons.
Bradford University’s Professor Vincent Gaffney, who lead the team which made the discovery, said science had proven that the pits make up a huge Neolithic monument.
He added in The Guardian: ‘Some of the debate about the discovery and Stonehenge seemed bonkers to me.’
Professor Gaffney said that his team had now looked at ‘nearly half’ of the pits and have found that they are ‘all the same.
‘So effectively this really does say this is one enormous structure. It may have evolved from a natural feature, but we haven’t located that,’ he added.
‘So it’s the largest prehistoric structure found in Britain.’
The underground ring is around 20 times bigger than Stonehenge. It is said to add to evidence that early Britons had worked out a way to measure distance – because the pits are spaced evenly apart.
Another CGI image gives viewers a chance to see the pits how they might have looked when being used by ancient Britons
Whilst it is unclear why the pits were dug, they may have had a cosmological significance.
Archaeologists involved in the new research used special remote sensing technology that can map beneath the ground to uncover the extent of the pits.
The experts are able to detect where the ground has been disturbed, even if it happened thousands of years ago.
Their research also involved the use of optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), which can date the last time that sediment was exposed to light.
Dr Tim Kinnaird, of the school of earth and environmental sciences at the University of St Andrews, said the tests proved ‘beyond doubt’ that the pits date to around 2400BC.
An image of the location of the pits in relation to Stonehenge. The original discovery of the pits was made as part of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, led by the University of Bradford
Coring of the shafts suggest the features are Neolithic and excavated more than 4,500 years ago – around the time Durrington Walls was built
The original discovery of the pits was made as part of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, led by the University of Bradford.
Experts from the University of St Andrews also joined along with counterparts from institutes including Birmingham, Warwick, the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (at the University of Glasgow).
Professor Gaffney said last year: ‘The area around Stonehenge is amongst the most studied archaeological landscapes on earth.
‘It is remarkable that the application of new technology can still lead to the discovery of such a massive prehistoric structure.’
Dr Richard Bates, of the university’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said: ‘Yet again, the use of a multidisciplinary effort with remote sensing and careful sampling is giving us an insight to the past that shows an even more complex society than we could ever imagine.
It is thought the shafts served as a boundary to a sacred area or precinct associated with the henge. Map pictured above
‘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 we live in today.’
Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, last year hailed the ‘astonishing discovery’.
He said: ‘As the place where the builders of Stonehenge lived and feasted Durrington Walls is key to unlocking the story of the wider Stonehenge landscape, and this astonishing discovery offers us new insights into the lives and beliefs of our Neolithic ancestors.
‘The Hidden Landscapes team have combined cutting-edge, archaeological fieldwork with good old-fashioned detective work to reveal this extraordinary discovery and write a whole new chapter in the story of the Stonehenge landscape.’
Stonehenge: The New Revelations, airs on December 9 at 9pm on Channel 5.
The Stonehenge monument standing today was the final stage of a four part building project that ended 3,500 years ago
Stonehenge is one of the most prominent prehistoric monuments in Britain. The Stonehenge that can be seen today is the final stage that was completed about 3,500 years ago.
According to the monument’s website, Stonehenge was built in four stages:
First stage: The first version of Stonehenge was a large earthwork or Henge, comprising a ditch, bank and the Aubrey holes, all probably built around 3100 BC.
The Aubrey holes are round pits in the chalk, about one metre (3.3 feet) wide and deep, with steep sides and flat bottoms.
Stonehenge (pictured) is one of the most prominent prehistoric monuments in Britain
They form a circle about 86.6 metres (284 feet) in diameter.
Excavations revealed cremated human bones in some of the chalk filling, but the holes themselves were likely not made to be used as graves, but as part of a religious ceremony.
After this first stage, Stonehenge was abandoned and left untouched for more than 1,000 years.
Second stage: The second and most dramatic stage of Stonehenge started around 2150 years BC, when about 82 bluestones from the Preseli mountains in south-west Wales were transported to the site. It’s thought that the stones, some of which weigh four tonnes each, were dragged on rollers and sledges to the waters at Milford Haven, where they were loaded onto rafts.
They were carried on water along the south coast of Wales and up the rivers Avon and Frome, before being dragged overland again near Warminster and Wiltshire.
The final stage of the journey was mainly by water, down the river Wylye to Salisbury, then the Salisbury Avon to west Amesbury.
The journey spanned nearly 240 miles, and once at the site, the stones were set up in the centre to form an incomplete double circle.
During the same period, the original entrance was widened and a pair of Heel Stones were erected. The nearer part of the Avenue, connecting Stonehenge with the River Avon, was built aligned with the midsummer sunrise.
Third stage: The third stage of Stonehenge, which took place about 2000 years BC, saw the arrival of the sarsen stones (a type of sandstone), which were larger than the bluestones.
They were likely brought from the Marlborough Downs (40 kilometres, or 25 miles, north of Stonehenge).
The largest of the sarsen stones transported to Stonehenge weighs 50 tonnes, and transportation by water would not have been possible, so it’s suspected that they were transported using sledges and ropes.
Calculations have shown that it would have taken 500 men using leather ropes to pull one stone, with an extra 100 men needed to lay the rollers in front of the sledge.
These stones were arranged in an outer circle with a continuous run of lintels – horizontal supports.
Inside the circle, five trilithons – structures consisting of two upright stones and a third across the top as a lintel – were placed in a horseshoe arrangement, which can still be seen today.
Final stage: The fourth and final stage took place just after 1500 years BC, when the smaller bluestones were rearranged in the horseshoe and circle that can be seen today.
The original number of stones in the bluestone circle was probably around 60, but these have since been removed or broken up. Some remain as stumps below ground level.