Every summer solstice, tens of thousands of people throng to Stonehenge, creating a festival-like atmosphere at the 4,400-year-old stone monument. For the 2015 solstice, they will have a bit more room to spread out. A just-completed four-year project to map the vicinity of Stonehenge reveals a sprawling complex that includes 17 newly discovered monuments and signs of a 1.5-kilometre-around ‘super henge’.
The digital map — made from high-resolution radar and magnetic and laser scans that accumulated several terabytes of data — shatters the picture of Stonehenge as a desolate and exclusive site that was visited by few, says Vincent Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham, UK, who co-led the effort.
Take the cursus, a 3-kilometre-long, 100-metre-wide ditch north of Stonehenge that was thought to act as barrier. The team’s mapping uncovered gaps in the cursus leading to Stonehenge, as well as several large pits, one of which would have been perfectly aligned with the setting solstice Sun. New magnetic and radar surveys of the Durrington Walls (which had been excavated before) uncovered more than 60 now-buried holes in which stones would have sat, and a few stones still buried.
“They look as they may have been pushed over. That’s a big prehistoric monument which we never knew anything about,” says Gaffney, who calls the structure a ‘super henge.’ His team will discuss the work at the British Science Festival this week, and they plan to present it to the institutions that manage the site. “I’m sure it will guide future excavations,” Gaffney says.