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‘Remarkable’ new discovery near Stonehenge stuns archaeologists

A circle of mysterious but mathematically precise underground shafts built around 4,500 years ago indicates surprising technological ability.


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Despite being studied by scientists and archaeologists for decades, Britain’s famous Stonehenge prehistoric monument is continuing to throw up more questions and create new mysteries.

The latest discovery, described as “astonishing” and “remarkable” by the scientific community, was announced this week.

The timing of the announcement is just days after the traditional summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge had to be cancelled due to the ban on mass gatherings prompted by COVID-19. The site is positioned in relation to the solstices, which occur twice a year and are the extreme limits of the sun’s movement.

Circle of shafts about 2km in diameter

Now researchers have discovered that, around 4,500 years ago, the same Neolithic (the “new” Stone Age which began about 12 000 years ago) peoples who constructed Stonehenge also dug a series of shafts nearby that are aligned to form a circle spanning 2km in diameter.

These seem to mark the boundary of a sacred area around a circular monument known as the Durrington Walls henge. When archaeologists realised the shafts made a rough circle they were amazed at the mathematical precision required to achieve this over such a wide area and at a time when technology was so limited.

Shafts are more than 5m deep and 10m in diameter

The shafts are vast — each more than 5m deep and 10m in diameter. Approximately 20 have been found and there may have been more than 30 shafts originally. About 40% of the circle is no longer available for study as a consequence of modern development, the Guardian newspaper reported.

“This is an unprecedented find of major significance within the UK. Key researchers on Stonehenge and its landscape have been taken aback by the scale of the structure and the fact that it hadn’t been discovered until now so close to Stonehenge,” said archaeologist Professor Vincent Gaffney.

“The size of the shafts and circuit surrounding Durrington Walls is currently unique,” he added. “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.”

Shows Neolithic peoples had unexpected mathematical ability

According to the Guardian, the discovery, announced on Monday, is all the more extraordinary because it offers the first evidence that the early inhabitants of Britain, mainly farming communities, had developed a way to count.

Constructing something of this size, with such careful positioning of its features, could only have been done by tracking hundreds of paces.

While Stonehenge was positioned in relation to the solstices, Gaffney said the newly discovered circular shape suggests a “huge cosmological statement and the need to inscribe it into the earth itself”.