Widely believed to be the most intensively investigated prehistoric site in the world, Stonehenge has forever held a place of mystery and never-ending curiosity in the minds of human beings everywhere. Now a group of researchers conducting the first ever electromagnetic induction survey of the area have discovered a hidden network of large Stonehenge pits, used for hunting, arranged around a huge circle with Woodhenge and Durrington Hills at its center, about 1.25-1.86 miles (2-3 kilometers) northeast of Stonehenge itself. The results of their excavations have been published in the latest edition of the Journal of Archaeological Sciences .
The Stonehenge Pits: How Science Found Huge Hunting Evidence
One of the Stonehenge pits was the largest of its kind ever found in western Europe 13 feet (4 meters) wide and 6.5 feet (2 meters) deep. Dug into chalk bedrock, it was the most ancient trace of land use yet discovered at Stonehenge, dated to 10,000 years ago. Thousands of smaller hunting pits have also been discovered in the vicinity. Evidence has been collected from over 60 geoarchaeological boreholes, 20 targeted archaeological excavations, and computer-generated analyses of thousands of subsurface features.
Philippe De Smedt, associate professor at Ghent University, described the study in the University of Birmingham press release :
“Geophysical survey allows us to visualize what’s buried below the surface of entire landscapes. The maps we create offer a high-resolution view of subsurface soil variation that can be targeted with unprecedented precision. Using this as a guide to sample the landscape, taking archaeological ‘biopsies’ of subsurface deposits, we were able to add archaeological meaning to the complex variations discovered in the landscape.”
These are just a few of the Stonehenge pits found using high technology and then digging. These pits, mostly located a little northeast of the Stonehenge monument, were used by Mesolithic hunter-gathers about 10,000 years ago. ( University of Birmingham )
The BBC reports that the archaeological team, from the University of Birmingham, England, and the University of Ghent, Belgium, dated these pits to somewhere between 8200 BC and 7800 BC. At this time in history, in the early Mesolithic period after the last Ice Age, hunter-gatherers roamed the landscape around Stonehenge and most of Great Britain. While the exact usage of the large pits is yet to be ascertained, scientists speculate that the size and shape point to hunting traps for large game such as aurochs, red deer, and wild boar.
Paul Garwood, senior lecturer in prehistory at the University of Birmingham added that, “The traces we see in our data span millennia, as indicated by the 7,000-year timeframe between the oldest and most recent prehistoric pits we’ve excavated. From early hunter-gatherers to later Bronze Age inhabitants of farms and field systems, the archaeology we’re detecting is the result of the complex and ever-changing occupation of the landscape.”
What is particularly interesting is that through the various stages of occupation that the pits represent there is one form of continuity. These different locales all allowed extensive vistas that overlooked the Stonehenge monument. This research therefore allows for a reimagination of spatial extents, and an insight into the visual sensors that drove prehistoric behavior. It also allows for general historical discourse to move beyond the ceremonial purpose of the Stonehenge to include its adjoining landscape.
The countless Stonehenge pits lie on this large circular perimeter, with Woodhenge and the Durrington Walls in the center, which is about 500 meters (1,640 feet) northeast of Stonehenge itself at the closest point. (This map is upside down!) (YouTube screen shot / University of Bradford )
Collaboration Between Archaeologists and High-tech Scientists
Since 2017, the excavating team has been carrying out digs just to corroborate the accuracy of the geophysical survey mapping. This was a in a bid to combine the novel geophysical technology available at the time with traditional archaeological methods. All in all, a model was developed which helped in generating automated maps that traced prehistoric activity, intersecting with the contours of physical reality.
Finally, it became imperative to piece together information on chronology and function for understanding past human behavior, according to Henry Chapman, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Birmingham. This helped reveal that most of the large pits were repeatedly revisited over many centuries, particularly on the eastern and western sides of Stonehenge, which are at a higher elevation.
One of the key takeaways, according to Dr. Nick Snashall, archaeologist for the Stonehenge & Avebury World Heritage Site , was that prior to the erection of Stonehenge, this was a special site for prehistoric hunter-gathering communities from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. It is widely believed by archaeologists that Stonehenge was constructed between 3000 BC and 2000 BC, with the first bluestones raised around 2,400 BC. This has also been corroborated by radiocarbon dating.
Sensor technology and computer-based analysis, now an integral part of all archaeological research, was integrated at every stage with what was excavated physically. This helped map a timeline that provided information about culture, environment, and general chronological details.
This research methodology can be applied across a variety of sites, particularly ancient and prehistoric ones where information is not as easily available.
Top image: The collaboration of archaeologists and scientists in England led to the 2021 discovery of a large number of Stonehenge pits used for trapping big game about 10,000 years ago! The Stonehenge monument at sunset. Source: vencav / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey