A new archeological discovery at the site of an ancient village near Stonehenge promises to offer significant clues about life more than 4,500 years ago in the Neolithic period and could even “write a whole new chapter in the story” of the celebrated structure’s landscape, experts say.
The find also makes the site the largest prehistoric structure in Britain and possibly in Europe, according to Vincent Gaffney, of the University of Bradford, an archeologist involved in the analysis.
“It has completely transformed how we understand this landscape – there is no doubt about it,” he said.
Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the English countryside, has long drawn visitors to admire its looming stone slabs, even as its origins and purpose are still being explored.
The study, published online Sunday, outlines the discovery of a large circle of shafts surrounding the ancient village – known as the Durrington Walls henge monument – about three kilometres from Stonehenge. The trenches, each of which is around 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep, are thought to have been part of a ritual boundary area between the two sites.
Uncovered through remote sensing technology and ground sampling, the discovery could amount to one of the most significant finds ever made at the site, archeologists and experts 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,” Nick Snashall, the National Trust archeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, said in a statement.
Calling the finding an “astonishing discovery,” she said it would “write a whole new chapter in the story of the Stonehenge landscape.”
Over the past decade, the ancient site at Stonehenge has been slowly revealing its secrets – as well as details about the lives of those who built it – owing largely to the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, a partnership among several universities and research institutions that was behind the latest discovery.
Stonehenge is positioned to align with the sunrise and sunset on the winter and summer solstices. And while the biggest questions about the structure – why was it built and what purpose did it serve? – have yet to be definitively answered, many experts say it was probably a sacred site that people visited for significant ceremonies, including burials.
The latest discovery was made using new techniques including a magnetic remote sensing survey of the area – technology that has both revolutionized experts’ understanding of the site and led to vast changes in archaeology in general, Prof. Gaffney said.
“People have been studying Stonehenge forever, and you shouldn’t be able to discover something this large still,” he said. “But it’s been made possible by the technology.”
Magnetometers allowed the archeologists to peer into the ground without digging and to survey tracts of land by attaching the devices to ATVs driven over miles of countryside.
Whereas much archeology in decades past relied on excavation to understand a site, these sensors allow a greater understanding of features that are unseen on the surface of the landscape, Prof. Gaffney said.
The result has been a growing insight into daily life experienced by people several millenniums ago.
“Stonehenge was for the dead; Durrington was for the living,” Prof. Gaffney said. “But now, what we are probably looking at was this great big boundary around them probably warning people of what they are approaching.”
He said that the pits had been set at a deliberate distance and that their locations would have had to be paced out from a central point. That is a significant clue about people living in the area at the time, he said, because it “means they could count” – making it among the earliest evidence for counting in what is now Britain.
Experts in English historical sites greeted the discovery with excitement but said that further exploration was required in order to fully grasp its significance.
Susan Greaney, a historian at English Heritage, which manages Stonehenge and hundreds of other historic sites, welcomed further investigation. She said in a statement that the research had “uncovered tantalizing hints of yet another new archeological feature in the Stonehenge landscape, this time on an extraordinary scale.”
Prof. Gaffney said that exploration would continue, but that there would be no rush to excavate.
“Remote sensing has taken us a long way,” he said, “and I think it’s going to take us further still.”
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