Hi-tech archaeology unlocks Stonehenge secrets
Ground-breaking technology has revealed the complexity of the world’s most famous neolithic stones and the surrounding area. But doesn’t our fascination with Stonehenge lie in its mystery?
Thousands of years ago, a circle of enormous standing stones was constructed on the vast expanse of Salisbury Plain in southern England. Known as Stonehenge, for centuries it has awed and perplexed humans. Just last week, the US president Barack Obama visited the site, commenting that he can now 'tick it off his bucket list’. But the centuries-old questions remain. Who built it? How did they build it? And why?
Archaeologists tried to answer these questions. Carbon dating showed that the stones were erected around 3100 BC. But not a great deal else was known about them. Until now, it had been assumed that Stonehenge was a relatively isolated feature of Britain’s prehistoric landscape.
But a ground-breaking new body of research from a coalition of British universities and a group of engineers in Vienna has changed our understanding of the stones forever. After four years of work, they conclude that the area in fact teemed with similar ancient constructions, including burial mounds, massive pits and ritual shrines.
Using sophisticated equipment, including ground-penetrating radar and a 3D laser scanner, scientists have been able to survey the ground beneath Stonehenge and its surroundings to a depth of three metres.
Among their discoveries are the remains of 17 henge-like Neolithic and Bronze Age religious monuments, along with a 33m-long timber building about 6,000 years old, possibly used for ritual burials. Even more exciting is the identification of a ‘superhenge’: a 330-metre line of more than 50 massive stones or pillars up to three metres in height.
The discovery of two pits about 5m in diameter and 1.5m deep inside what is known as the Cursus, has shone light on the positioning of Stonehenge. At the Summer solstice, the eastern pit’s alignment with the sunrise and the western pit’s alignment with the sunset intersect at the location where Stonehenge would be built some 400 years later.
Some say that the enduring appeal of Stonehenge lies in its mystery, that has fuelled imaginations for centuries and encouraged some wild theories, including druids, UFOs, armies of giants and wizards. We don’t need to understand everything about the past to appreciate it. With too many facts, the magic will vanish.
But others disagree, arguing that archaeological science only improves our knowledge of the past, and of our origins, making it more sophisticated — and less silly. As a result, we know far more about how our distant ancestors lived and thought about the world. This makes a real connection to them over thousands of years — which is far more magical than just making up stories.
- What aspect of Stonehenge do you find most intriguing?
- Who do you think built Stonehenge — and what is it for?
- Try and imagine what the area around Stonehenge would have looked like based on this new research and draw a picture.
- Do some research and find another important archaeological discovery from anywhere in the world that excites you. Write a short presentation for the class.
Some People Say...
“It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.’David Hurst Thomas”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Where did the stones come from?
- The stones, which weigh between four and eight tonnes each, came from Wales, 150 miles to the west. But no one is sure whether they arrived by land or sea. Current theories suggest that it took dozens of men to carry each stone on wooden lattices to the site.
- What has been discovered at the site?
- The remains of 3,000-year-old bodies have been found, along with a mace-head and a bowl for burning incense, which leads some to believe Stonehenge was an ancient burial site. Others say it was a place for healing, as some bodies show signs of illness or injury. Archaeological evidence also suggests that pigs were sacrificed there.
- Barack Obama
- The US President paid a visit to Stonehenge on his way home from the Nato summit in Wales.
- Carbon dating
- A way of determining the age of an object by using the properties of radiocarbon, a radioactive isotope of carbon.
- Prehistoric landscape
- The stone circle was erected in the late Neolithic period — or New Stone Age. It remained important into the early Bronze Age, when many burial mounds were built nearby.
- A rectangular space, 3km long and 100m wide, marked out by ditches. It predates the first building work at Stonehenge by several hundred years. It was given its name because of its similarities to an ancient Roman race course.
- Summer solstice
- The longest day of the year — usually between June 20-22 — when the sun is at its highest point in the northern hemisphere.
- Questionable theories have been around since the Middle Ages. Some believed the wizard Merlin constructed the site. More recently, theories concerning aliens and UFOs have been popular.