Archaeologists discover 15 structures buried around Stonehenge
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Image: Edward Haylan/Shutterstock

Stonehenge has always held plenty of mystery for researchers. For starters, what was the roughly 5,000-year-old site built for? And how were the 4-8 tonne bluestones that created it transported almost 300 km from Wales?

Now the four-year Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project has revealed there may have been much more going on at the monument than we previously thought.

Led by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology, the study used non-destructive radar and 3D laser scanning to image the ground within a 10 km2 radius of Stonehenge, and has revealed 15 previously hidden monuments.

The structures appear to include hedges, barrows, segmented ditches and pits, some of which had been detected before but never studied, and some of which were completely new to researchers. While some of these monuments may have originally been built underground, others may have only become covered up by erosion or the gradual production of soil by earthworms.

There is still much to find out about the new structures, which so far scientists have only seen through these scans, but the discovery changes everything we thought we knew about Stonehenge.

Vince Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham in the UK, who was involved in the project, told Ed Caesar, a journalist for The Smithsonian: “There was sort of this idea that Stonehenge sat in the middle and around it was effectively an area where people were probably excluded, a ring of the dead around a special area — to which few people might ever have been admitted....Perhaps there were priests, big men, whatever they were, inside Stonehenge having processions up the Avenue, doing...something extremely mysterious. Of course that sort of analysis depends on not knowing what’s actually in the area around Stonehenge itself. It was terra incognita, really.”

One of the key finds is a trough through an East-West ditch known as a “Cursus”. This Cursus monument is believed to align with the sunrise on the Spring and Fall equinoxes, and Gaffney told The Smithsonian it's possible this newly discovered trough could have allowed people to ceremonially process into the centre of Stonehenge.

“…The area has been absolutely transformed by this survey. Won’t be the same again,” said Gaffney. However, he admits that until they begin to dig in the area, they won’t know exactly what the structures are and what their purpose was. Of course, excavation in one of the UK’s most popular venues and tourist spots could prove tricky.

Last year, research revealed that the area around Stonehenge is the oldest continually occupied region in Britain, and may have been lived on since 8820 BC. It’s hoped that more information on Stonehenge and its original purpose might shed some light on the cultures that previously existed here.

Find out more about the survey in Ed Caesar's story in the September issue of The Smithsonian, and tune into the press conference from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute on September 9.