Researchers say they've found two pits to the east and west of Stonehenge that may have played a role in an ancient midsummer ceremony. The discovery suggests that the 5,000-year-old circle of stones we see today may represent just a few of the pieces in a larger geographical, astronomical and cultural puzzle.
The previously undetected pits could provide clues for solving the puzzle.
"These exciting finds indicate that even though Stonehenge was ultimately the most important monument in the landscape, it may at times not have been the only, or most important ritual focus, and the area of Stonehenge may have become significant as a sacred site at a much earlier date," Vince Gaffney, an archaeology professor at the University of Birmingham, said in a news release issued over the weekend.
The pits, which measure about 16 feet (5 meters wide) and at least 3 feet (1 meter) deep, have been covered over for centuries and can't easily be spotted on the ground. But they showed up in a survey that was conducted using non-invasive mapping techniques such as ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry. The survey is part of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project, which was initiated last year with backing from the University of Birmingham's IBM Visual and Spatial Technology Center and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Vienna.
The placement of the pits is intriguing: They were found on the eastern and western sides of the Cursus, a racetrack-style enclosure north of Stonehenge itself that spans 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) from east to west and is up to 100 yards (meters) wide. From the perspective of an observer standing at the Heel Stone, a massive upright stone just outside Stonehenge's main circle, the sun would rise just above the eastern pit on the day of the summer solstice, which is the longest day of the year. The same observer would see the sun set that evening in line with the western pit.
Archaeologists have previously noted that the Cursus was apparently created several hundred years before Stonehenge's 5,000-year-old stone circle was erected. The newly detected pits may have been part of a grand layout that guided the placement of the standing stones.
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