Beneath the landscape of Stonehenge, archaeologists have revealed hundreds of large hunting pits, indicating that humans have used this world-renowned prehistoric site for even longer than previously thought.
Archaeologists from the University of Birmingham and Ghent University in Belgium have used an array of geophysical sensors to get a glimpse of what lies beneath the landscape surrounding Stonehenge. Alongside more “conventional” archaeological techniques, the researchers also used electromagnetic induction instruments, which measure the electrical conductivity of the ground to create a picture of what’s hidden beneath the ground.
Report findings in the Journal of Archaeological Sciencesthe team discovered clear evidence of previously unknown prehistoric activity ranging from the Mesolithic to the Later Bronze Age at the site.
Among the finds, they found about 400 large pits, each over 2.5 meters (8 feet) in diameter, dating from the Early Mesolithic (8000 BCE) to the Middle Bronze Age (1300 BCE ).
The ancient Mesolithic pit is the oldest trace of land use ever found at Stonehenge. Dating to around 8200 BCE, researchers suspect the pit was used as a hunting trap for large game such as aurochs (extinct descendants of cattle), red deer and wild boar. Stonehenge was built in stages from 3000 BCE to 2000 BCE, but this pit shows humans were using the area more than 5,000 years ago.
In fact, the pits are even older than the nearby Blick Mead occupation site, 1.5 kilometers (less than 1 mile) away, and may be the largest known Early Mesolithic pit in northwestern Europe.
“By combining new geophysical surveying techniques with coring and point excavation, the team has revealed some of the earliest evidence of human activity yet to be discovered in the Stonehenge landscape,” mentioned Dr Nick Snashall, Archaeologist for Stonehenge & Avebury World Heritage Site.
“The discovery of the largest known Early Mesolithic pit in northwest Europe shows that it was a special place for hunter-gatherer communities thousands of years before the first stones erected,” commented Dr Snashall.
This latest research also indicates that Stonehenge has served a variety of functions over the millennia, and not just as the ceremonial site that we know of. For example, we know that for a significant part of its life, Stonehenge was used as a burial ground, as evidenced by the dozens of bodies found in the area. However, it seems to have been mainly used as a hunting ground during the early Mesolithic era.
“What we see is not a snapshot of a moment in time. The traces we see in our data span millennia, as indicated by the seven-thousand-year delay between the oldest and most recent prehistoric pits we have dug. From early Holocene hunter-gatherers to the inhabitants of Bronze Age farms and terrain systems, the archeology we detect is the result of a complex and ever-changing occupation of the landscape,” Paul explained. Garwood, author of the study and senior lecturer in prehistory at the University of Birmingham.