Discovery of massive, Late Neolithic pit structure near Stonehenge
Recent fieldwork and analysis have revealed evidence for 20 or more massive, prehistoric shafts, measuring more than 10 metres in diameter and 5 metres deep. These shafts form a circle more than 2 kilometres in diameter and enclose an area greater than 3 square kilometres around the Durrington Walls henge, one of Britain’s largest henge monuments, and the famous, smaller prehistoric circle at Woodhenge.
Coring of the shafts provided radiocarbon dates indicating that these features are Neolithic and were excavated more than 4,500 years ago, around the time that Durrington Walls was constructed. Archaeologists believe that the shafts served as a boundary to a sacred area or precinct associated with the henge. The Neolithic period, which is associated with the first farmers in Britain, is characterised by the development of ornate, and occasionally very large, rituals structures and enclosures, including the great stone circle at Stonehenge. However, no comparative prehistoric structure in the UK encloses such a large area as the circle of shafts at Durrington, and the structure is currently unique.
Aside from the scale of the structure, the circuit of shafts has other surprising characteristics. The boundary appears to have been deliberately laid out to include an earlier prehistoric monument within the boundary - the Larkhill Causewayed Enclosure. This site was built more than 1,500 years before the henge at Durrington. This distance between the henge and earlier enclosure, more than 800 metres, seems to guide the placement of shafts around Durrington. The evidence for how these features were laid out is extremely important as implies that the early inhabitants of Britain used a tally or counting system to track pacing across long distances. Evidence for such careful planning, at such a scale, is unexpected and emphasises how important the positioning of these features was.
Archaeologists believe the effort invested in the circuit inscribed by the pits reflects an important cosmological link between these two ritual sites, and that the large shafts were dug to record what must have been an important, sacred boundary. The presence of such massive features, and perhaps an internal post line, guided people towards the religious sites within the circle or may have warned those who were not permitted to cross the boundary marked by the shafts.
Research on the pits at Durrington was led by the University of Bradford and undertaken by a consortium of archaeologists as part of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project. Partners include the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in cooperation with the Universities of Birmingham, St Andrews, Warwick, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (University of Glasgow). Work at Durrington was facilitated by the National Trust and supported by the University of Bradford Research Development Fund.
Full publication of research at Durrington has been published as an open access article by Internet Archaeology at - https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.55.4
Professor Wolfgang Neubauer (LBI ArchPro, University of Vienna) said “It is amazing that our seamless survey of the Stonehenge landscape, which applies the latest technology and extends over kilometres of countryside, has revealed major new features including these huge shafts. They are not only clearly visible in the geophysical data sets, the survey also provides the opportunity to place these features within a wider context comprising the many monuments associated with Stonehenge including the super-henge at Durrington Walls, three kilometres north-east from the iconic stone circle.”
Professor Vincent Gaffney (University of Bradford) said “The size of the shafts and circuit surrounding Durrington Walls is without precedent within the UK. It demonstrates the significance of Durrington Walls Henge, the complexity of the monumental structures within the Stonehenge landscape, and the capacity and desire of Neolithic communities to record their cosmological belief systems in ways, and at a scale, that we had never previously anticipated.