Stonehenge Didn't Stand Alone, Excavations Show

James Owen
for National Geographic News
January 12, 2007
Recent excavations of Salisbury Plain in southern England have revealed at least two other large stone formations close by the world-famous prehistoric monument.

One of the megalithic finds is a sandstone formation that marked a ritual burial mound; the other, a group of stones at the site of an ancient timber circle.

The new discoveries suggest that many similar monuments may have been erected in the shadow of Stonehenge, possibly forming part of a much larger complex, experts say.

Cremation Mound

The first monument—a 9.2-foot-long (2.8-meter-long) sarsen stone—was found lying in a field next to the River Avon, 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) east of Stonehenge, which is located near the modern-day city of Salisbury (United Kingdom map).

The riverside sarsen—large sandstone blocks that occur naturally in southern England—had been stood upright, archaeologists say, like the blocks that form the main structure of Stonehenge.

A team lead by Colin Richards of Manchester University and Joshua Pollard of Bristol University found the hole that originally held the stone, dug between 2500 and 2000 B.C., as well as human remains and artifacts that date to the same period.

The partially cremated remains of two people were buried next to the stone, Pollard said. One was a large male whose unburned vertebrae suggest he was at least 6 feet (182 centimeters) tall.

"Seemingly he was so big they weren't able to cremate him properly," the archaeologist noted. "The unburnt bone is the product of that poor process of cremation."

Stone knives and arrowheads, a piece of limestone carved into the shape of a megalith, two pottery bowls, and a rare rock crystal were also unearthed near the burial site.

The rock crystal find is the earliest known example from Britain and possibly came from as far away as the Alps, Pollard said.

Archaeologists have suggested that other prehistoric burials in the area were connected to mainland Europe, Pollard added.

Such a connection ties in with theories that Stonehenge was an important pilgrimage destination or a place where people traveled in the hope of miracle cures. (Related: "Pagans Get Support in Battle Over Stonehenge" [October 31, 2002].)

The megalithic burial site could also support theories that link Stonehenge and other standing stones to ancestor worship and commemorating the dead, Pollard added.

Circle of Stone

Pollard's team also found new evidence for stone settings at Woodhenge, a site 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) northeast of Stonehenge where a timber circle was constructed in about 2200 B.C.

Pollard said excavations in the 1920s hinted a stone monument may once have been present at the site.

"We were able to confirm last summer that there had been standing stones—some very considerable stones—at Woodhenge," he said.

While only fragments of the formation were found, the holes the stones were set in suggest the blocks stood up to 3 meters (9.8 feet) tall, Pollard said.

The team also found evidence for two phases of stone settings that probably came after the timber circle had rotted, he added.

"Four smaller stones were replaced by two much bigger sarsen settings," he said. "So it goes from a timber monument to being a megalithic monument, albeit not on the same scale as Stonehenge."

What happened to the stones at Woodhenge remains a mystery, Pollard added, though one possibility is that they were added to Stonehenge.

Network of Monuments

The research team says there is evidence from old maps and ancient sources for other similar monuments near Stonehenge.

"There may have been many smaller megalithic settings across this landscape," Pollard said.

"I think it's extremely likely there would have been other standing stones," particularly to the east, added Julian Thomas, professor of archaeology at Manchester University.

Such monuments would have had an important connection to Stonehenge, Thomas said. The stones and artifacts buried alongside the satellite monuments may have also played a symbolic role in spreading the authority of Stonehenge into the wider landscape.

"It was a way of referring to its powerfulness and to the importance and significance of the activities that are taking place at the henge and the people who are officiating," Thomas said.

He added that these latest finds show that Stonehenge shouldn't be seen in isolation.

"There's an overarching scheme of things which links Stonehenge to the broader landscape."

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