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Stonehenge finds hint at rituals far more ancient than the stones

Engima of the 'Heel Stone' partially unravelled

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Scientists using the latest in modern boffinry to peel back the layers of time report that they have made important new discoveries at Stonehenge, hinting that the site was already a very ancient centre of ritual when the stones were erected more than 5,000 years ago.

In particular, archaeologists are excited by the discovery of two pits on the ancient "Cursus" pathway near Stonehenge. When viewed from the mysterious "Heel Stone" – which stands alone just outside the entrance to the henge proper – these pits are aligned with the positions of sunrise and sunset at the midsummer solstice, arguing that they played a role in celestially-based rituals. It's thought that the pits may have held large standing stones, wooden poles or totems, or perhaps been used for ceremonial fires.

"This is the first time we have seen anything quite like this at Stonehenge," enthuses archaeology professor Vince Gaffney.

"It provides a more sophisticated insight into how rituals may have taken place within the Cursus and the wider landscape. 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.

“It now seems likely that other ceremonial monuments in the surrounding landscape were directly articulated with rituals at Stonehenge. It is possible that processions within the Cursus moved from the eastern pit at sunrise, continuing eastwards along the Cursus and, following the path of the Sun overhead, and perhaps back to the west, reaching the western pit at sunset to mark the longest day of the year. Observers of the ceremony would have been positioned at the Heel Stone, on which the two pits are aligned.”

Another new discovery has also been made, of a horseshoe-shaped ring of pits northeast of the main site, thought perhaps to have been a minor shrine or outlying building of some type.

The new finds were made not by physically digging up the area, but rather by tying together a range of different geophysical imaging techniques in a so-called "virtual excavation" by a combined team of international boffins including those of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Vienna and the IBM Visual and Spatial Technology Centre (VISTA) at Birmingham uni. The new IT-heavy archaeology methods deliver improved results, according to Prof Gaffney and his colleagues.

There's more on the discoveries from Birmingham uni here. ®

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