In a discovery they claim could “rewrite” British history, archeologists have excavated the remains of an untouched Mesolithic encampment near the famed monument at Stonehenge. The finds include flint tools, animal bones and charcoal samples dating back to 4,000 B.C.—roughly 1,000 years before work on the enigmatic stone circle is believed to have begun. Experts claim the new discovery may provide concrete evidence that hunter-gatherers were settled in the Stonehenge region when Britain was still connected to the European continent, but they warn that a government plan to construct a traffic tunnel near the monument could do irreparable damage to their research.
The newly unearthed settlement sits at Blick Mead, an archaeological deposit located about 1.5 miles away from the mysterious monument at Stonehenge. During recent excavations in October 2014, researchers from Britain’s University of Buckingham discovered untouched samples of stone tools, flints and even evidence of possible Mesolithic structures—the only finds of their kind in the Stonehenge World Heritage site. After testing charcoal found at the site, scientists have now dated the encampment to around 4,000 B.C. The new revelations suggest that Blick Mead may have been a hive of activity long before ancient Britons built Stonehenge between 3,000 and 1,500 B.C.
“British pre-history may have to be rewritten,” archaeologist and dig leader David Jacques said in a University of Buckingham press release. “This is the latest-dated Mesolithic encampment ever found in the UK. Blick Mead site connects the early hunter gatherer groups returning to Britain after the Ice Age to the Stonehenge area all the way through to the Neolithic in the late 5th Millennium B.C.”
For years, archeologists believed that the area surrounding Stonehenge was largely uninhabited before its construction, but the Blick Mead encampment is fresh proof that the region may have already been a prehistoric meeting place. The site is nestled near a bend in the River Avon, which would have served as a vital waterway in ancient Britain, and it contained a valuable natural spring. The team also found evidence of ancient feasting in the form of auroch carcasses—giant extinct cattle that were once a cherished staple of the hunter-gatherer diet. The animal bones and other evidence suggest that the region held special significance even before the building of Stonehenge, and that its later residents may have been responsible for hoisting the first stones on the Salisbury Plain as a monument to their ancestors.
Blick Mead, also known as “Vespasian’s Camp,” has previously proven to be a treasure trove of artifacts related to the early history of Stonehenge. A 2013 dig led by Jacques uncovered thousands of tools and established the nearby town of Amesbury as the oldest continually habited site in England. According to Jacques, these discoveries link the encampment to hunter-gatherer groups that migrated to Britain after the Ice Age—a time when England was still connected to the European continent by a landmass known as Doggerland. “The site is the repository of the earliest British stories,” he told The Times, “connecting a time when the country was joined to the mainland to it becoming the British Isles for the first time.”
Despite the historical importance of Blick Mead, many are now concerned that further study of the site could be threatened by new road construction plans in the Stonehenge region. Cars zipping along the nearby A303 highway have long been considered an eyesore for visitors to the monument, and earlier this month, the British government announced that it would reduce traffic and noise pollution by building a 1.8-mile-long underground tunnel. English Heritage and the National Trust—the groups that manage the Stonehenge World Heritage Site—have hailed the project as a breakthrough for tourism, but critics warn that the tunnel could become a kind of dam that would drastically change the area’s water table and cause irrevocable damage to sites such as Blick Mead.
Director of the Council for British Archeology Mike Heyworth told the Guardian that the proposed building plan “would have major implications for the archaeology—we should be asking whether a major expansion of the roads network at Stonehenge just to meet traffic needs is the most appropriate way to deal with such a site.” David Jacques reserved even harsher criticism for the project. “Our only chance to find out about the earliest chapter of Britain’s history could be wrecked if the tunnel goes ahead,” he said. “[British Prime Minister David Cameron] is interested in re-election in 140 days—we are interested in discovering how our ancestors lived six thousand years ago.”
Amid the controversy, archaeologists remain hopeful that further digging at Blick Mead will fill in crucial gaps in their understanding of Stonehenge. More than a million visitors flock to marvel at the monument each year, yet researchers still know frustratingly little about how or why it was built. A wealth of graves and bones in the region suggest that ancient Britons may have used it as a burial site for their revered dead, but other theories have speculated that the stone arrangements may have been a place of healing or even a giant astronomical calendar. For Professor Jacques, the newly discovered encampment could be the key to finally unlocking the monument’s millennia-old secrets. “Blick Mead could explain what archaeologists have been searching for for centuries,” he said, “an answer to the story of Stonehenge’s past.”