History Stories

An unprecedented 40 days without rainfall exposed the perfectly circular outline of what was likely an ancient meeting place.

There didn’t seem many secrets left to find in the Brú na Bóinne archaeological landscape, an extensively researched Unesco World Heritage Site about 30 miles north of Dublin and one of the world’s most important prehistoric sites. Last week, however, a near-unprecedented 40 days without rainfall revealed the remains of a 5,000-year-old monument on the site, etched into an Irish field like a scar.

Anthony Murphy is a local author and photographer who runs the Mythical Ireland website, dedicated to Ireland’s ancient myths, monuments and cosmology. A few weeks into the drought, the New York Timesreported, Murphy and a friend, Ken Williams, sent a camera-enabled drone soaring across the area. They wondered whether the unusual weather conditions might reveal something new—perhaps even the remnants of a henge, forgotten for thousands of years. Like the United Kingdom’s famous Stonehenge, henges are man-made rings that stretch across the landscape and date from thousands of years ago. They are thought to have served as meeting places for Neolithic people.

Murphy had flown the drone over that same field many times before—but this time, it showed them something quite different. “We knew fairly quickly that this was something that hadn’t been seen before, and I think we both knew it was something very special,” Mr. Murphy told the Times. The field was arid and dry, bleached to a light gold by the sun. But there, as visible as ink on paper, was the traced outline of a vast henge, picked out in green.

These circles, archaeologists say, suggest that the field’s first Neolithic farmers may have plunged large timber posts into the soil. The wooden stakes held moisture for longer, which would then make the area around them lusher and better able to cope with a lack of rain. It’s been millennia since the posts rotted away, but the soil still shows the traces of this agricultural innovation.

The find, said Michael MacDonagh, the chief archaeologist for Ireland’s National Monuments Service, was jaw-dropping: a “once-in-a-lifetime” discovery that “adds greatly to our knowledge of this magical archaeological landscape.” The ring is nearly 500 feet in diameter, or roughly 4.5 acres, and potentially large enough to hold thousands of people. Five thousand years on, only its green shadow remains to show where early Irish people once thronged by the hundred.

The site is on a privately owned field, but the National Monuments Service says it plans further research into the the discovery, in consultation with the owner. Murphy, for his part, is still reeling from the discovery. “I thought the archaeologists had discovered everything there was to be revealed,” he said. But whether there are still more treasures to be found beneath that scorched grass remains to be seen.

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