This week, an international team of scientists working to map the landscape near Stonehenge announced a remarkable find—a huge monument, which is believed to be five times bigger than Stonehenge and may predate its famous neighbor. The site, dubbed “Superhenge,” was comprised of about 90 stones and lies less than two miles from Stonehenge, buried beneath the earthworks of a Neolithic settlement known as Durrington Walls.
The discovery was made by researchers from the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project, an international consortium led by scientists from the Universities of Birmingham and Bradford and Austria’s Ludwig Boltzmann Institute. The five-year project, the largest of its kind ever undertaken, has been using cutting-edge remote sensors and geophysical data to create a detailed archaeological map of the landscape surrounding Stonehenge.
Earlier studies of the area seemed to indicate that only Stonehenge and a similar, smaller henge located nearby had once been home to significant stone structures. The Durrington Walls site was thought to have been a short-lived prehistoric settlement, featuring several hundred homes and smaller timber circles and enclosures. This latest find turns that theory on its head. Speaking at the British Science Festival Monday, Vince Gaffney, the project’s co-lead, described the stunning find saying; “We don’t think there’s anything quite like this anywhere else in the world. This is completely new and the scale is extraordinary…This is archaeology on steroids.”
The roughly 320-foot-long, C-shaped site, which Gaffney believes was used as a “ritual arena” for religious ceremonies, directly faces the river Avon and is perfectly aligned with the sunrise on the winter solstice. Ground-penetrating radar has revealed about 30 intact stones at the site, some measuring nearly 15-feet-tall, buried 3 feet deep. Fragments, or massive foundation pits, for an additional 60 stones have also been detected. Although the site has not yet been excavated, researchers believe all of the stones are likely sarsens, a type of local sandstone that was also used for Stonehenge’s iconic circle.
The monument was likely built around 4,500 years ago, making it at least as old—and possibly older—than Stonehenge. While the stones once stood upright, they were knocked down, buried over and later incorporated into the embankment surrounding Durrington Walls, in what may have been an attempt to preserve them during a time of religious and social upheaval. Both the Superhenge site and another, smaller monument nearby were also aligned with a local natural landmark known as Beacon Hill, leading researchers to believe that residents of the area once worshiped features of the natural landscape, before transitioning into the sun-worshipping society for which Stonehenge is known.
There are currently no plans to excavate the site, but the find has already rocked the archaeological community. Nick Snashall, an archaeologist with the National Trust responsible for the Stonehenge site, said that the “work of the Hidden Landscapes team is revealing previously unexpected twists in its age-old tale.” And Paul Garwoood, a professor at the University of Birmingham and a member of the project noted that, “Everything written previously about the Stonehenge landscape and the ancient monuments within it will need to be re-written.”