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A new technique of underground scanning has brought archaeologists closer to unravelling the secrets of Stonehenge than ever before

What have the experts discovered?

They’re currently digesting the results of a remarkable four-year survey that has mapped not just Stonehenge, but the surrounding landscape too. Starting in 2009, geophysicists from the University of Birmingham and Austria’s Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology used a form of ground-penetrating radar to pick up on every prehistoric structure in a four-square-mile area. So far, they’ve uncovered 15 new monuments, plus new details about the sarsens (huge stones) and strange earthenworks of Britain’s most important, and enigmatic, ancient site, along with clues to how the complex fits together. “There is a form of connectivity in the landscape that we had not realised before,” says Dr Paul Garwood, of the University of Birmingham.

How do the finds relate to Stonehenge itself?

One of the great mysteries of Stonehenge has been how the stone-works relate to an even larger piece of Neolithic engineering: “the Greater Cursus”, a 1.8-mile-long rectangular ditch just 700m north that was dug hundreds of years earlier. (It got its name from an 18th century antiquarian who thought it must have been for Roman chariot races.) Underground scans have now revealed two huge pits, one at each end of the Cursus, which, on the summer solstice, align perfectly with the sunrise and sunset when seen from Stonehenge – suggesting they all formed one ceremonial construction. The survey has also uncovered a vast wooden henge (circular earthwork) two miles away at Durrington Walls, the ancient settlement where the builders of Stonehenge probably lived. At the site itself, there’s evidence of a cluster of small shrines that would have dotted the plain, and signs of human sacrifice.

When was Stonehenge built?

The stones themselves – the most prominent of which, the “Heel stone”, weighs some 35 tonnes – were pulled upright some time around 2500BC. But the story, and mythical significance, of the chalk downland near Amesbury goes back millennia further than that. Recent archaeological research has focused on the remains of three totem-like poles erected just 250m from Stonehenge, but some 5,000 years earlier, during the Mesolithic period. At the time, Britain was thickly forested, and the open plains would have been unusually good hunting ground. The bones of auroch, an extinct form of huge, wild cattle, have been found near the poles. A rare form of algae near Stonehenge also has the effect of making flint appear pink after it has been washed in local streams. “It would have been the most magical, extraordinary thing in the Mesolithics to see a transformation like this,” says David Jacques, one of the archaeologists who has taken part in the new study.

What activities occurred there?

In the earliest days, it’s hard to tell: the Mesolithic people, being hunter-gatherers, left no complex structures. In the next stage of social develop-ment, in which there were attempts to enclose the land (notably two circular ditches, 2.5 miles from Stonehenge, now known as “Robin Hood’s Ball”), it was clearly a place where much fighting took place, as well as elaborate spiritual rituals. One of the new survey’s discoveries has been a huge earth-covered barn – “Long Barrow”, that would have held the bones of the dead. (Bodies were “excarnated” – the flesh and organs removed, the skulls buried separately.) It wasn’t until the late Neolithic period, however, that there was sufficient social organisation and engineering skill to undertake big, communal building projects.

What kind of building projects?

Besides Stonehenge and Durrington Walls, the best example is probably the Cursus – the mysterious ditch to the north of the site. Digging the Cursus required the removal of 20,000 tonnes of earth, which would have been done with deer antlers and fine, flint axes imported from as far away as Norfolk. Likewise, research near Durrington Walls, suggests that up to 4,000 people might have lived there. The overall impression given by this survey is of a busy Stone Age network of tombs, monuments, shrines, and villages, and a people with sophisticated religious and medical practices – giving rise to the theory that Stonehenge at its peak might have been a place of healing.

How were people healed there?

One archaeological theory is that centuries, if not thousands of years, of religious worship around the site produced a permanent community of healers and medicine men, all offering their wares. Neolithic skulls excavated there even show evidence of brain surgery (a technique, still used, known as “trepanning”) in which a healer would have used a piece of flint to make a small hole in the skull. Many would probably have survived the operation, says Jackie McKinley, an archaeological forensic pathologist. Those subjected to other rituals were less fortunate. A skeleton found in 1978 in a Stonehenge ditch had been shot with six flint arrows, from two different angles, suggesting a form of human sacrifice. Children paid a price for the pomp and ceremony too (see box).

So what was Stonehenge for?

Four hundred years of digging at the giant stones still hasn’t determined the final answer: temple, computer, cemetery, hospital. “Each advance yields more questions and theories to be tested,” writes Ed Caesar about the new discoveries in Smithsonian magazine, “Our ignorance shrinks by fractions. What we know is always dwarfed by what we can never know.” But Professor Vince Gaffney, who led the study, suggests we now have a far better sense of its time (the different epochs of spiritual interest) and space. The many miles of strange, related monuments of Stonehenge reveal far more than the few iconic stones, which tell us almost nothing.

It will be years before “the testimony of the spade” (as Gaffney, calls it) is fully explored, but the early indications are astonishing.

“The work of the gods” (or children)

Stonehenge has puzzled historians for centuries. In 1620, the Duke of Buckingham had it dug up to reveal the skulls of cows “and other beasts”. In 1808, William Cunnington, a local wool merchant, teamed up with Richard Colt Hoare, who owned the site, to dig scores of nearby burial mounds. At the Bush Barrow, they found a dagger, whose wooden handle disintegrated into “a scatter of shining points of gold” when struck by a trowel. At the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, where the dagger ended up, the craftsmanship was said to be the “work of the gods”.

Only now, thanks to the BBC’s Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath, which broadcast the results of the research at the site, do we know how it was made. Originally, up to 140,000 tiny studs of gold decorated the dagger, each as fine as a human hair. Only children would have had eyesight sharp enough to do the work, and it would have left them partially blind. “There’d almost certainly have been a section of the Bronze Age artisan class who, often as a result of their childhood work, were myopic for their adult life,” says optics expert Ronald Rabbetts. “They’d therefore have been unable to do any other work apart from the making of tiny artefacts and would have had to be supported by the community at large.” ”

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