For the first time, a new discovery found by archaeologists at Stonehenge could provide a link in rituals between the ancient rock structure and the Cursus, a neolithic monument that consists of parallel banks with external ditches running next to Stonehenge.
What the archaeologists at the University of Birmingham and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology found, according to the university press release, are two large pits positioned in "celestial alignment." The researchers think the pits could have contained tall stones, wooden posts or fires to mark the rising and setting sun and could have been connected by a processional route used by agriculturalists to celebrate the summer solstice.
“This is the first time we have seen anything quite like this at Stonehenge and it provides a more sophisticated insight into how rituals may have taken place within the Cursus and the wider landscape," project leader Vince Gaffney said. "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.
“Other activities were carried out at other ceremonial sites only a short distance away. The results from this new survey help us to appreciate just how complex these activities were and how intimate these societies were with the natural world. The perimeter of the Cursus may well have defined a route guiding ceremonial processions which took place on the longest day of the year.”
The researchers hypothesize that processions within the Cursus could have moved from the eastern pit at sunrise following the path as the sun moved overhead and reaching the western pit at sunset marking the longest day of the year. Gaffney said that observers could have been positioned at the Heel Stone, which aligns the two pits.
“If you measure the walking distance between the two pits, the procession would reach exactly half-way at midday, when the sun would be directly on top of Stonehenge," said Henry Chapman, senior lecturer in archeology and visualization at the university. "This is more than just a coincidence, indicating that the exact length of the Cursus and the positioning of the pits are of significance.”
Check out this visualization of the latest findings at Stonehenge:
The new discoveries were made as part of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, a study which is using multiple geophysical imaging techniques to visually recreate the iconic prehistoric monument and its surroundings. It is a project that Wired.com notes has been deemed "the world's biggest-ever virtual excavation" and that these recent findings reveal that Stonehenge would not have been the only sacred structure at the site.
"This is just the beginning," Professor Wolfgang Neubauer, Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute, said according to VISTA's website. "We will now map this monument using an array of technologies that will allow us to view this new discovery, and the landscape around it, in three dimensions. This marks a new departure for archaeologists and how they investigate the past."
This post has been updated for clarity.