Stonehenge "may never be the same again" as new digital map reveals stunning hidden archaeology

By Richard Moss | 09 September 2014

A new digital mapping project is set to revolutionise our understanding of Stonehenge

A digital distribution map of new monuments discovered around Stonehenge.
Distribution map of new monuments discovered around Stonehenge.© LBI ArchPro, Wolfgang Neubauer
It’s probably fair to say that Stonehenge is the most theorised and argued over prehistoric monument in the world. But the wider ritual landscape of the iconic standing stones of Salisbury Plain have yet to give up all of their secrets.

Now, thanks to an unprecedented remote sensing and mapping project described by experts as the largest of its kind, many of these secrets are about to be unlocked as a host of previously unknown archaeological monuments have been identified and plotted onto the most detailed archaeological digital map ever produced of the Stonehenge landscape.

The new map includes fascinating information on the world’s largest "super henge", Durrington Walls, together with the location of 17 previously unknown ritual monuments dating to the period when Stonehenge achieved its iconic shape.

Called the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, the research has been led by the University of Birmingham in conjunction with the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection.

It utilised a mixture of non-invasive geophysics and remote sensing including ground-penetrating radar arrays and high-resolution magnetometers by a team of specialists in British prehistory and landscape archaeology.

The results allowed archaeologists to plot hundreds of new features, including dozens of burial mounds and a long barrow dating to before Stonehenge.

The latter revealed a massive timber building that the team believe was probably used for the ritual inhumation of the dead following a complicated sequence of exposure and excarnation (defleshing), and which was finally covered by an earthen mound.

At Durrington Walls, situated a short distance from Stonehenge, archaeologists have identified an early phase when the immense ritual monument was flanked with a row of massive posts or stones, perhaps up to three metres high and up to 60 in number.

It is thought some of them may still survive beneath the massive banks surrounding the monument.

a digital image showing a smiley face
Stonehenge Smiley face (yes that really is a prehistoric ring ditch with internal or earlier features)© LBI ArchPro
Other types of monument revealed by the survey include substantial prehistoric pits, some of which appear to form astronomic alignments.

The project has also revealed new information on hundreds of burial mounds, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman settlements and even First World War training trenches at a level of detail never previously seen.

Describing the project as “unique at a global level”, British project leader Professor Vincent Gaffney, Chair in Landscape Archaeology and Geomatics at the University of Birmingham, said it had revolutionised how archaeologists use new technologies to interpret the past and transformed experts' understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape.

“This project has revealed that the area around Stonehenge is teeming with previously unseen archaeology and that the application of new technology can transform how archaeologists and the wider public understand one of the best-studied landscapes on Earth," he explained.

“New monuments have been revealed, as well as new types of monument that have previously never been seen by archaeologists. All of this information has been placed within a single digital map, which will guide how Stonehenge and its landscape are studied in the future.

“Stonehenge may never be the same again.”

Archaeologists are now working towards using the highly detailed archaeological map of the ‘invisible’ landscape of Stonehenge as a starting point for the creation of “total digital models”.

The aim is to transcend the immediate surrounds of individual monuments within the study area and tie them together within a seamless map of sub-surface and surface archaeological features and structures.

The research and the new digital map were revealed this week at the British Science Festival, and will be featured in a major new BBC Two series titled Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath, screening on Thursday September 10.

Click below to see the digital map in more detail together with further images from the project

Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath broadcasts on BBC Two at 8pm on Thursday September 11. The documentary will also be broadcast in the US (Smithsonian Channel), Canada (CBC), Austria (ORF), Germany (ZDF) and France (France 5).

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More from Culture24's coverage of Stonehenge:

Moving on from Stonehenge: Researchers make the case for archaeoastronomy

In Pictures: The new £2.4 million Wessex Gallery of Archaeology at Salisbury Museum

Neolithic houses showed Stonehenge residents as talented builders, recreators say

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So glad they are finding ways to study deeper levels without destroying those above them.
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