The strange, solitary rock formation at Stonehenge has long puzzled historians and archeologists alike. But thanks to an unprecedented new discovery, researchers have discovered that Stonehenge wasn’t nearly as solitary as it seems today. In fact, it was just one small piece of a sprawling landscape of temples, burial grounds and buildings.
The discoveries announced Wednesday included hundreds of burial mounds and 17 ritual monuments, one of which was a massive wooden structure believed to be a “house of the dead.” Researchers also suspect that an almost mile-long “superhenge” was once present at Durrington Walls, composed of as many as 60 massive wood or stone columns — which may still be buried there.
“Nobody had any idea this was here,” lead scientist and professor of landscape archaeology at the University of Birmingham Vince Gaffney said in the announcement. “Instead of a monument in isolation, we find that Stonehenge was part of a rich monumental landscape.”
The 4,000-year-old circle of stones on Salisbury Plain in England had mystified and intrigued visitors and researchers for years. “Stonehenge is where archaeology got its start,” archeologist Nicola Snashall told National Geographic. “Antiquarians like John Aubrey and Inigo Jones began digging here in the 17th century to try to unlock its secrets—some of the world’s very first archaeological excavations.”
Of course, Aubrey and Jones didn’t have the technology available to the researchers of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project, which aims to create a 3-D, high-resolution underground map of the plains around Stonehenge.
Ground-penetrating radar has been leading the charge in a wave of unprecedented archeological findings. GPR was used earlier this year to uncover atypical and previously undiscovered slave barracks in Maryland, and a GPR search will soon be conducted to locate the remains of King Harold at a church in Waltham Abbey, Essex. A series of temples suspected to predate Stonehenge was discovered in Orkney using GPR.
Ground-penetrating radar is a geophysical survey method that images the subsurface using radar pulses. The project at Stonehenge features the most extensive and ambitious use of the technology to date, mapping over 3,000 acres to a depth of about 10 feet.
“Technology is opening doors for archaeology we could only dream about 15 years ago,” Gaffney told National Geographic, comparing the project to a 3-D underground mapping project he participated in at Wroxeter in the late 90s. “Back then, it took us four years to map 78 hectares, with about 2.5 million data points. With this latest survey at Stonehenge, we were doing that much in a week, [finding] new types of monument that had 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.”
Researchers hope to use this information to better understand the purpose of the Stonehenge monument and the cultures that lead to its creation.