Published: 12:59 PM 7/22/2010
Contributor, Theunis Bates
AOL News LONDON (July 22) -- Stonehenge, that ancient and mysterious circle of giant obelisks on England's Salisbury Plain, may once have had a nearby wooden "twin," according to a pioneering new archaeological survey.
"The idea of finding something as significant and dramatic as this monument, so close to Stonehenge, is just brilliant," Henry Chapman, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham and a member of the team that made the discovery, told AOL News. "It will completely change the way we think about Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape."
The discovery of the timber henge (a term used to describe any British circular ritual site dating from 3,000 to 2,000 B.C.) was made by a multinational team of archaeologists, who started surveying the land around Stonehenge two weeks ago with sensors that provide a high-definition 3D view of what's under the ground. "Every time you excavate, you damage the site by moving material," Chapman says. "With the technology we use, such as ground-penetrating radar, there's no need to dig."
The sun rises behind Stonehenge in southern England on June 21. Nearby is so-called Woodhenge, a monument once composed of six rings of wooden posts enclosed by an earth embankment.
A week after they started examining the area, the team spotted what appeared to be a circle of 24 post holes under the ground, less that 3,000 feet to the northwest of Stonehenge. The ring measured about 82 feet in diameter -- just 17 feet less than Stonehenge -- and was enclosed by an inner ditch and possibly an outer bank.
"The post holes are up to a meter in diameter, which suggests that the timbers they'd have held would have been at least 10 feet high," Chapman says. He adds that the towering structure was likely built "about 4,500 years ago, on the basis of comparing it with similar sites." That's approximately the same time that Stonehenge's world-famous trilithons -- a prehistoric structure with two upright stone blocks supporting a third placed across the top -- were erected.
And curiously, the newly discovered monument mirrors a similar henge some 4,270 feet southeast of Stonehenge, which was first uncovered in 1937. Like the newly discovered site, that circle overlooks the ancient stone structure and has two entrances. All three henges appear to have been deliberately aligned.
The latest find throws into question previous assumptions about Britain's most famous ancient monument. "Many interpretations have traditionally placed Stonehenge at the center of the site in isolation," Chapman says. "But what we're seeing is that Stonehenge, when it entered its very grand phrase, wasn't the only structure in the area.
It was surrounded by other complex structures, that may have been used much like medieval cathedrals." So instead of being the focus of all the ancient folks' attention, Stonehenge was likely just one -- admittedly impressive -- part of the religious landscape.
As the ancient Britons didn't record their thoughts, we'll likely never know exactly why they built Stonehenge and its smaller siblings. But Chapman says the latest discovery offers an insight into their beliefs. He suggests that the "wood and stone" circles may have been placed close together as the two materials had intertwined "symbolic meanings" for Neolithic Brits.
That ties in with the thinking of Mike Parker Pearson, a Sheffield University archaeologist and henge expert, who has suggested that the wooden structures might have been associated with feasts for the living, while stone circles were realms of the dead.
The discovery of the new wooden henge is likely just the first of many surprise discoveries to come from Chapman and his fellow archaeologists. By 2014, they intend to have scanned about 5 square miles of land around Stonehenge, which will then be collated into a detailed map.
"I think in the next four years, we're going to have quite a different understanding of Stonehenge," Chapman says. "We're going to fill in the detail between the standing monuments, and hopefully by doing that, show the complexities and subtleties of the Neolithic people who were here."