History

'Superhenge' Found Buried Near Stonehenge: Photos

Newly found remains of massive Neolithic stone monument are thought to have been hauled into position more than 4,500 years ago.

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A row of huge stones stood some 4,000 years ago just two miles from Stonehenge, dwarfing the iconic stone circle. Dubbed "Superhenge," the site is five times bigger than the iconic stone circle and lies buried three feet beneath a thick, grassy bank at a Stone-Age enclosure known as Durrington Walls.

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"We're looking at one of the largest stone monuments in Europe and it has been under our noses for something like 4,000 years," Vince Gaffney, chair in Landscape Archaeology and Geomatics at the University of Birmingham, said. "We don't think there's anything quite like this anywhere else in the world. This is completely new and the scale is extraordinary," he said. Gaffney announced the finding at the opening of the ongoing British Science Festival.

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Image: Artist reconstruction of the standing stones at Durrington Walls.

Lesser known than Stonehenge, Durrington Walls was the site of a large Neolithic settlement and later a henge enclosure measuring 1,600 feet in diameter. It is surrounded by a ditch up to 57 feet wide and an outer bank about 131 feet wide and three feet high. The henge, thought to have been built around 4,500 years ago, surrounds several smaller enclosures and timber circles, yet no one had imagined it concealed the massive stone structure, as shown by the yellow circles in the picture.

PHOTOS: Intricate Treasures From Stonehenge Burial

Image: The route of the stone row (yellow circles) at Durrington Walls.

The massive prehistoric site was identified by the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes international team, led by Birmingham and Bradford Universities and Austria's Ludwig Boltzmann Institute. The five-year project, which is the largest geophysical survey ever undertaken, used advanced geophysical technologies such as powerful ground-penetrating radar, which can detect buried features to a depth of up to 13 feet.

Image: Running the radar near Stonehenge.

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The remote sensing technologies revealed evidence of a row made up of 90 standing stones, some of which may have originally stood up to 15 feet high.

Image: Green circles show the position of the stone row.

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At some point, the stones were deliberately pushed over and covered with a huge bank of earth and chalk, under which they still lie. "In the east up to 30 stones, measuring up to size of 15 feet, have survived below the bank whereas elsewhere the stones are fragmentary or represented by massive foundation pits," co-director Wolfgang Neubauer of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology, said.

Image: A rendition of the superhenge after the stones were pushed over and buried under a bank of earth and chalk.

The archaeologists concluded that the huge stones were part of a C-shaped Neolithic arena that faced directly towards the Avon River. The finding, according to co-director Gaffney, has significant implications for our understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape setting. "Not only does this new evidence demonstrate a completely unexpected phase of monumental architecture at one of the greatest ceremonial sites in prehistoric Europe, the new stone row could well be contemporary with the famous Stonehenge sarsen circle or even earlier," Gaffney said.

Image: A rendition of the Durrington Wall's horseshoe.

Photos: Intricate Treasures From Stonehenge Burial

It's not yet clear whether or not the buried stones will be excavated. "Archaeological excavations may play an important role in proving these findings. We will await any academic proposals and consider them," an English Heritage spokesman told The Guardian.

Image: The buried stones.

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Previous intensive study of the area around Stonehenge had led archaeologists to believe that only the enigmatic stone circle and a smaller henge at the end of the Stonehenge Avenue had significant stone structures. The new findings show Stonehenge wasn't standing in splendid isolation on the edge of Salisbury Plain. On the contrary, it was the center of a large and rich ceremonial landscape. "Everything written previously about the Stonehenge landscape and the ancient monuments within it will need to be re-written," Paul Garwood, the principal prehistorian on the project at the University of Birmingham, said.

Image: A close up of stone circle at Stonehenge.