In the biggest find yet in a project to map the landscape near Stonehenge, researchers have found a row of up to 90 standing stones — some of them nearly 15 feet tall. The huge stone assembly is less than 2 miles from Stonehenge; scientists say it could be as old or older than the famous monument.
The newly found Neolithic monument dates from around 4,500 years ago, researchers say, and it adds a new wrinkle to the Durrington Walls super-henge.
"We don't think there's anything quite like this anywhere else in the world," said lead researcher Vince Gaffney as his team unveiled their findings Monday at the British Science Festival. "This is completely new and the scale is extraordinary."
Using advanced scanning technology, the researchers found that Durrington Walls, the largest henge in Britain, has been hiding a large stone component beneath its well-known earthwork enclosure. Like Stonehenge, the much larger Durrington Walls was built to align with the solstice.
"Not only does this new evidence demonstrate a completely unexpected phase of monumental architecture at one of the greatest ceremonial sites in prehistoric Europe, says Gaffney, "the new stone row could well be contemporary with the famous Stonehenge sarsen circle or even earlier."
Comparing the two sites, Stonehenge's iconic circle is made of sarsen stones that are around 13 feet tall. Researchers say that while they haven't dug out any of the newly found stones, they expect to find that they are also sarsen — a type of sandstone block that's been found elsewhere in the region.
Gaffney adds that the discovery "has significant implications for our understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape setting."
The survey that found the slightly curved row of large rocks hidden beneath the banks of Durrington Walls used ground-penetrating radar and other technologies to find evidence of an earlier phase of building at the site.
Researchers believe the newly discovered stones were pushed over and covered by a large bank as part of the super-henge — an incident that might have helped preserve some of the stones.
"In the east up to 30 stones, measuring up to size of 4.5 m x 1.5 x 1 m, have survived below the bank whereas elsewhere the stones are fragmentary or represented by massive foundation pits," says professor Wolfgang Neubauer, director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology.
The new find is the most shocking of several revelations made by Gaffney and his colleagues in the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project. In 2010, they uncovered a "shadow Stonehenge" less than 3,000 feet from the famous monument. And last year, Gaffney described finding 17 ritual monuments in the same area.