A team of geoscientists and archaeologists found hundreds of large prehistoric pits while conducting a geophysical survey of the land around Stonehenge, a world heritage site in southwestern England. Many of the pits predate Stonehenge by thousands of years.
They’re hardly the first hole-y sites in the area. Three white splotches in Stonehenge’s old parking lot mark the places where large wooden posts protruded from the ground during the Mesolithic period, around 10,000 years ago. In 2020, a different team of researchers found 20 pits about 2 miles east of Stonehenge, some of which contained bone and pieces of struck flint. Those pits were arranged in a large arc, forming the largest-yet-found Neolithic site in Britain.
The ages of the newly discovered pits range from 8200 BCE to around 1300 BCE, making some as old as the Mesolithic wooden postholes and others younger than Stonehenge itself, which was constructed around 2500 BCE. The large timeframe in which the holes were dug indicates a long history of excavation among the prehistoric people of modern-day Wiltshire. The team’s research describing the pits was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“By combining new geophysical survey techniques with coring, and pin point excavation, the team has revealed some of the earliest evidence of human activity yet unearthed in the Stonehenge landscape,” said Nick Snashall, an archaeologist for the Stonehenge & Avebury World Heritage Site and a co-author of the paper, in a University of Birmingham release.
According to the release, the size and shapes of the pits indicate they may have been used as hunting traps for the large animals that roamed Mesolithic England. Creatures like red deer, boar, and aurochs—a massive wild cattle species that went extinct about 400 years ago—may have been driven into the pits by human hunters.
Large-scale hunting traps pepper the human landscape of the last 10,000 years; if the pits were indeed used for hunting, they are similar to giant pit structures found elsewhere in Europe, like France and Germany. Mesolithic hunters around the world used various traps to catch prey, like the massive desert kites—essentially, stone corrals—in Saudi Arabia, which trapped animals guided into them.
The team found 415 pits in a square-mile region around Stonehenge. They used an electromagnetic surveyor, which can detect subsurface structures by measuring how electric fields travel through soil and bounce back to a sensor. Then, they sampled 62 of the sites, excavating nine of them, and figured out how old each pit was using radiocarbon dating.
“From early Holocene hunter-gatherers to later Bronze Age inhabitants of farms and field systems, the archaeology we’re detecting is the result of complex and ever-changing occupation of the landscape,” said Paul Garwood, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham and a co-author of the research, in the university release.
It’s not a shock that such a long-inhabited area of England has more secrets to divulge. But it’s exciting that, even at a famous and well-studied site like Stonehenge, there’s still more to discover.