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Planet Earth

Lasers Reveal Underground Secrets of Stonehenge

New research finds that the story of this ancient site is far deeper than we thought — literally.

D-briefBy Carl EngelkingSeptember 11, 2014 8:55 PM
Stonehenge - Shutterstock
Stonehenge. (Credit: Fulcanelli/Shutterstock)

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Stonehenge was constructed more than 4,600 years ago, but its mysterious aura continues to fascinate scientists and Druids alike. Now, new research finds that the story of this ancient site is far deeper than we thought — literally.

British researchers used high-tech archaeological sensing techniques to reveal hundreds of new features hidden beneath the dirt in lands surrounding Stonehenge, including 17 previously unknown circular monuments. Far from a solitary structure, Stonehenge appears to have been just one part of a much larger landscape of shrines. The results are being announced in a BBC feature to air tonight.

Going Deep Without Digging

The archaeological team used six different techniques to scan a 4.5-square-mile swath of land around Stonehenge, both by air and land, beginning in 2010. Magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar allowed researchers to compile three-dimensional information about structures hidden beneath the dirt. From the sky, laser scanning built precise topographic maps of the ground’s surface.

monument distribution - stonehenge hidden landscapes project
This map shows the distribution of new monument discoveries. (Credit: Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project)

Seventeen smaller neolithic shrines were found scattered throughout the search area. Researchers’ data also revealed 60 huge stones and pillars that formed part of the previously identified “super henge” called Durrington Walls, Britain’s largest henge. Some of these stones were roughly 10 feet tall and likely stood upright like the iconic structure we all know. Durrington Walls is located roughly 2 miles northeast of Stonehenge.

They also found evidence of uses that predated Stonehenge itself. Prehistoric pits, burial mounds and a long “barrow” (a wooden building likely used for “defleshing” the dead in preparation for burial) were among the features discovered underground. You can learn more about their project and findings online.

Researchers believe the entire Stonehenge landscape developed over the past 11,000 years. They plan to continue poring over data to further understand the history and evolution of one of the world’s most intriguing sites.

barrow near Durrington Walls - Stonehenge
A computer-generated rendering of the barrow found near Durrington Walls. (Credit: Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project)

Not-So-Ancient History

In addition to the stuff of ancient history, their investigation also revealed a few modern relics. Surveys produced detailed maps of practice trenches dug around Stonehenge by troops preparing for World War I, as well as the remnants of a military airbase used by the Royal Flying Corps.

Stonehenge, the 4,600-year-old gift that keeps on giving.

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