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Archaeologists find massive ring of ancient shafts close to Stonehenge

N'dea Yancey-Bragg
USA TODAY
Archaeologists have discovered a large network of large shafts that surround the Stonehenge site in England.

A group of archaeologists discovered what could be one of the largest prehistoric sites in the United Kingdom near Stonehenge.

Researchers led by the University of Bradford discovered a ring of at least 20 "shafts" more than 32 feet in diameter and 16 feet deep that form a circle more than 1.2 miles in diameter. The ring, which surrounds the site of a Neolithic village called Durrington Walls, could shed new light on the origins of the mystical stone circle in southwestern England.

“The area around Stonehenge is amongst the most studied archaeological landscapes on earth," Vince Gaffney, Chair of the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences in the Faculty of Life Sciences, said in a statement. "It is remarkable that the application of new technology can still lead to the discovery of such a massive prehistoric structure which, currently, is significantly larger than any comparative prehistoric monument that we know of in Britain, at least."

Gaffney said when the pits were first identified, they were believed to be natural features. Geophysical surveys allowed researchers to discover a "pattern on a massive scale."

“It demonstrates the significance of Durrington Walls Henge, the complexity of the monumental structures within the Stonehenge landscape, and the capacity and desire of Neolithic communities to record their cosmological belief systems in ways, and at a scale, that we had never previously anticipated.”

Archaeologists believe the circle of shafts was created about 4,500 years ago and may have marked a boundary around the massive henge at Durrington Walls which could have guided people toward the religious sites and warned others not to cross.

The site is located a little more than a mile northeast of Stonehenge, the most famous of the many mysterious stone circles built thousands of years ago in Britain. The huge monument was built between 3000 B.C. and 1600 B.C. and is one of the country's most popular tourist attractions.

Hundreds of people including druids and pagans typically visit the site at the summer and winter solstices, but this year's celebrations were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This discovery allowed researchers to "write a whole new chapter in the story of the Stonehenge landscape," according to Nick Snashall, National Trust archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site.

“As the place where the builders of Stonehenge lived and feasted Durrington Walls is key to unlocking the story of the wider Stonehenge landscape," she said. "This astonishing discovery offers us new insights into the lives and beliefs of our Neolithic ancestors.

Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg