Putting Stonehenge in Its Place

An increasingly accepted view holds that the great stone circle may have been just part of a much larger ceremonial landscape
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With the click of a mouse, archaeologist Vince Gaffney proudly summons up a vision of an ancient landscape. Amid the clutter of his office at the University of Birmingham in England, the 52-year-old professor of landscape archaeology is displaying early results of a virtual excavation at Britain’s best-known prehistoric monument. On the screen: a giant ring of wood posts that may have stood roughly 1,000 yards northwest of Stonehenge, a timber twin of its grander neighbor. In 2010 Gaffney began a three-year project heading an international team that will probe the surrounding countryside in one more attempt to unravel the site’s mysteries, this time with the aid of the very latest technology. The first reward came quickly. Within just two weeks the team, armed with high-powered magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar, discovered traces of that putative timber ring—possibly the most important find on the site in half a century.

Gaffney’s is one of many recent discoveries that have scientists rethinking Stonehenge. The recovery of new materials, along with the reanalysis of earlier finds using modern archaeological techniques, has led to a steady flow of new information. Advances in carbon dating mean experts can provide a more accurate chronology. More sophisticated chemical analysis of human remains allows archaeologists to identify the likely origin of the earliest visitors to the site. The pace is quickening. Radar devices can turn out data at a rate inconceivable even a few years ago. (Gaffney’s equipment collected as much data in two days at Stonehenge as he managed in three years at a previous site.) And with more data come fresh ideas. New evidence is now emerging to bolster a front-running theory: Stonehenge never stood in majestic isolation. Says Gaffney: “It was just part of a much wider ritual landscape.”

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