Researchers from the University of Birmingham and Ghent University (Belgium) have discovered thousands of possible prehistoric pits near Stonehenge, including one of the most ancient traces of land-use yet identified in the vicinity of the Neolithic monument.
The team gathered data using cutting-edge geophysical analysis techniques, carrying out an extensive electromagnetic induction survey across a 2.5km2 area at the heart of the Stonehenge landscape. This data was then combined with evidence retrieved from over 60 geoarchaeological boreholes and 20 targeted excavations to create computer-generated maps of the area. These depict 400 potential large pits (measuring more than 2.4m in diameter) from the early Mesolithic (c.8000 BC) to the middle Bronze Age (c.1300 BC), and thousands of smaller examples.
Among the larger features excavated in the course of the investigations, the team found a 10,000-year-old pit (above) – measuring over 4m wide and 2m deep – that had been dug into the chalk bedrock, perhaps to catch game such as aurochs (an extinct kind of giant cattle), red deer, and wild boar. Dating to 8200-7800 BC, this possible hunting trap is the largest-known early Mesolithic pit feature to have been found in north-west Europe. Pre-dating the site at Blick Mead, located 1.5km away (see CA 271, 292, 293, 324, 325, and 381), it is also one of the earliest Mesolithic sites to have been identified within the Stonehenge landscape. (Further traces of early Mesolithic activity in the area, in the form of several post-holes, were found during the expansion of the monument’s car park in 1966 – see CA 151, 212, 237, 271, 275, 283, 293, 331, and 384).
Mapping of the large pits revealed that they were clustered in two areas on higher ground to the east and west of Stonehenge, in parts of the landscape visited repeatedly by prehistoric people from the Mesolithic to the middle Bronze Age. As Paul Garwood, Senior Lecturer in Prehistory at the University of Birmingham, explained: ‘What we’re seeing is not a snapshot of one moment in time. The traces we see in our data span millennia, as indicated by the 7,000-year timeframe between the oldest and most recent prehistoric pits we’ve excavated. 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.’
The distribution of the larger pits suggests that the landscape’s Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age communities shared an interest in locales that allowed extensive views over the site at which Stonehenge developed, but the study also implies a diversity of prehistoric behaviour in the wider landscape. As the researchers note in their paper, recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2022.105557): ‘The presence of numerous exceptionally large pits and their patterned spatial distribution in the Stonehenge area that we have identified, suggest kinds of sustained and repeated large-scale structuring of spaces, places, and modes of activity that were distinct from those related to prominent ceremonial architecture and to everyday inhabitation practices.’
For further ground-breaking research into Mesolithic and Neolithic activity within the Stonehenge landscape, read about the prehistoric farming settlement found on the North York Moors, and the new analysis of Blick Mead’s Mesolithic landscape.