A large Neolithic monument discovered near Stonehenge in England has cast new light on the mystery of the ancient site.

Researchers believe the monument is one of the largest Neolithic finds of its kind ever discovered in Britain. Consisting of 20 pits or shafts, the monument forms a wide circle around the ancient settlement of Durrington Walls, which is close to the sacred stone circle of Stonehenge (widely considered to be Britain's most important historical landmark). It's hoped that the discovery could reveal key information about the people and societies of the Neolithic world.

The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project (SHLP) team, a group of archaeologists from multiple British universities, discovered the pits deep underground using a combination of multi-sensory and traditional excavation techniques. Describing the discovery as "astonishing", researchers say the pits are about 1.2 miles (2 km) in diameter and date back to the same period as Stonehenge, about 4500 years ago. It's believed that the ring of pits could have been used as a boundary to protect Durrington Walls, or as a divider between the Durrington and Stonehenge areas.

"This is an unprecedented find of major significance within the UK," Vincent Gaffney, one of the archaeologists leading the project, told the Guardian. "Key researchers on Stonehenge and its landscape have been taken aback by the scale of the structure and the fact that it hadn’t been discovered until now so close to Stonehenge.”

Durrington Walls
The pits were discovered deep underground near Durrington Walls ©English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

He added: "I can’t emphasise enough the effort that would have gone in to digging such large shafts with tools of stone, wood and bone."

The team believe the discovery adds a new chapter to the Stonehenge story and indicates "an even more complex society than we could ever imagine." But the significance of the pit arrangement and how it may have functioned in Neolithic society is still unclear.

Stonehenge on a sunny and windy winter day with no people
Stonehenge on a sunny and windy winter day ©Roberto La Rosa/Shutterstock

In a statement, Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, said: "as the place where the builders of Stonehenge lived and feasted, Durrington Walls is key to unlocking the story of the wider Stonehenge landscape, and this astonishing discovery offers us new insights into the lives and beliefs of our Neolithic ancestors."

Stonehenge, located a few hours' drive from London, has fascinated generations of visitors and archaeologists who are puzzled by its origins and purpose. During the summer solstice in June each year, hundreds of people gather there to watch the sun rise. One widely-held theory is that it was a sacred place where people buried their loved ones and tried to communicate with the spirits of the dead, according to Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine and one of the few people to have led excavations at Stonehenge.

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Wide view of stones at Stonehenge. Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England and consists of a ring of standing stones. Beautiful Stonehenge wish blue sky.


Stonehenge: get to know England's most mysterious monument

Feb 7, 2022 • 6 min read