Mysterious Monument in Stonehenge Landscape Suggests Fire Rituals 5,800 Years Ago

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Two intriguing circles near Stonehenge in England were built about 800 years before the world-renowned stone monument, and were once composed of timber posts that came from around 4,000 trees. Evidence suggests the timber poles were burned, possibly as part of an ancient fire ceremony.

According to a report in Live Science , scientists used more precise radiocarbon dating to more accurately estimate the time of the construction and burning of the circles, which stretched across 4 km (2.5 miles) of landscape just 32.2 km (20 miles) from Stonehenge.

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The prehistoric people built the circles around 3,300 BC—a few hundred years before agriculture is thought to have started in what is now England. Previously, scientists estimated the people built the circles around 2,500 BC. They were discovered during construction of a pipeline in the 1960s and 1970s.

In addition to being fairly close to Stonehenge, the wooden palisades are even closer to the stone circles of Avebury—the largest prehistoric stone circles in the world, built about 2,500 BC.

The Times says the wooden circles were deliberately burned to create fire in two huge rings—possibly as a ceremony.

If you think it would be difficult to move huge wooden tree boles, check out the Cove stone at Avebury. Note the size of the people to the left in relation to the stone. (CC-BY-SA-3.0/ Jim Champion )

Alex Bayliss of Historic England did the carbon testing. She used charcoal samples from the early 1990s that had been stored at the British Museum and had initially been too tiny to be dated accurately. But new technology allowed for more precise dating.

Professor Bayliss told The Times:

“The date of 3300BC puts the palisades in a completely different context; it’s the end of the early Neolithic, when there’s a blank in our knowledge of the big monuments of the time. They are two really massive circles of timbers. One of the hypotheses is that one could have been for women and the other for men to use for rituals. We have an entirely new kind of monument that is like nothing else ever found in Britain.”

The two wooden palisades were built about a couple of years apart, it’s believed. They were much too large to have served the purpose of fencing in livestock or for defense.

The evidence at the site shows it wasn’t occupied until about 1,000 years later, Professor Bayliss said. At that time, the people who built nearby chalk mound Silbury Hill used the site, but by then the wooden rings would have disappeared from sight.

Silbury Hill.

Silbury Hill. ( CC BY 2.0 ) By the time the people who built the nearby Silbury Hill used the site the wooden rings would have disappeared.

One of the wooden rings was about 250 meters (820 feet) in diameter. The other one, which consisted of two concentric circles of timbers, was about 200 meters (656 feet) across.

Experts think another wooden circle, Woodhenge, which is within a few hundred meters of Stonehenge itself, dates back to about 2300 BC. There are other such wooden circles, some in continental Europe.

A reconstruction of the Woodhenge site, which is a United Nations World Heritage site.

A reconstruction of the Woodhenge site, which is a United Nations World Heritage site. ( CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Professor Bayliss and her colleagues are publishing their research in the journal British Archaeology . Mike Pitts, the editor, was a former curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury. He called the news shocking and added:

“Having this massive palisade structure, not just at Avebury but even in southern England, at 3300BC is completely unexpected. The dates are so surprising some archaeologists are going to question it. I have looked at the evidence very carefully and I think it works. At Avebury, unlike Stonehenge, there’s been little excavation since the war and we are starting from a base of almost complete ignorance.”

Top image: An aerial view of the site where two massive wooden palisades once stood of the landscape. Credit: Historic England

By Mark Miller



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