Adventurer and television host Rob Bell remembers one shooting day on Stonehenge: The New Revelations with absolute clarity.
“It was very early on a summer’s morning,” he recalls. “About 4.30 in the morning, and there was mist and the sun was coming up and we were doing drone shots. So, everybody was out of the circle apart from me walking around, which was one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had. I didn’t expect to be as moved by it as I was. It was really, really something being in that, on my own. Looking around, it was so tempting to touch the stones.”
He pauses and grins. “But I didn’t.”
It’s just as well. Stonehenge might be a magical place to many, but it’s also a site of extreme scientific and historic importance, one that is still revealing information about the ancient cultures that inhabited what is now the British Isles before the advent of written records. A fresh documentary, Stonehenge: The New Revelations, hosted by Bell, maps out – literally, in this case – the latest discoveries taking place.
While we think of Stonehenge as a stone edifice thrusting up out of the earth, these new findings are below the earth’s surface. Using an array of geophysical survey techniques including ground-penetrating radar, a research team under archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson (Time Team) have discovered a vast circle of heretofore unknown pits completely encircling Stonehenge and linking it to the nearby heritage site of Durrington Walls, the location of the settlement used by the people who actually built Stonehenge thousands of years past.
Archaeologist Susan Greaney, a researcher for English Heritage and a Stonehenge expert of some 10 years’ experience, explains. “Eighteen months ago, I was emailed the plan of what had been discovered and for quite a long time, I didn’t even believe that it was true because it was such a ridiculous new discovery. These pits are five metres deep and about 10 metres across at the top. So, these are big pits and they enclose a huge area, a whole valley, basically.
“These pits kind of challenge us as archaeologists. Do we describe them as a monument? Monuments are usually stone circles or perhaps earthwork monuments. We know they’ve got timber monuments at this time, but this huge circuit of pits is probably nearly a mile across in diameter. So, it seems like it’s a huge enclosure for some reason and an important part of the landscape.”
It’s an incredibly exciting discovery; while now filled in, these pits contain artefacts and remnants dating from the Neolithic culture that actually constructed the monument – a culture we know very little about. And while the upright stones and lintels of Stonehenge are visually striking, these hidden pits are valuable in that whatever they contain has lain undisturbed for literally millennia.
“They’re completely forgotten about because they’re filled in, they’re ploughed over, they’re not visible,” Greaney says. “We hope if we ever get to excavate one of these and certainly material like pottery, animal bones, antler picks, all the flint tools that people were using, they’re usually best preserved down in what we call cut features: pits or ditches that are under the ground, because of course, they haven’t been disturbed.”
While the people who built Stonehenge left no written records, we have pieced together a rough picture of their culture, and this vast circle of pits will hopefully let us fill in some more details. Currently, we know that they lived a pastoral, semi-nomadic lifestyle, travelling across the ancient landscape tending herds of cattle, sheep and pigs. We also know they were avid builders of monuments – but we don’t know why.
“In the late Neolithic period they are building across Britain and Ireland stone circles, henge monuments, timber palisaded enclosures, which have these huge fences enclosing areas, and much smaller monuments as well,” Greaney tells us. “It must be to do with their religious beliefs, it must be to do with the way that they’re kind of gathering together and working together as communities.
“But we also know from the evidence that people were moving around a lot. People thought it really quite normal to be walking over hundreds and hundreds of miles in different parts of Britain. It’s a really exciting time period to study for an archaeologist, but it’s also pretty mysterious still because we don’t really understand exactly why there’s this huge explosion of monument building at that time.”
Bell speculates that whoever they were, the Stonehenge builders had much stronger ties to their environment than our modern selves. “Something that I really admire about the Neolithic people is the connection, that deep and meaningful connection, that they had with the landscape and with the Earth. There are some people who still have that in today’s society, but I would argue the majority of us don’t, but when you’re given the opportunity to stop and try and put yourself back in the shoes of those Neolithic people who had this strong, strong connection, it’s quite powerful.”
Indeed, this latest discovery does much to put Stonehenge in its correct historical and archaeological perspective, not as an isolated site but as part of a connected and dynamic countryside, albeit thousands of years removed from our own present moment.
“Stonehenge doesn’t just sit by itself,” Greaney says. “It’s not just a monument in the middle of Salisbury Plain and that’s it. It’s surrounded by a whole complex of other monuments, some of which are earlier than Stonehenge and some of which are contemporary and some of which have come afterwards. As archaeologists, while we understand quite a lot about Stonehenge itself, we’re only really just beginning to understand about the wider landscape.”
Stonehenge: The New Revelations premieres at 7.30pm, Tuesday 7 December on SBS and will then be available at SBS On Demand.