British archaeologists announced Monday the discovery of an enormous prehistoric ceremonial site in rural England that they said is larger and as significant as Stonehenge, one of this country’s most visited historical attractions.
The buried site at Stanton Drew in Surrey was discovered unexpectedly this fall during a routine geophysical survey of an archaeological site containing three stone circles. Scientists long had known of the existence of those stone circles, which had drawn little attention over the years because of their somewhat remote location. But what the scientists found through the geophysical survey was a much larger and far more significant site beneath the ground.
The archaeological surveys suggest that it was the site of a huge, circular timber temple that predated the stone circles and that could give scientists a better understanding of the tribes that existed in England in prehistoric times. The site dates to between 3000 B.C. and 1500 B.C.
Geoffrey Wainwright, the chief archaeologist at English Heritage, which carried out the surveys, could barely contain his enthusiasm over the find. “This is quite extraordinary,” he said. “I’m bowled over by it.”
Wainwright said the buried site at Stanton Drew is roughly twice as large as Stonehenge and that it is one of just eight timber temples known to exist in England. “Stanton Drew is quite the biggest and most complex of all,” he said. “It was really a very, very dramatic structure.”
Scientists believe the ceremonial sites or temples were used in early agricultural societies to attempt to manipulate the supernatural to assure adequate rainfall for crops or the expansion of herds of cattle or sheep. The timber temples were symbols of power and influence used for making offerings.
But Wainwright said experts do not know much about the period and how societies were organized and related to one another. The Stanton Drew site may offer clues to the territorial relationships among these tribes, in addition to the knowledge it will provide about the structure of the temples themselves.
The discovery came after English Heritage decided to survey the site, which is on privately owned farmland, when it changed hands.
The Stanton Drew site contains three stone circles, the largest of which is known as the Great Circle. The survey carried out this fall with the help of magnetometers, which measure magnetic forces, revealed that the Great Circle was surrounded by an enormous ditch approximately 148 yards in diameter.
But more significant was the discovery of what English Heritage called “a highly elaborate pattern of buried pits,” which were arranged in nine concentric circles, varying in diameter from about 25 yards to 100 yards. The pits appear to be about three feet in diameter and were about three feet apart from one another. Based on work at similar sites elsewhere in the country, scientists believe the pits supported huge wooden timbers standing upright, although it is not clear whether they supported a roof of any kind.
What heightens the interest of archaeologists here is that the circles at Stanton Drew were significantly larger than at other such sites, and there are many more of them.
English Heritage, which oversees the country’s man-made historical sites, has no plans to excavate the site. Wainwright said he doubts that it will become a tourist attraction comparable to Stonehenge because there is nothing to see on the surface.