A circle of prehistoric shafts dug thousands of years ago has been discovered two miles from Stonehenge.
Analysis of the 20 or more shafts suggests the features are Neolithic and excavated more than 4,500 years ago – around the time the nearby ancient settlement of Durrington Walls was built.
The shafts, around more than 10 metres in diameter and five metres deep, form a circle of more than 1.2 miles around the Durrington Walls and Woodhenge monuments on Salisbury Plain, near Amesbury in Wiltshire.
Archaeologists believe the shafts may have served as a boundary to a sacred area connected to the henge enclosure and to guide worshippers to the monuments.
Academics from universities including St Andrews, Birmingham, Warwick, Glasgow and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David worked together on the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project to unearth the secrets of the site.
The finding has been described as an “astonishing discovery” and “a rich and fascinating archive”.
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.
“The Hidden Landscape team have combined cutting-edge, archaeological fieldwork with good old-fashioned detective work to reveal this extraordinary discovery and write a whole new chapter in the story of the Stonehenge landscape.”
Dr Richard Bates, from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at St Andrews, said: “Yet again, the use of a multidisciplinary effort with remote sensing and careful sampling is giving us an insight to the past that shows an even more complex society than we could ever imagine.
“Clearly sophisticated practices demonstrate that the people were so in tune with natural events to an extent that we can barely conceive in the modern world we live in today.”
Tim Kinnaird, of the same school, added: “The sedimentary infills contain a rich and fascinating archive of previously unknown environmental information.
“With optically stimulated luminescence profiling and dating, we can write detailed narratives of the Stonehenge landscape for the last 4,000 years.”
The announcement follows the Summer Solstice, which took place online this year with the annual gathering at Stonehenge cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
English Heritage, which has provided access to the event at the World Heritage site since 2000, urged visitors not to travel and instead enjoy a virtual celebration – but dozens defied the advice and turned up.
More than 3.6 million people around the world tuned in to the livestream from Stonehenge on Saturday night and Sunday morning.
The ancient attraction is currently closed, but due to officially reopen to tourists on 4 July.