Scientists studying the landscape near Stonehenge, the world-famous cluster of stone megaliths in southern England, have discovered the remains of another wooden ceremonial site. Anthropologists have dubbed the ancient, circular structure Timberhenge, and they expect to find more sites like it nearby.
Timberhenge was discovered just 900 meters from Stonehenge, only nine days into a four-year radar-mapping project looking for other megaliths near the site.
Like Stonehenge, which is 30 meters across, the Timberhenge site is a circular series of depressions with a diameter of about 25 meters.
Experts say the holes may have been dug to secure wooden poles, two to three meters high, which have disintegrated over centuries of exposure to the elements.
The nearby Stonehenge site is believed to have been constructed in several stages beginning about 5,000 years ago.
Archeologists say both Timberhenge and the massive Stonehenge monument are oriented in the same direction toward the sun, aligned with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset.
There are two apparent entrances on the northeast and southwest sides of Timberhenge.
Archaeologist Vincent Gaffney of the University of Birmingham in England led the expedition, which used radar-imaging equipment to scan the ground near Stonehenge so as not to disturb any monuments or artifacts they might come across.
Gaffney says finding Timberhenge so close to the Stonehenge site may change the way archaeologists view the ancient grounds. "There's always been an assumption that the (Stonehenge) monument effectively didn't tolerate any competition within this immediate area. So to find such an interesting monument so close to the henge itself is quite remarkable," he said.
Anthropologists don't know whether the monuments were built for religious purposes, astronomical observations, or as burial sites. The cremated remains of adults and children have been discovered nearby. Gaffney says the precise role of the henges (prehistoric monumnets surrounded by circular ditches) is unclear.
"There are processional monuments. There's an avenue which leads from the river Avon. About 90 (or) 95 percent of Stonehenge we have no information about. So, we can expect to find more I suspect," he said.
Numerous other henges have been discovered not far from the mammoth Stonehenge, including the ten meter-wide Blue Stonehenge site discovered in 2009 just one and a half kilometers away.
The blue stones, believed to have been transported from a quarry in Wales more than 240 kilometers away, are now mostly missing, and some may have been incorporated thousands of years ago into the larger Stonehenge site. The Bluestonehenge circle marks the end of the avenue that leads from the river Avon to Stonehenge.
Another wooden henge, called Woodhenge, was discovered in 1925, its 168 poles arranged in a six concentric circles more than three kilometers from Stonehenge.
Gaffney says there's no reason to believe the structures are related. "Even if you have timber circles or something similar in different societies, that doesn't mean they are the same thing. You have to be very careful about the inference you draw from that. I don't think there's any reason to suggest from simple similarities and structures some sort of kinship of that sort," he said.
Gaffney's team plans to continue using radar technology over the next four years to search the 14-square-kilometer plain for more henges, and more clues to their intended purpose.