The Mystery of the Durrington Pits

Researchers from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences are part of the team that discovered a massive Neolithic structure near Stonehenge, thought to be the largest prehistoric structure ever found in Britain. Prof Richard Bates, Dr Tim Kinnaird and Dr Aayush Srivastava will join School alumna Dr Alex Finlay, now at Chemostrat Ltd, in the TV documentary Stonehenge: Land of the Dead, which premiered on the Science Channel on Sunday 28 November (20:00 ET/PT), and The Stonehenge Enigma: What lies Beneath? on Channel 5 on Thursday 9th December (21:00).  

The documentaries will chronicle the astonishing discovery of the Durrington Pits, a ring of prehistoric ‘shafts’ up to 10 metres across and 5 metres deep, just a few miles away from Stonehenge. The mysterious construction, 20 times bigger than Stonehenge and possibly the largest Neolithic structure in the world, has been dated to 2400-2500BC and appears to delineate a boundary around the ‘super-henge’ at Durrington Walls and the famous site at Woodhenge. 

Richard Bates said: “Seeing what is unseen! 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 that we could ever imagine. Clearly sophisticated practices demonstrate that the people were in tune with natural events to an extent that we can barely conceive in the modern world we live in today.” 

Tim Kinnaird used a technique called optically-stimulated luminescence to determine when sediment at the base of the pits were last exposed to daylight, dating their construction to around 2400BC. The technique further revealed major similarities across six of the pits, each with multiple and distinct fills that infilled at comparable times. This suggests that these features are not natural – or that if they were originally natural, that they’d be modified by Neolithic humans.     

Alex Finlay said “For the first time, elemental chemostratigraphy [studying the variations between layers of rock] has been used in an archaeological study like this and the results are beyond expectation!  The geochemical data clearly shows that each pit has a layered fill occurring in the same order that can be correlated across all the analysed cores. Due to the distinct chemical fingerprint of each fill layer, it is highly suggestive that the pits have been filled by humans.”  

Lead archaeologist on the project Professor Vince Gaffney, from the University of Bradford, said: “The recent work confirms that the circle of shafts surrounding Durrington walls is without precedent within the UK. It further demonstrates the significance of Durrington Walls Henge and the complexity of the monumental structures within the Stonehenge landscape, and provides a new insight into how the massive monuments at Durrington and Stonehenge were interlinked, in ways – and at a scale – that we had never previously anticipated.” 

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