The new ‘henge’ near Stonehenge – for the living or the dead?

by Edward Pegler on 8 August, 2010

The recent ‘henge’ monument to the west of Stonehenge is either a major breakthrough, according to Birmingham University, or probably just a barrow, according to Mike Pitts. It depends on your angle, I suppose.

Geophysical image of the new 'henge'

A team from the University of Birmingham recently announced the discovery of a new ‘major ceremonial monument’ a little under 1 kilometre northwest of Stonehenge.

This discovery is based not on digging but on geophysics, which showed up an unusual circular feature, about 25 metres across, during an extensive survey of the area around Stonehenge.

Whatever, until someone digs there’s probably going to be a lot of wasted writing on what the feature means (for example this post).

A henge?

The excavators at Birmingham call the feature a henge and suspect that it may date from the same time as Stonehenge. This is all difficult to say based on the current information.

The definition of a henge is not as exciting as it sounds. It officially means that a circular area of ground has been defined by digging out a ditch and putting the spoil from the ditch onto a bank on the outside of the ditch. Note that, by this definition, Stonehenge is not a henge.

Now based on the geophysical data it’s not really possible to tell at this stage whether the feature is a true ‘henge’. However, I suspect that what the Birmingham team meant when they said ‘henge’ was not only that there’s a roughly circular anomaly, which is perhaps a ditch.

More importantly for them, inside this anomaly the feature shows evidence of an oval of dots which are very likely to be stone or postholes. This oval, like that at Woodhenge, appears to be orientated with its long axis NE-SW.

A barrow?

Mike Pitts, in his blog, has also commented on the feature, hugely expanding the information available over that given in the press release. For his money he suggests that what can be seen in the anomaly could be an unusual barrow. Barrows are circular earth mounds covering one or more graves. They tend to be younger than henges. Sometimes they have ditches around them.

His reasons for the argument are fair enough. The feature is located among the Cursus Group barrows. There are many barrows of a similar size. There seems to be some kind of circular anomaly at the centre of the feature inside the dot oval which is perhaps due to soil compaction when a mound was built over a grave. Dr Pitts also goes on to say that other barrows, such as Winterbourne Stoke G39, show post holes like those apparently seen in the feature.


It should be borne in mind that Mike Pitts has an angle on all this. He, like Josh Pollard, is a defender of Mike Parker-Pearson’s argument about wood as representing life and stone representing death to the late Neolithic people of Wessex. As such the area around Stonehenge is seen as the ‘realm of the dead’. Hence there is a desire from Dr Pitts not to see something local to and contemporary with Stonehenge which has wooden posts.

Because of this, Dr Pitts would like the feature either to be (a) much younger than Stonehenge (hence a barrow) or (b) for the apparent post holes to be stone holes. I hope that this is not influencing Dr Pitts too much in his interpretation.

For example, the geophysical signature of the oval of dots seems to suggest substantial holes. However, the ‘post holes’ of Winterbourne Stoke G39 barrow are called ‘stake holes’ by the excavator, a much flimsier affair, and I’m not sure that they would show up on geophysical data so clearly as these. If these were post holes around a barrow it would be quite an unusual barrow.

Also, what about Coneybury Henge? This henge, about 1 kilometre southeast of Stonehenge, contained a number of pits in the interior which were probably from part of a circle of wooden post holes. Indeed, what about all that undated mess of wooden post holes in Stonehenge itself? Maybe these are all older than Stonehenge. Maybe the new feature is older than Stonehenge. Who knows?

I don’t say Pitts or Pollard are wrong. It’s just that if they were it would make things just a bit more difficult for them. But, as they both say, we’ll only know (if we’re lucky) when someone digs a trench in that feature.


Birmingham University (press release) – A new henge discovered at Stonehenge.

National Geographic – Stonehenge Had Neighboring, Wooden Twin—More to Come?

Mike Pitts – Analysing the new site near Stonehenge

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Carter August 9, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Well, rock on!
It has to be said that finding something round, 1km from Stonehenge, has led to statements like;
“When you see that as an archaeologist, you just looked at it and thought, ‘that’s a henge monument’ – it’s a timber equivalent to Stonehenge.
“From the general shape, we would guess it dates backs to about the time when Stonehenge was emerging at its most complex.
“This is probably the first major ceremonial monument that has been found in the past 50 years or so.”
Professor Vince Gaffney, University of Birmingham.
What is this psychic archaeology? No excavation, no dating, no plan, and, on the basis of a geophysics plot, we have a wooden equivalent to Stonehenge; QED!

As for the stone/timber death/life; simplistic nonsense, gets archaeology a bad name. Stone is much more permanent, useful for markers and monuments, but not much good for roofing, other than in tombs – and it is not available in many areas like SE England.
From the Theoretical Structural Archaeology perspective, Woodhenge was a vernacular building, and Stonehenge was a timber building, with unique stone bits, and a religious or ceremonial in function. The area is a a centre of political and economic power, particularly in the EBA, and contains a range of sites of all periods, with a variety of uses, most are not yet understood. Landscapes have far more complex dynamics than living:dead.


Edward Pegler August 9, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Dear Geoff

Your last statement may sadly remain true for a long time to come, even after digging.



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