LONDON— British archaeologists announced Monday the discovery an enormous prehistoric ceremonial site in rural England that they said is larger and as significant as Stonehenge.
The buried site at Stanton Drew in Surrey was discovered unexpectedly during a routine geophysical survey of an archaeological site containing three stone circles. Scientists long had known of the existence of the circles, which had drawn little attention 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 predates the stone circles and 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, said the site is roughly twice as large as Stonehenge and is one of just eight timber temples known in England. "Stanton Drew is quite the biggest and most complex of all," Wainwright 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.
The site contains three stone circles, the largest of which is known as the Great Circle. It is surrounded by an enormous ditch approximately 135 meters in diameter.
But more significant was the discovery of what English Heritage called "a highly elaborate pattern of buried pits," which are arranged in nine concentric circles, varying in diameter from 23 to 90 meters. The pits are a meter in diameter and a meter apart. Scientists believe the pits supported huge wooden timbers standing upright, although it is not clear whether they supported a roof.
The circles at Stanton Drew are significantly larger than at other such sites, and there are many more of them.
Sites with wooden temples were generally constructed around 3000 B.C. and lasted for about 400 years, Wainwright said. After that they were replaced by stone circles.
Scientists now will focus on other sites of stone circles to find if similar wooden structures existed there before.