A staple in most adventure movies – especially those set in jungles and involving chasing or being chased by animals – is the large pit of doom which hunters dig to capture and possibly injure their prey in a confined space where they can be killed with a rain of spears, rocks, fists or whatever the preferred weapon of the day is. While the technique is still practiced today, its roots are ancient and surprisingly large number of surprisingly large pits have been discovered recently very near to Stonehenge but predating the monument by 5000 years. Who created these massive hunting pits and what creatures met their demise inside them?
"From early hunter-gatherers to later Bronze Age inhabitants of farms and field systems, the archaeology we're detecting is the result of the complex and ever-changing occupation of the landscape."
Stonehenge and other monuments in its immediate area get the bulk of the media and tourist attention, but the history of humans occupying the location goes back many thousands of years before Stonehenge was built around 3000 BCE, and Dr. Nick Snashall, an archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, tells the BBC these 10,000-year-old pits are believed to be the earliest evidence ever of human activity in what is now Wiltshire, England.
“Our results have significant implications for understanding Stonehenge and its landscape setting, revealing elusive forms of Mesolithic to later Bronze Age land use that - even within the world's most intensively researched archaeological landscape - have gone unrecognized until now.”
The results of the research, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, reveal the surprise archeologists had when making this new discovery in one of the most heavily analyzed archeological sites in the world. As opposed to most other studies, these researchers were allowed to supplement their non-destructive geophysical surveys with targeted sampling of soils and excavations of a small number of the pits. While a few small pits wouldn’t have been a surprise – the UK and northwest Europe have many prehistoric oval pits up to 8 feet in diameter -- the researchers found around Stonehenge and the nearby Durrington Walls Henge a total of 415 large pits. Excavations of nine of them showed six to be human-made and dating from the Early Mesolithic around 8000 BCE to the Middle Bronze Age, circa 1300 BCE
"What we're seeing is not a snapshot of one moment in time. The traces we see in our data span millennia, as indicated by the seven-thousand-year timeframe between the oldest and most recent prehistoric pits we've excavated."
The biggest surprise was the size of one of the oldest pits – it measured over 4 meters (13 feet) wide and 2 meters (6.5 feet) deep. What kind of animals were these Early Mesolithic hunter-gatherers hunting? Most likely large game such as red deer, wild boar and the huge but extinct massive auroch cattle species.
What does this discovery of so many hunting pits in a concentrated area but covering thousands of years of hunting tell us? First, that so much data on the peoples who lived in the area around Stonehenge is yet to be discovered. Second, the study’s lead author Philippe De Smedt, associate professor at Ghent University, tells the Daily Mail that while maps created using ground-penetrating radar have become broader and deeper, there is still a need for digging.
“The maps we create offer a high-resolution view of subsurface soil variation that can be targeted with unprecedented precision. Using this as a guide to sample the landscape, taking archaeological "biopsies" of subsurface deposits, we were able to add archaeological meaning to the complex variations discovered in the landscape.”
Pinpointed “biopsy” digging seems to be the wave of the future – allowing archeologists to gather data while preserving the integrity of the landscape. Let’s hope digs around the world adopt this practice.