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New Discovery Finds Much More At Stonehenge Than Meets The Eye


Last week President Obama took a break from international crises on his way home from a NATO summit in Wales. He made a detour to check off an item on his bucket list - a visit to Stonehenge. Well, the president may have to go back to the prehistoric, archaeological site in Wiltshire, England. It turns out now that the stone pillars we see are only a fraction of what the ancients built there. Researchers from Birmingham University have used ground penetrating radar and other high tech equipment to map 17 other ritual monuments in the area. Professor Vince Gaffney led the Stonehenge hidden landscapes project and he joins us on the line. Welcome to the program.

VINCE GAFFNEY: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: The iconic circle of stones it seems are just a part of a much bigger complex. What you actually find here?

GAFFNEY: We've been carrying out an immense survey of an area around Stonehenge, about 12 square kilometers, and we found a very large amount of new, archaeological sites dating to the period of Stonehenge and later and even earlier in some circumstances.

SIEGEL: Well, what does the visible tip of the iceberg amount to here? I mean, is there equally as much underground and not visible to the eye as there is aboveground?

GAFFNEY: Oh, there's probably more that is invisible than is visible actually. Stonehenge stands magnificently isolated in the Salisbury plain and indeed archaeologists that believed that there was so little there that they felt that people were not allowed to approach it. However, we have some suspicions that this was not true. In fact about 90 percent plus of the landscape was entirely incognito. So we decided to survey between the areas we knew in order to find out what exactly was there and lo and behold what we started to find were series of small Henge-like monuments, like Stonehenge, but perhaps better interpreted as small chapels in the landscape clustering around it.

SIEGEL: What is it that you actually see underground with your various tools? Do you actually see an entire structure that would be like a small Henge or do you see what used to be there - the remains of such a thing or traces of it? What is it there?

GAFFNEY: Well, obviously it varies according to what's surviving, but the results actually look like a map of what was there in the past. For instance if I was using magnetometers - the Earth which fills the ditches and produces a signature, which we would display as a dark smudge on the landscape. However we also used things like radar, which allows us to give us a three-dimensional view. So we cannot only show a large pit as a black circle, we can actually put it into a three-dimensional model and model the shape of it and the depth. In later periods, in the Bronze Age, we can see fields, we can see boundary ditches, we can see ponds, enclosures. It's a stunning amount of information. We're going to be working for another year simply disentangling this and producing an atlas of the Stonehenge landscape.

SIEGEL: Does the greater number and variety of structures that you have discovered change your view of the sophistication of the people who built these things, whoever they were?

GAFFNEY: I wouldn't quite say that. I mean, nothing is more sophisticated than Stonehenge. We're looking at a monument in which stones were taken from as far away as South Wales to form the trilithons, the great stones that you see today. What is different is that the societies who may have come from quite a considerable distance away we're using the landscape in a much more sophisticated manner.

SIEGEL: Professor Gaffney thanks for talking with us about this.

GAFFNEY: Thank you very much and thanks for inviting me.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Vince Gaffney of the University of Birmingham who led the Stonehenge hidden landscapes project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.