Saturday, October 1, 2011

Pits at Stone Henge Hint of Sun Worship

Stonehenge, the ancient megalithic monument in the south of England built around 5,000 years ago. (Carl Court/Getty Images). Photo courtesy:

Two huge pits discovered near Stonehenge might have been part of a route that people used in sun rituals at the summer solstice before the monument was built.

Measuring 5 m (16.4 ft.) across and at least 1 m (3.3 ft.) deep, the pits are positioned within the Neolithic Cursus pathway, an enigmatic linear enclosure 100 meters wide and 2.5 kilometers long, north of Stonehenge. One pit sits at the eastern end and the other at the western end of the Cursus.

The international archaeological survey team also found a gap in the northern side of the Cursus that may have been the entrance and exit to the ceremony procession following the sun’s path.

“The perimeter of the Cursus may well have defined a route guiding ceremonial processions which took place on the longest day of the year,” says project leader Vince Gaffney at the University of Birmingham in a press release.

Gaffney says that observers of the ceremony may have stood at the Heel Stone located at Stonehenge’s entrance, where the pits would have aligned with the sun as it rose over the eastern pit and set over the western pit.

Tall stones, wooden posts, or fires may have been placed in the pits to mark the sun’s path.

“These exciting finds indicate that even though Stonehenge was ultimately the most important monument in the landscape, it may at times not have been the only, or most important, ritual focus and the area of Stonehenge may have become significant as a sacred site at a much earlier date,” Gaffney says.

Archaeologists have long established that Stonehenge can mark astronomical events, and was linked to the passage of the seasons and in particular the sun.

“If you measure the walking distance between the two pits, the procession would reach exactly half-way at midday, when the sun would be directly on top of Stonehenge,” says Henry Chapman at the University of Birmingham in the release.

“This is more than just a coincidence, indicating that the exact length of the Cursus and the positioning of the pits are of significance.”

The survey was led by the University of Birmingham’s IBM Visual and Spatial Technology Centre (VISTA), with the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Vienna (LBI ArchPro).

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