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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

6,000-year-old tombs found next to Stonehenge


A prehistoric complex, including two 6,000-year-old tombs, has been discovered by archaeologists in Hampshire.

The Neolithic tombs, which until now had gone unnoticed under farmland despite being just 15 miles from Stonehenge, are some of the oldest monuments to have been found in Britain.

Archaeologists say they will hold valuable clues about how people lived at the time and what their environment was like.

The discovery is also close to Cranborne Chase, one of the most well researched prehistoric areas in Europe.

“It’s one of the most famous prehistoric landscapes, a Mecca for prehistorians, and you would have thought the archaeological world would have gone over it with a fine tooth comb,” Dr Helen Wickstead, the Kingston University archaeologist leading the project, said.

From examining similar sites, archaeologists know that complex burial rituals were common at the time. Typically bodies would be left in the open air until the flesh had decayed, leaving only a skeleton. Then bones were put in special arrangements in the tombs.

“The tombs were like bone homes for important people in the community,” Dr Wickstead said.

The tombs were discovered by Damian Grady, an English Heritage photographer, who flew over the area in a light aircraft taking aerial photographs of the land, looking for marks or features on the landscape suggestive of ancient monuments. One photograph showed two long mounds.

After discussions with colleagues, Mr Grady was left in little doubt that the mounds were the site of ancient tombs. He contacted Dr Wickstead inviting her to investigate.

After carrying out a survey of the land using electromagnetic detectors and ultrasound, Dr Wickstead created a map of what lay beneath the fields. She was able to identify the two tombs with troughs on each side, known as long barrows, typical of Neolithic burial sites.

Her team was also found artefacts, including fragments of pottery, flint and stone tools, close to the surface.

So far Dr Wickstead’s team have only used non-invasive techniques to figure out what lies inside the tombs, which are located on the land of a local female farmer.

Because the original surface of the land has been preserved beneath the mound, scientists will be able to examine it for traces of pollen and identify which plants and trees were common at the time.

Whether they are excavated will depend on local feeling, she says.

“We’re treading very carefully on the excavation issue,” Dr Wickstead said.

“We want to be sure that it’s what people living in Damerham village want. It’s their heritage.”

The Kingston University team are due to publish preliminary findings of their research in the journal Hampshire Studies.