LONDON – The discovery of a small prehistoric circle of stones near Stonehenge may confirm the theory that the mysterious monument in southwest England was part of a massive funeral complex built around a river, researchers said Tuesday.
The new find shows that the second stone circle — dubbed "Bluehenge" because it was built with bluestones — once stood next to the River Avon about 1.75 miles from Stonehenge, one of Britain's best loved and least understood landmarks.
The find last month could help prove that the Avon linked a "domain of the dead" — made up of Stonehenge and Bluehenge — with an upstream "domain of the living" known as Durrington Wells, a monument where extensive signs of feasting and other human activity were found, said Professor Julian Thomas, co-director of the Stonehenge Riverside Project.
Project director Mike Parker Pearson said it is possible that Bluehenge was the starting point of a processional walk that began at the river and ended at Stonehenge, the site of a large prehistoric cemetery.
"Not many people know that Stonehenge was Britain's largest burial ground at that time," he said. "Maybe the bluestone circle is where people were cremated before their ashes were buried at Stonehenge itself."
There were very few signs of human life found around Stonehenge and Bluehenge, researchers said, lending credence to the idea that it was used as a funeral site, especially since there were signs that many human beings were cremated there.
A five-university team has been excavating the greater Stonehenge site since 2003 in a bid to unravel its meaning and use.
"This find certainly confirms the idea we've put forward that the river is of fundamental importance and links everything," Thomas said. "Everything is related to the river. That suggests that even before Neolithic time it may have had spiritual or religious significance. This find enhances the idea that all the monuments in this landscape are linked in various ways."
Researchers did not find the actual stones used to mark the smaller circle found by the river, but they did find holes left behind when the stones were removed.
The scientists believe the massive stones used for Bluehenge were dragged from the Welsh mountains roughly 150 miles away. There were clear indications that the gigantic stones from the Bluehenge site were later removed whole for use in the construction of Stonehenge, Thomas said.
They hope to use radiocarbon dating techniques to better pinpoint construction dates.
Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a favorite with visitors from throughout the world and has become popular with Druids, neo-Pagans and New Agers who attach mystical significance to the strangely-shaped circle of stones, but there remains great debate about the actual purpose of the structure.
Rare excavation work at the actual Stonehenge site was begun last year in a coordinated effort to unearth materials that could be used to establish a firm date for when the first set of bluestones was put in place there.