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Stone circle suggests Stonehenge part of burial complex

  • Story Highlights
  • Discovery of lost stone circle sheds new light on Stonehenge's purpose
  • Researchers say "Bluestonehenge" was starting point of funeral processional route
  • Bluestonehenge is named after color of Welsh stones from which it was formed
  • Some have viewed Stonehenge as temple, astronomical observatory
By Moni Basu
CNN
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(CNN) -- Stonehenge, an enigma to visitors and scientists alike for so many years, became less of a mystery after a discovery announced to the world this week.

A stone circle discovered near Stonehenge may suggest the prehistoric monument was part of a funeral route.

A stone circle discovered near Stonehenge may suggest the prehistoric monument was part of a funeral route.

Archaeologists have unearthed a new stone circle near Stonehenge that lends credence to the theory that the famous prehistoric monument in Britain was part of a funeral complex.

University of Bristol archaeologist Joshua Pollard described the new find as "incredible" because it establishes Stonehenge as part of a larger ceremonial complex linked to the nearby River Avon.

"No one could have predicted there was another stone circle so close by," said Pollard, co-director of the excavation project that began in 2004.

This, he said, changes the perception of the popular tourist destination 90 miles west of London.

The new find, dubbed "Bluestonehenge" after the color of the 25 Welsh stones of which it was once composed, sits along the Avon a mile away from its famous sister circle, Pollard said.

Neolithic peoples would have come down river by boat and literally stepped off into Bluestonehenge, Pollard said. They may have congregated at certain times of the year, including the winter solstice, and carried remains of the dead from Bluestonehenge down an almost two-mile funeral processional route to a cemetery at Stonehenge to bury them.

"It could be that Bluestonehenge was where the dead began their final journey to Stonehenge," said Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield who co-directed the project with Pollard.

"Not many people know that Stonehenge was Britain's largest burial ground at that time," he said. "Maybe the blue stone circle is where people were cremated before their ashes were buried at Stonehenge itself."

Proof of life artifacts -- pottery, animal bones, food residues and flint tools used in the Stone Age -- are decidedly absent at Stonehenge but were found upstream in a village discovered by the excavation team in 2005, leading researchers to believe that Stonehenge was indeed a burial ground.

But people have debated the purpose of Stonehenge for decades.

Known for its orientation in relation to the rising and setting sun, the circle of stones represented a prehistoric temple to some. Others argued it was an astronomical observatory. Or that it was a marker of time.

But Pollard is sticking to his theory. He said others have not based their suppositions on archaeological finds.

Archaeologists began the latest excavation with the hope of tracking the course of the avenue that led to Stonehenge. They had no idea they would stumble upon a second circle that would help uncover the mystery of Stonehenge.

The stones at Bluestonehenge were removed thousands of years ago, Pollard said, but the sizes of the remaining pits, about 33 feet in diameter, point to giant blue stones from the Preseli Mountains of Wales, about 150 miles away.

Pollard said that Neolithic people dragged the pillarlike blue stones along the processional route to Stonehenge to incorporate them in a major rebuilding that took place around 2500 B.C. Archaeologists know that after 2500, Stonehenge consisted of about 60 Welsh stones and 83 local sarsen stones.

Some of the blue stones that once stood on the river's edge probably now stand within the center of Stonehenge, Pollard said. Scientists plan to use radiocarbon dating techniques to better understand the history of the entire site.

Stonehenge remains as striking as ever. But with each new find, the enigma fades just a little.

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