The sun rises over the horizon at the ancient Stone circle of Stonehenge on June 21, 2018 in Wiltshire, England. Celebrations were cancelled this year due to bans on mass gatherings as a result of COVID-19
Kiran Ridley—Getty
June 22, 2020 11:21 AM EDT

Archeologists have discovered at least twenty prehistoric shafts near the world heritage site of Stonehenge, who say that it is the largest prehistoric structure to have ever been uncovered in England.

The shafts–which are 1.2 mile wide circles that measure more than five meters in depth and ten meters in diameter—surround Durrington Walls, an ancient settlement two miles from Stonehenge.

Tests conducted by a team of academics from several universities across the United Kingdom suggest that the shafts were created more than 4,500 years ago during the Neolithic period. Experts believe the structure was built to guide visitors to the sacred site of Durrington Walls. The shafts—which are carefully positioned—also provide evidence that people during this era knew how to count.

Stonehenge is one of the world’s most-studied archaeological sites, making this latest discovery surprising. New developments in technology, however, revealed that what had previously been thought of as natural sinkholes were in fact man-made shafts dating back thousands of years.

“Remote sensing and careful sampling is giving us an insight to the past that shows an even more complex society than we could ever imagine,” Dr Richard Bates, from St Andrews’ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences told the BBC. “Clearly sophisticated practices demonstrate that the people were so in tune with natural events to an extent that we can barely conceive in the modern world.”

The discovery was announced today, just two days after summer solstice celebrations would normally have taken place at Stonehenge had it not been for the ban on mass gatherings due to COVID-19. Historically, Stonehenge has attracted visitors from around the world, who come to see the sun rise behind the monument’s ancient entrance.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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