STONEHENGE, the mysterious stone circles that form one of Europe's most important prehistoric ruins, is almost 500 years older than previously thought, according to research published yesterday. Previously it was believed that the site in southern England was built between 2100 B.C. and 1100 B.C.
But new evidence produced by the chief archaeologist at English Heritage shows that the main part of the monument, a ditch surrounded by an earth bank, was in active use from around 3000 B.C. and the stones were constructed between 2550-1600 B.C.
Dr Geoffrey Wainwright used a new method of dating relics which showed that most of the work was done over 50 years, indicating that those responsible must have lived in a much more structured and ordered society than historians realised.
Other revelations include analysis of animal bones from the site showing that some of them were buried as relics and were already a couple of centuries old when they were put in the ground.
The new dating method involves a programme of mathematical analysis called Bayesian statistics together with more precise radiocarbon dating than before, allowing scientists to establish the site's chronology to within 80 years' precision.
Older processes were only reliable to within 500 years. The dating of Stonehenge is the first time the new techniques have been applied to a world heritage site. But the new research does not offer an explanation for why Stonehenge was abandoned in 1600 B.C., nor why it was built in the first place.
The results of the research are on display at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum in Salisbury, southern England, as part of National Science Week. Dr Wainwright said All the information from previous studies was pure conjecture.
"It had been thought that there was a long period in the middle of the life of Stonehenge during which it was abandoned and then reactivated. We now know that this is not correct. It was in continuous use throughout the 1,400 year period."