A prehistoric site with no less than 25 monumental pits has been discovered in Bedfordshire to the astonishment of archaeologists.
Found in Linmere, they date from the Mesolithic period, 12,000 to 6,000 years ago, a time from which few clues remain about the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
The pits could offer extraordinary new perspectives. They are aligned and clustered around ancient canals, suggesting spiritual significance.
The scale of this site is such that it has more such pits in a single area than anywhere else in England and Wales, including Stonehenge. Radiocarbon dating revealed that they date from 7,700 to 8,500 years ago.
Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archeology (Mola), who are carrying out the research, said: ‘This date makes the site incredibly important as there are very few Mesolithic sites in the UK that are so significant. Evidence from this period is often thin, consisting only of flint tools and occasionally the remains of slaughtered animals.
Professor Joshua Pollard, a University of Southampton expert who has worked on major projects in the Stonehenge and Avebury landscapes, described the discovery as very exciting.
He said: “Although we know of other large enigmatic pits dug by hunter-gatherers from elsewhere in Britain, including at Stonehenge, the Linmere pits are striking because of their number and the vast area that ‘they cover.”
Digging such vast pits would have been an extraordinary feat. Measuring up to 5 meters (16.4 feet) wide and 1.85 meters deep, each is round with steep sides, some flaring out to a wider base.
The site was explored as part of two separate development projects. Albion Archeology worked on one area and Mola excavated another. Inside some pits, archaeologists have found animal bones, a “crucial source of evidence”. The remains of aurochs, a species of wild cattle, are among them, with evidence that people feasted on them.
Yvonne Wolframm-Murray, project manager at Mola, said the find was completely unexpected: “We knew there was archaeology, but we didn’t initially know we had Mesolithic pits until that radiocarbon dating is coming back. This is very exciting… There are only a handful of other known sites with comparable pits, certainly in terms of quantity.
Archaeologists have wondered if the pits were used for hunting or storing food, but believe their shape and size make such theories unlikely. They are struck by the arrangement of the pits in several straight lines, up to 500 meters long. Although there are other Mesolithic pits dug in alignments in Britain, the Linmere alignments appear to be related to ancient stream channels.
Archaeologists suggest that the effort required to build these pits, their alignments, and their location next to water have spiritual or special significance. For example, they could mark an important place in the landscape. Archaeologists are investigating whether the pits are aligned with major celestial events such as the solstice.
Wolframm-Murray said: “During the Mesolithic period, the ice caps covering much of the country retreated and sea levels rose, cutting Britain off from mainland Europe. It was a crucial period of transformation in the UK’s past, and studying a site where people left such a mark on the landscape could have far-reaching impacts on how archaeologists understand these ancient communities.
There may be other pits yet to be found in the area. Archaeologists analyze finds and evidence in the laboratory. They hope to find out if the pits were all dug and used at the same time, and to find out more about the plants growing nearby. They have already identified evidence of oak, hazel and pine, and are studying pollen that survived the Mesolithic period.
Wolframm-Murray said: “This work will reveal the environment in which these people lived and hopefully answer the question ‘what were these pits used for?’ “”