A huge Neolithic monument has been found alongside a treasure trove of ancient humans remains and pottery shards just two miles (3.2 km) from Windsor Castle.
The site was uncovered as a series of encircling ditches that once formed artificial boundaries to a ringed ceremonial gathering place larger than an athletics track.
Known as a ’causewayed enclosure’, the 5,500-year-old Berkshire site is one of the earliest known examples of monument-building in Britain.
Stone axes and serrated blades have been found at the monument, which experts suggest was used seasonally for ceremonial parties, feasts and trade.
The site’s human remains show evidence of postmortem tampering, with one skull sporting marks that suggest it was removed from the body and carved as part of a burial ritual.
Close to 80 Neolithic monuments have been identified in Britain so far.
However, researchers are excited by this find at a sand and gravel quarry near Datchet because they believe they can uncover the entire circuit of the enclosure.
Specialists from Wessex Archaeology, based in Salisbury, Wiltshire, say the rare find could help scientists to better understand some of Britain’s earliest settlers.
John Powell, a fieldwork director for Wessex Archaeology, told the Guardian: ‘This is an exciting find. We’re talking about 5,500 years ago.
‘These are earliest peoples, who are actually settling down in the landscape and leaving their mark on it. So it’s quite an impressive thing to be able to excavate.
‘Some causewayed enclosures don’t contain much in the way of artefacts, whereas this one seems very rich in artefacts, which will be significant for the understanding of the early Neolithic in Britain.’
Archaeologists at the site in a quarry near the village of Datchet identified decorated pottery shards.
The pottery has been intricately marked, possibly with bird bones or twisted cord, researchers said.
Evidence suggests the containers were deliberately smashed, perhaps as raucous ceremonies at the monument came to a close.
Scientists will now analyse deposits left on the shards to determine what the monument’s visitors ate and drank.
An extensive collection of animals bones were also found at the site, including the remains of cattle, sheep and goat that were likely domesticated, Mr Powell said.
Wild species present in the assemblage include red and roe deer, as well as fox bones.
The site’s artefacts and bones suggest it was used at a time when hunter gatherers in Britain were ditching their nomadic lifestyle for farming and mining settlements.
Excavations show the ditches, which are separated by gap ‘entrances’, once formed an oval shape with a 500-metre (1,640ft) perimeter.
Twelve ditch segments, covering 265 metres (870 ft) of the enclosure’s arc, have been uncovered so far, with the remainder lined up for excavation later this year.
Roland Smith of Berkshire Archaeology said: ‘This is such an exciting and important discovery in the royal borough.
‘The excavation of this monument will add so much to our shared human story, especially [about]this pivotal time in the earliest years of farming in Britain.’