WILTSHIRE may have Stonehenge but now Cheshire has a wooden henge after archaeologists made the discovery near Chester.
Researchers working at Poulton, on the Duke of Westminster's land, were amazed to find the Bronze Age burials they had been investigating were preceded by a much earlier 'ritual' presence.
A circle of holes indicated the existence of the wooden henge together with a large hole in the centre which was potentially a form of 'totem pole'.
Now Durham University is to undertake both soil analysis and the dating of wood fragments.
Site director Mike Emery said: 'This will firmly place the burial ground and the timber circle in their proper historical context, as well as providing valuable environmental evidence, which will help to recreate what life was like thousands of years ago.'
Mr Emery said examples of such circles were more commonly located in the south, and had been interpreted as ritual monuments that were the precursors of more famous monuments, such as Stonehenge.
He added: 'The uncovering of the site of a timber circle, possibly a 'henge' monument, is of great and rare importance in the north-west.'
Mr Emery said this earliest phase was currently under excavation and a more detailed report would be given in 2005. 'What can be stated is that the Poulton site was part of a ritual/religious landscape that was established some 5000 years ago,' he commented.
Archaeologists have discovered evidence of human activity at the site from several periods of human history. And the 2004 excavations have proved to be the most successful to date.
Work on the Bronze Age Burial Ground (1600-1000BC) is now complete. Cremated human bone has been found along with coarse, hand-made pottery and animal bone fragments.
The causeway into the area is aligned to the position of Orion's Belt in the summer sky. It also aims, unerringly, for a gap in the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge.
It is now evident that the ring-ditch is one of several, others being located close by.
Mr Emery says the importance of the Poulton Bronze Age 'barrow' group cannot be underestimated. 'The existence of such a burial group opens up the unique and exciting prospect of locating a Bronze Age village, nearby,' he said. 'Such settlements are rare.'
Within the medieval graveyard (1153-1600 AD) 63 complete, or partial, skeletons were excavated to the west of the Chapel Tower. One group of burials was particularly poignant. This consisted almost entirely of children, two of whom had their hands clasped together.
Further evidence of the Romans (90-410AD) was unearthed consisting of a mass of pottery and building material.
Mr Emery said test-trenches suggested the remains of a substantial Roman building lies 'tantalisingly close by'. A planned programme of more extensive geophysical survey will aim to pinpoint the focus of Roman activity.