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The early enclosure
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The early enclosureThe tunnel from the visitor centre emerges a little distance from the stones, outside the boundary formed by the circular ditch and bank. These earthworks are now grassed over, but are clearly visible as the path crosses over them on its way to the inner part of the monument. This is the first Stonehenge, constructed shortly after 3000 BC in the period known as the Neolithic or New Stone Age. In this, its first form, Stonehenge was similar to a number of other sites known as causewayed enclosures. Another example, Robin Hood’s Ball, lies about a mile to the north-west.

The first Stonehenge was a roughly circular enclosure of about 110m. (360ft) in diameter, defined by a ditch, an inner bank made of the chalk excavated from the ditch and, in places, a small outer bank known as a counterscarp. There were at least two entrances; one of these, still clearly visible today, faces north-east, towards the large stone by the roadside fence. This is the entrance that became the main way into the enclosure, but at this early stage in the construction of Stonehenge there was at least one other smaller entrance, on the southern side of the enclosure.

When Colonel William Hawley excavated much of the eastern side of Stonehenge in 1920s, he found the sifted-up ditch to be very irregular, varying considerably in width, depth and shape. Hawley likened it to “a string of badly-made sausages”.

The ditch was originally dug using picks and rakes of red deer antler. The chalk to build the banks would most probably have been moved in baskets or skins. Fragments of these antler picks, thrown away or perhaps deliberately left on the ditch floor, have been radiocarbon dated to between 3000 and 2920 BC. But other, older bones were also found on the ditch floor. In the ends of some of the short segments of ditch, cattle bones, jaws and a skull had been carefully placed. When dated they turned out to be much older than the ditch, perhaps by as much as 3000 years. These old bones must have been very special, perhaps offerings of some kind, left by the builders to mark the foundation of the new temple of Stonehenge.

The early enclosure

The stones seen from outside the bank and ditch to the north-west of the enclosure.

Although we can be certain about when the enclosure was built, it is less certain what else of Stonehenge was constructed at this time. One strong possibility is the circle of 56 circular pits, spaced between 4m. and 5m. (13 ft and 16 ft) apart, that lies just inside the inner edge of the bank. These pits are known as the Aubrey Holes after their original discoverer, the XVII century antiquary John Aubrey (1626 – 97), who was one of the first to make systematic observations of Stonehenge.

Although 34 of the Aubrey Holes were excavated during the XX century, not one provided samples that could be dated scientifically. It is also uncertain what stood in them: timber posts or small stone pillars. What the excavations did reveal was that the holes were used as places of burial, both when they contained the posts or pillars and after their removal. Cremated human bones were found, both in the Aubrey Holes and also in the bank, and the ditch (which was by this time partly filled in). So, during its early life, Stonehenge was a cemetery, a place where the remains of the dead could be laid to rest. The cremated bones from Hawley’s excavations, reburied in 1935 in an empty Aubrey Hole, were re-excavated in 2008. They appear to be the remains of about 60 individuals, almost entirely young male adults.

It is possible that some of the many other post holes for upright timbers, which have been found within the area enclosed by the bank and ditch, may also belong to this early stage of Stonehenge, before the large sarsen stones arrived.

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