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The first Stonehenge
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The first StonehengeThe first Stonehenge was an enclosure, its slightly sloping central area defined by an irregularly dug ditch with an interior bank of a more regular profile. Around parts of the ditch was a small outer, or counterscarp, bank. There were two certain entrances. One faced north-east and remained in use throughout the active life of Stonehenge, while a smaller one faced south. The position of the main entrance was crucial to the function of Stonehenge, as it faced towards the midsummer sunrise in one direction, and aligned with the midwinter sunset in the other. This alignment was deliberate, and suggests that Stonehenge, from its earliest phase, was concerned with the movements of the sun.

The size of the ditch and the volume of material that it would have produced suggest that the bank could have stood as much as 2 m. (6,5 ft) high. The irregularity of the ditch suggests that it may have merely been a quarry to provide chalk, with the bank being more important. The digging of the ditch can be radiocarbon dated, using samples from antler picks found on its floor, to between 3000 and 2920 BC. Cattle bones also found in the base of the ditch were found to be as much as 300 years older. These bones, perhaps the relics from ancient ceremonies, suggest that this had been a special place even before the enclosure was built.

The first Stonehenge

One of the antler picks used in the digging of the Stonehenge ditch in about 3000 BC (now in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum)

The construction of the enclosure was clearly a communal effort, and it is possible that individual sections of the ditch were dug by different groups of people. Small bands of individuals, families or tribal groups, may have come from some distance to work together on this great project. It is less certain what, if anything, was taking place inside the enclosure at this time.

The first Stonehenge

The first Stonehenge, a simple earthwork enclosure – the result of great communal effort – being constructed

Recent excavations have provided the first clues as to why Stonehenge is located where it is. The Avenue may originally have been marked by parallel natural gullies created at the end of the last Ice Age, which were visible in the landscape and considerably aligned on the winter and summer solstices. There is also the possibility that the Heel Stone is a rare local sarsen, discovered very close to where it now stands.

A combination of these two striking natural phenomena may well have provided the impetus for the work that followed.

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