A Very Big Affair

any chance of grasping the extraordinary nature of Avebury, you're going to have to get out of your car (or off your horse, as Aubrey did). There's a carpark to the South. Take a wander round the stones. Look at them up close, feel them (you can't do that at Stonehenge).

The stones fall into two main types; the diamond/lozenge shape of the first stone we saw, and a straight-up-and-down column shape. Neither are sculpted as such, but the consistency in shape reveal a great deal of care in their choice.

They form a broad circle about 1000 feet in diameter, with two smaller circles within. Each of these smaller circles is broader than Stonehenge. In fact, there are quite a few stones missing, their sites occupied by concrete markers. Nonetheless, there are enough to show an enterprise on a grand scale.

Those stones were first erected over four thousand years ago. Feel them again.

As you walk round the larger circle, you'll see that the earth dips and rises alongside. In some places, these might be mistaken for natural irregularities in the terrain; in others, it is obvious that this is a relic of man-made effort. By the time you've got a little way around the stone circle, you'll realise that these great scars are parts of one large feature - a deep ditch inside and a high bank outside, surrounding the whole stone circle.

With just a little imagination, you can begin to see that this, too, must have been a pretty impressive piece of engineering.

You'll be even more impressed when you know (as you are about to) that this ditch was once 70 feet wide and 30 feet deep and that the bank was once 55 feet high and 75-100 feet wide. The whole circle was (is) 4440 feet in circumference (that's more than eight tenths of a mile).

This was not just a few shovel-fuls of soil slung out of a long hole in the ground, piled up where it was handy. This was an excavation on a mammoth scale, creating a stupendous, landscape-defining structure.

The "ditch" was lined with blocks of white chalk, and chalk was used to build and face the ramparts. It must have looked bloody magnificent.

It has been estimated that building this ditch and bank structure involved 600 man-years of back-breaking toil - no metal tools, no wheeled vehicles could have been used.

And it is even older than the stones, which seem to have been little more than afterthoughts - a little bit of fancy decoration added at a later date (about 200 years later) - a bit like candles on an meticulously-iced birthday cake.

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