Stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany

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Swinside stone circle, in the Lake District, England, which megalithic specialist Aubrey Burl called "the loveliest of all the circles" in north-western Europe.[1]

The stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany were constructed as a part of a megalithic tradition that lasted from 3,300 to 900 BCE, during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.[2] Educated estimates have been made that there would have been around 4,000 of these monuments originally constructed in this area of north-western Europe during this period,[2] although currently, only around 1,300 of them are recorded, the others having been destroyed.[3]

Although stone circles have been erected throughout history by a variety of societies and for a variety of reasons, in the Late Neolithic and Bronze Ages, this particular tradition was constrained to the British Isles and the neighbouring area of continental Europe now known as Brittany. The rings were not distributed equally across this area, instead being centred on several highland regions, namely north-eastern and central Scotland, the Lake District, the south-west peninsula of England, and the north and south-west of Ireland. Less frequent groupings can also be found in Caithness, the Outer Hebrides, the Peak District, the Wicklow Mountains, Wales and Wessex.[3]

Their original purpose still remains partially elusive, although archaeological investigation has shed some light on this issue. It is widely thought that they served a ritual or ceremonial purpose, particularly in relation to solar and/or lunar alignments. In a minority of cases, some were also used as cemeteries, with burials being made in and around the circle.

Antiquarian investigation into the circles began in the Early Modern period, intensifying after the publications of notable English antiquarian William Stukeley in the 18th century. At the time, scholars understood little of prehistoric Britain, with the megalithic circles typically being ascribed to either the druids of the Iron Age or to the Danish settlers of the Early Medieval. In the 20th century, with the development of archaeology, archaeologists were able to undertake more accurate investigations into the stone circles, establishing that they were of Late Neolithic and Bronze Age date. It was also during the 20th century that many of these monuments were adopted as 'sacred sites' by adherents of Contemporary Pagan religions such as Neo-Druidism, Wicca and the Goddess movement, who have used them for their magico-religious rites.

Background[edit]

Early Neolithic[edit]

The interior of West Kennet Long Barrow. Long barrows such as this one were the dominant form of megalithic architecture before the development of the stone circle tradition.

The Neolithic, or 'New Stone Age' saw massive changes occur across north-western Europe. The introduction of agriculture led to an end of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle which had dominated in the preceding Palaeolithic ('Old Stone Age') and Mesolithic ('Middle Stone Age') periods.

The Early Neolithic in Brittany and the British Isles had seen the rise and fall of a megalithic tradition of building chambered tombs in which to house the dead. The chambered tomb tradition lasted between circa 4000 and 3500 BCE, although an earlier example, at Carrowmore in County Sligo, has been disputably dated to 5000 BCE.[4][5] The length of this tradition led the prominent prehistorian Mike Parker Pearson to note that it was "a relatively short-lived fashion in archaeological terms."[4] In southern England, 84% of chambered tombs were built in a north-east to south-east direction, thereby being an important consideration in their construction, likely holding some sort of special significance for these megalith builders.[6]

In some parts of the British Isles, architectural changes were made to the style of chambered tomb, which may have been a forerunner to the later circular design of the stone rings.[7] At the later Clyde tombs of south-western Scotland and the court-cairns of northern Ireland, crescent shaped forecourts were constructed inside the tombs, which would have allowed more people to enter the tomb and take part in any rites there, all within the light of the open air.[7]

The Early Neolithic also saw another form of monument constructed in the British Isles, now known by archaeologists as causewayed enclosures.[8] Consisting of circular ditch-and-bank earthworks, the causewayed enclosure tradition flourished around 3800 BCE, but by 3200 BCE, almost all of them had been abandoned by their users.[8] Built across the lowland regions of southern England, no known equivalents have been found in the highland areas of northern Britain.[8] Despite having excavated a number of these sites across southern Britain, archaeologists remain unclear as to the exact purposes that they served in Early Neolithic society. Many possibilities have been suggested, arguing that they were camps, markets, cattle kraals or occasional settlements, whilst other suggestions have argued that they were ritual centres for the celebration of seasonal festivals or that they were cemeteries for the dead.[8]

Late Neolithic[edit]

The transition from the Early Neolithic to the Late Neolithic was - in the words of historian Ronald Hutton - "as fundamental as that from the Mesolithic had been."[9] Archaeological pollen analysis has shown that it was a period when scrub and weeds were spreading over what had formerly been cultivated fields, and forests that had previously been cleared began to grow back.[10] It was a time when the chambered tombs were blocked up and abandoned, implying that Neolithic people were ceasing to use them as cultic sites.[10] Several former causewayed enclosures were converted into defensive structures with gateways and walls, and in some cases they were attacked, with evidence for conflict being found at Carn Brea in Cornwall, Hambledon Hill in Dorset and Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire.[10] Various archaeologists have suggested that this was a period of particular turmoil within the British Isles, perhaps caused by an overuse of land, the failure of crops, famine, plague, climatic change or an increase in population that was not supported by the food supply.[10]

"After over a thousand years of early farming, a way of life based on ancestral tombs, forest clearance and settlement expansion came to an end. This was a time of important social changes."

Archaeologist and prehistorian Mike Parker Pearson on the Late Neolithic in Britain (2005)[11]

The Late Neolithic also signaled an ideological change in the British Isles, as communities ceased performing cultic ceremonies at the chambered tombs of the dead. Instead, stone circles began to be erected across this part of Europe, which had apparently different purposes.

As the prominent megalithic-specialist and archaeologist Aubrey Burl (2000) noted; "There was a change from the cramped, gloomy chamber of a tomb to the unroofed, wide ring, a change from darkness to light, from the dead to the living, from the grave to the sky."[12] Similar observations were made by the historian Ronald Hutton, who commented that the circular shape of the rings "mirrors the sun, the full moon and the bounds of the horizon" and that such a shape can also be "profoundly egalitarian".[9]

Early Bronze Age[edit]

The start of the Bronze Age in Britain was signaled by the introduction of bronze, a metal alloy that is created from the mixing of copper and usually tin. Ideologically, there is no evidence for a change in Brittany and the British Isles at this time, with communities continuing to construct megalithic stone circles. Indeed, the archaeologists J.M. Coles and A.F. Harding noted that across western Europe, the Bronze Age was "closely and logically connected" with the Late Neolithic which proceeded it, and that the marker that is applied between the two by contemporary archaeologists is "arbitrary".[13]

Construction[edit]

Long Meg and Her Daughters, the largest example of Alexander Thom's Type B Flattened Circle

The archaeologist and stone circle-specialist Aubrey Burl noted that the stone circle builders would have had to undertake "careful planning" before they erected these monuments. There was much that they had to take into consideration; the choice of location, the size of the ring, the transportation of the heavy stones, the laying out of the circle or ellipse and the preparation of stone holes. They may have also had to plot astronomical alignments, making the task more difficult.[14]

Most stone circles were constructed upon flat ground, although some were instead built on a slope. In some cases, such as at Kiltierney in County Fermanagh, the land was flattened especially for this purpose, although in other cases it is clear that the land had been flattened by earlier communities, who had used the land as an area for settlement or agriculture.[14]

Dating, number and size[edit]

Archaeologist Aubrey Burl noted that there was an assumption among archaeologists that for every stone circle that survived to the late 20th century, then there would have been two lost. From the 1300 surviving examples, Burl therefore calculated that there might have been originally around 4000 stone circles across Britain, Ireland and Brittany.[2]

Since the 1950s, archaeologists have been able to use radiocarbon dating of the material around the stones in order to accurately date their original construction.[2] As of 2000, the earliest known radiocarbon dating of a stone circle was from the Lochmaben Stone in Dumfriesshire, which was dated to 2525 ± 85 bc, whilst the latest examples came from Sandy Road in Perth (1200 ± 150 bc), from Dromberg in County Cork (790 ± 80 bc) and from the Five-Stone ring of Cashelkeety from County Kerry (715 ± 50 bc).[2] Aubrey Burl related that, once these dates were calibrated, it indicated that the stone circle tradition existed between 3300 and 900 BCE, a period of 2,400 years.[2]

Avebury in Wiltshire is the third largest example of a stone circle from the British Isles, and is physically situated within an earlier henge.

The size of the megalithic rings varied, perhaps according to the amount of people who would be using it during ceremonies.[15] Burl calculated that the largest stone circle in terms of both diameter and area was Stanton Drew in Somerset, with a diameter of 112.2m and an area of 9,887m². Second came the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney at 103.6m in diameter and 8,430m² in area, whilst third was Avebury in Wiltshire, which had a diameter of 102.4m and an area of 8,236m²,[16] although the diameter of the outer stone circle at Avebury is 331.6 metres. All of the largest circles were found in or near to earlier henge monuments.[17] Nonetheless, such gargantuan monuments were rare, and Burl calculated that the majority of the megalithic rings (92%), had an average diameter of 13.7m, with an average area of 150m².[16]

Megalithic yard[edit]

The archaeologist Alexander Thom proposed that the stone circles were built using a unit of measurement which he called the "megalithic yard".

Purposes[edit]

The largest stone in the King's Men, a stone circle that is the dominant part of the Rollright Stones complex in the Cotswolds.

The original purposes of the stone ring monuments has been widely debated by antiquarians and archaeologists for several centuries.

Regional distribution[edit]

Brittany[edit]

Southern England[edit]

Southern England also contains the two best known, though most atypical stone circles, Avebury and Stonehenge.

Northern England[edit]

In what is now northern England, there was a particularly rich stone circle tradition in Cumbria. Several large megalithic rings were constructed here, such as Castlerigg stone circle, Swinside and Long Meg and Her Daughters.

Ireland[edit]

Scotland[edit]

The Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle on Orkney, northern Britain.

Later history[edit]

Late Bronze and Iron Ages[edit]

Evidence for the destruction of stone circles first comes from the Late Bronze Age.

Mediaeval period[edit]

Following the Christianisation of Britain in the Early Mediaeval period, various Christian clergyman denounced those pagans who continued to venerate at stones in the landscape, which in some cases perhaps implied stone circles.[18]

By the Late Mediaeval period, references to prehistoric monuments in the British Isles were rare, and were usually only to note down practical matters, such as that a judicial court would be held near to one or that a farmer's land lay near to one.[19] A rare exception is found in the fictionalised History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136), in which the chronicle's author Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that Stonehenge had once been the Giants' Ring, and that it had originally been located on Mount Killaraus in Ireland, until the wizard Merlin moved it to Salisbury Plain.[19]

Folklore[edit]

In the Mediaeval and Early Modern period onward, much folklore developed around the subject of the stone circles.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Burl 1979. p. 235.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Burl 2000. p. 13.
  3. ^ a b Burl 2000. p. 9.
  4. ^ a b Parker Pearson 2005. p. 34.
  5. ^ Burl 2000. p. 24.
  6. ^ Burl 2000. p. 23.
  7. ^ a b Burl 2000. pp. 26-27.
  8. ^ a b c d Burl 2000. p. 25.
  9. ^ a b Hutton 1991. p. 52.
  10. ^ a b c d Burl 2000. p. 29.
  11. ^ Parker Pearson 2005. p. 57.
  12. ^ Burl 2000. p. 38.
  13. ^ Coles and Harding 1979. p. 213.
  14. ^ a b Burl 2000. p. 43.
  15. ^ Burl 2000. pp. 44-45.
  16. ^ a b Burl 2000. p. 46.
  17. ^ Burl 2000. p. 45.
  18. ^ Burl 2000. p. 14.
  19. ^ a b Burl 2000. p. 15.

Bibliography[edit]

Academic Books[edit]

  • Barrett, John C. (1994). Fragments from Antiquity: An Archaeology of Social Life in Britain, 2900-1200 BC. Oxford, UK and Cambridge, USA: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-18954-1. 
  • Burl, Aubrey (1979). Rings of Stone. London: Francis Lincoln. 
  • Burl, Aubrey (2000). The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-08347-7. 
  • Burl, Aubrey (2005). A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 
  • Blain, Jenny; Wallis, Robert (2007). Sacred Sites Contested Rites/Rights: Pagan Engagements with Archaeological Monuments. Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press. ISBN 978-1-84519-130-6. 
  • Bradley, Richard (1998). The Significance of Monuments: On the Shaping of Human Experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-15204-4. 
  • Childe, V. Gordon (1947). Prehistoric Communities of the British Isles (second edition). Glasgow and London: Gilmour & Dean Ltd. 
  • Coles, J.M.; Harding, A.F. (1979). The Bronze Age in Europe: An introduction to the prehistory of Europe c.2000-700 BC. London: Methuen & Co Ltd. ISBN 978-0-416-70640-6. 
  • Grinsell, Leslie V. (1976). Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain. London: David & Charles. ISBN 0-7153-7241-6. 
  • Hutton, Ronald (1991). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-17288-8. 
  • Parker Pearson, Michael (2005). Bronze Age Britain (Revised Edition). London: B.T. Batsford and English Heritage. ISBN 978-0-7134-8849-4. 
  • Thomas, Julian (1999). Understanding the Neolithic. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-20767-6. 
  • Waterhouse, John (1985). The Stone Circles of Cumbria. Chichester: Phillimore. 
Academic papers and articles