Stone Circles of Britain
Stone Circles are one of the most powerful symbols of ancient Britain. So little is known about the reasons for their construction or their function but they have attracted endless speculation and fascination over the centuries since the knowledge has been lost.
Within the Northern Fire collective, we all have a keen interest in history and whilst thinking on the idea of writing about stone circles, I realised that over the years, I have been round a fair few and thought I would share some of those experiences with you... especially given that we may be stuck inside for the foreseeable future!
Villkat Arts with one of his paintings - available here
Where else to start? Stonehenge is probably the best known stone circle in the world and attracts hundreds of visitors every day.
The site itself was constructed over a number of periods consisting firstly of a large earthwork or "Henge" which was built around 3100BC. It was almost a century later that the monument we all know today was constructed on top of the previous earthworks. The most remarkable thing about Stonehenge is the engineering behind it, starting with the stones themselves as the bluestones at Stonehenge were transported to the site from Milford Haven in South Wales (a journey of around 240 miles). It is thought that as well as using rollers, a large portion of the journey was completed on the water which would suggest a far greater affinity with boats and travelling by river than had been previously assumed.
However, not all of the stones are from Wales... in around 2000BC, the Sarsen stones were transported around 25 miles south from the Marlborough Downs, Near Avebury (see below) and as these were much bigger, transportation by water will have been impossible. The only way would have been to drag the stones on rollers or sledges and given the weight, it will have taken a huge number of men to complete the work... unless of course the tinfoil hat brigade are right and it was actually built by aliens...
Finally, another myth of how Stonehenge came into being involves the famous wizard Merlin. The tale goes that the magician sang the stones over from Ireland through the air and constructed them completely on his own using his powers. But more on Merlin and this subject another time.
Stonehenge captured in the snow a decade or so ago by Sean & Duncan
Whilst most people will have heard of Stonehenge, just down the road was an older and more impressive circle at Avebury. Originally, there were around 100 standing stones at this site comprising of several circles. The outer ring had a diameter of 1088 feet (making it the largest stone circle in Britain) whilst the two inner rings were much smaller (around 300 - 350 feet in diameter).
The site dates from 2850 BC and the largest stones measure between 12 and 18 feet tall which given the technology available (that we know of) to the prehistoric people, makes its a remarkable feat of engineering!
As with all ancient sites, we cannot say for certain what the stones at Avebury were built for but given the scale of the structure, it seems likely that it was a sight of special significance at one time. Theories for its use range from the religious to the astronomical but as there have been multiple animal bones found in the area, it is likely that it was a meeting place for feasts and gatherings even if we don't know what was being celebrated.
What is certain though is that people where travelling from the farthest reaches of Britain to attend these events. Cattle remains have been identified in this area originating in Orkney (Northern Scotish Isle) for example. And the famous Archer of Stonehenge with the stone wrist guard is through to have travelled from the Alps in Europe, possibly in search of a healer for his ailments.Hey
Silbury Hill & West Kennet Long Barrow
Although not technically stone circles, it seemed a shame to miss out these ancient man made structures as they are pretty well within site of the Avebury stones!
Standing at 30 metres high, Silbury Hill is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe created by man and dates to between 2470 and 2350 BC. There is no conclusive answer as to why the locals chose to build such a vast hill on this site and it is something that has inspired plenty of myths and theories over the centuries. Sadly, due to (relatively) recent attempts to excavate at the hill, the structure is unstable as the tunnels that were dug weren't properly filled... and to make matters worse, the excavators did not find any evidence of burials as they had expected.
recent excavations now suggest that these earthworks where constructed on top of a form of longhouse used as living quarters, possibly for centuries. Once these wooden structures where “decommissioned”, they where ceremoniously burnt down and Commemorated with Long Barrows. These earthworks could have been intended to mirror the buildings in a more permanent form. This theory comes from the discovery of wooden structures being discovered under the Cats Brain Long Barrow near Stonehenge.
If you want to read more about the conservation project, there is an excellent article online here.
Man made Silbury Hill, taken from the side facing Avebury
This whole area is pretty special for ancient sites and just over the road from Silbury hill is the West Kennet Long Barrow as well. The barrow dates back to 3650 BC and was the final resting place for nearly 50 people. Grave goods found here included pottery, beads and stone tools including a dagger.
West Kennet Long Barrow (photography by the National Trust)
The Castlerigg stone circle is situated in one of the most dramatic locations of any of the ancient sites I have visited. High up in the Cumbrian hills, the circle is surrounded by mountains with views towards Helvellyn and High Seat on a clear day. I have visited this particular circle on several occasions but with the weather being so changeable in the hills, I have yet to see Castlerigg in the sunshine!
It is thought that Castlerigg was created in around 3000BC and comprises of 38 stones, the largest of which reaches 2.3 metres. In addition to the circle, you can clearly see an entranceway facing to the North.
The circle is one of the first ancient sites in the UK to be protected by the government and is currently managed by English Heritage.
Castlerigg stone circle high in the mountains of Cumbria
Men An Tol
Although not a traditional "circle", The Men An Tol als
o dates back more than 3500 years ago and its meaning is shrouded in mystery. The stones sit high in the moorland of South Western Cornwall and the holed stone is one of only two examples in the UK. It is thought that rituals performed here would involve passing through the centre of the holed stone and given the feminine symbology associated with the shape, it has been speculated that this could have been a place where fertility rituals were performed... but we will never know for sure...
The Men An Tol stones high in the moorlands of the South West
When translated, the name Mên-an-Tol literally means "Holed Stone" in Cornish and the stones are in fairly close proximity to Chun Castle, an ancient hill fort. Although this fort was built around 1000 years later, could this have been on on the site of an earlier settlement linked to the stones?
As a resident of Cornwall, Villkat has been inspired by the stones to create the limited edition Men An Tol canvas.
Known as Meini Hirion in Welsh, the Druids Circle is also located in a dramatic location up a mountain overlooking the sea with views across to Llandudno. It is thought that the circle could be around 5000 years old so despite its modern name, the stones most likely will predate the Druids. However, given the name it inherited, the Druids may well have used this site for their religious practices and there is even the ominously named Stone Of Sacrifice which received its name due to its shape with an obvious ledge...
Being relatively local to the Llandudno region, it is a place we have been on a number of occasions and have even spent the night there during the summer solstice.
The Druids Circle in the mist...
Ring of Brodgar
I will finish by talking about a site I have not yet been to but is one of the most important areas for stone circles in all of Britain, Orkney. I was incredibly jealous that two of our collective; Sean (Sacred Knot) and Hamish (Pictavia Leather), went up to Orkney earlier in the year so I have just nicked their pictures for the purposes of this blog...
The best example of a stone circle in Orkney is the huge Ring of Brodgar. This circle originally consisted of 60 stones and was built around 5000 years ago. Although not all of the stones have survived to the modern day, it is still quite a spectacle and is the third largest stone circle in the British isles.
The Ring of Brodgar (Photography by Pictavia Leather)
However, the reason that this area is so important is that it is thought to contain one of the first stone circles to be built, The Standing Stones of Stenness which dates back to at least 3100BC. As I mentioned before when discussing Stonehenge, it is likely that the prehistoric people had a far greater ability to travel via water than we had previously considered as the idea for stone circles seems to have travelled south to the mainland. There must have been boats capable of travelling some distance over rough seas and sailors capable of navigating the treacherous currents between Orkney and mainland Scotland which gives us an entirely new perspective on how the ancient world was able to trade and interact with other regions.
I hope that you have found some of this interesting and that it will inspire you to see some of the incredible history of the British isles... once we are allowed outside again!
Written by Duncan Reed