Britain’s prehistoric stone circles

David Musgrove talks to Richard Bradley about when and why henges and stone circles were built across Britain

Stonehenge © Dreamstime

Stonehenge is, for many of us, the one place that represents Britain’s prehistory. The celebrated stone circle standing proud on Salisbury Plain with its trademark lintel-topped sarsens has been an enduring source of fascination for millennia. The first monument there, a circular ditch and bank, was dug in c2900 BC, and a timber or stone circle erected inside it. Then, much later, in c2400 BC, the first monoliths of local rock were brought in. Over the course of the next several hundred years, stones were put up, taken down, moved around, added to, and then finally re-erected to the shape we see today.

Stonehenge is undeniably a stone circle, but it’s not a henge, even though it has lent its name to the group of monuments that go under that title. The concept of the ‘henge’ was introduced by a man called Thomas Kendrick in 1932 and technically, a henge is a circular earthen bank with a ditch inside it and one or more entrances through the bank. At Stonehenge, there is a circular bank, but it is inside a ditch, so these elements are the wrong way round. Nevertheless, stone circles and henges do appear to be connected parts of a tradition that developed in Britain from around 3000 to 2000 BC – in other words, during the later Neolithic period (when agriculture began here) and moving into the earlier Bronze Age (when we see the first use of metals, from about 2400 BC).

Stone circles are often positioned within henges, sometimes in replacement for earlier timber circles, so there is a link between the two types of monument, though it’s not an absolutely clear one, as Richard Bradley explains: “Henges and stone circles are separate things that often coalesce. You’ve got plenty of stone circles that don’t have henges, and plenty of henges that don’t have stone circles. They each can pursue an independent existence but they are both different expressions of a more basic idea that special places ought to be circular, which seems quite natural to us, but large parts of Europe don’t have circular monuments in prehistory.”

10 facts about Stonehenge

It’s possible that the tradition has its origins in northern Britain, perhaps in Orkney, and spread south from there. Stone circles number 1,000 across the country, while there are
around 120 henges known. Given the large size of some of these places, the construction of these monuments would have required a considerable number of people to build them. They indicate a “massive control of labour” in the view of Richard Bradley, and what’s particularly odd is that we don’t know where these labourers lived. Their monuments survive, but their houses (rare exceptions aside, particularly in Orkney) are lost to us, so in the later Neolithic and earlier Bronze Age, these henges and stones circles seem to have been the prime concerns of the people who built them.

What we do know is people were coming from a distance to these places. Settlements are not always found in their immediate vicinity. Combined with finds of exotic objects in and around the circles, the evidence from isotope analysis of the bones of animals eaten at these sites points to the fact that people were travelling to get to them. “I think we can start to talk about pilgrimage,” says Richard Bradley. What were they coming to do? Well, eating seems to have been a big thing. Feasting, particularly on pork, is attested by excavated remains of animal bones.

Similarly, archaeological finds indicate that burial and commemoration of the dead also appears to have been going on. There was the deliberate deposition of unusual objects in the ground. Also, the observation of basic astronomical events would appear to have been practised, as many of the monuments have alignments that lend themselves to the solstices. Those are the main things that we can talk about with any sense of certainty, but of course that hasn’t stopped archaeologists and others from coming up with a multitude of theories about the purpose of these places.

Stonehenge: a prehistoric tourist trap

What’s interesting is that their role seems to shift over time, notes Richard Bradley: “There’s a gradual change from public buildings – big houses I call them – where we see wooden structures with a lot of animal bone and a lot of debris, to stone settings usually with cremation burials. Then there’s a very last phase of use at stone circles which is perhaps more northern than southern. They were used all over again in the late Bronze Age (1200–800 BC) as cremation cemeteries and cremation pyres.”

So these circular monuments have had a long life and no doubt have meant different things to different people. That’s an attribute they maintain to this day, as anyone passing Stonehenge on a solstice will be able to confirm.

 

Places to visit

 

1) The Hurlers, Cornwall

Where you can see how stone circles sat within ritual landscapes

One of the interesting points about henges and stone circles is that they don’t exist in isolation. They are often surrounded by burial mounds, to create wider ritual landscapes. At The Hurlers, on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, there are three well-preserved stone circles arranged over open ground in a line, a grouping which is unusual in itself.

As with many of these sites, we don’t have definite dates for their construction, but they are assumed to be late Neolithic or early Bronze Age. Not far away at Rillaton was an early Bronze Age burial mound, which was dug into in the 19th century. It turned out to be one of the richest early Bronze Age burials discovered.

A skeleton was found along with a fabulous gold cup, the Rillaton Cup, and numerous other objects. Curiously this cup found its way into the royal household where it was used to store the collar studs of King George V, before it was passed on to the British Museum, where it can still be seen today.

Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk

 

2) Stanton Drew, Bath & NE Somerset

Where stones replaced timber circles

In and around this small village south of Bristol, there are three stone circles grouped together, along with a three-stone cove (a cove being a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of stones) in a pub garden, plus some bits of avenues of paired stones leading into the circles. It adds up to one of the largest collections of prehistoric standing stones in the country.

There doesn’t seem to have been a substantial earthwork here, but geophysical survey
has suggested that the stones replaced timber structures, one of which is probably the biggest timber setting that we know of from the Neolithic. The process of replacing timber with stone is repeated elsewhere across the country and might be associated with the idea of moving away from the use of public places linked with the living to more private sites of the dead. Interestingly, the stones used here come from a number of different local sources, so it may be that different groups of people were contributing labour and materials.

Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk

 

3) The Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, Orkney

Where the tradition of henge building may have begun

Orkney is a paradise for Neolithic enthusiasts, so much so that a large part of it has been designated as a World Heritage Site. Aside from the astonishingly well-preserved Neolithic village at Skara Brae and the magnificently atmospheric chambered tomb of Maes Howe, there’s a stunning pair of stone circles – the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness – opposing each other across an isthmus. The sharp, sometimes triangular, standing stones are set in breathtaking scenery and are worth visiting for that alone.

Their significance in this story is great. The radiocarbon dates from excavated material at the Stones of Stenness suggest that it’s towards the beginnings of both the henge and stone circle traditions. The site is also associated with a style of pottery – grooved ware - that seems to originate in Orkney and travel south with henges and stone circles. As Richard Bradley notes: “The odds are that the henge idea originates in the north and the west.” Even more interesting however is that these henges and circles lie within a much larger Neolithic landscape including several Neolithic settlements (they survive here because the paucity of timber meant that house construction was in stone rather than wood).

The late Neolithic village of Barnhouse is completely contemporary with the nearby Stones of Stenness, and another settlement near the Ring of Brodgar is under excavation now. It’s very unusual to see settlements so close to these types of monuments and the fact that the evidence survives in Orkney adds an extra dimension to the stone circles and henges here.

Visit www.historic-scotland.gov.uk

 

4) Avebury, Wiltshire

Where you can consider how a henge might have altered reality

One of the largest, and most famous, henge and stone circles in Britain, Avebury has one major circle, with a horseshoe-shaped cove setting inside it, and two further circles as well. There is also likely evidence of a timber circle. It had two avenues of paired stones, one of which leads to another stone circle known as The Sanctuary. The dating is not good but the site was probably created around 2400 BC.

The henge is a very substantial earthwork and there’s a great day to be had wandering around the place, being towered over by the great lumpen stones in their settings.
It’s an excellent place to consider just how much labour the creation of some of these sites would have consumed, and of course to ponder why they were built. The huge size of the henge earthworks here might get you thinking about one of Richard Bradley’s theories:
“These earthworks of henges are great screens: they make a completely excluded space, you can’t see in if you’re not a participant and you can’t see out if you are a participant. One of the things that’s very odd with henges is the internal ditch. One argument is that it’s a defence in reverse to stop something powerful escaping. Another is that in most societies, in social anthropology, rites of passage involve a phase of seclusion where the norms of normal existence are explicitly reversed, and I do wonder if we’re talking about something like that.”

The village of Avebury is not an inversion of reality – though it is partly encompassed by the stone circle – and there you’ll find the Alexander Keiller Museum, which displays finds from excavations at this World Heritage Site.

Visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk

 

5) Arbor, Low Derbyshire

Where the prehistoric builders seem to be leading you on a journey

This is a large henge monument boasting a substantial bank and ditch with two entrances, inside which is a circle of some 50 white limestone slabs, now lying on their sides, and a central horseshoe-shaped cove. The setting is in the high moorland of the Peak District, and Richard Bradley describes how Arbor Low might be designed with the power of the Peaks in mind: “It has one narrow entrance and one wide one. If you go in through the narrow entrance, you enter from a fairly undifferentiated landscape; then if you go across the monument you get to the wide entrance on the other side which affords you a spectacular view of a large part of the Peak District.” Whether that’s a journey the prehistoric builders wanted you to take, we cannot know, but it’s interesting to speculate on the mental voyage that might have lain behind this apparently leading layout.

The henge is, in the view of Richard Bradley, later than the stone circle, and he suspects that the recumbent position of the stones is due to later Christian iconoclasm rather than incompetence on the part of the prehistoric builders in setting them originally.

Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk

 

6) Gors Fawr, Pembrokeshire

Where you can think about how stones were transported

This is a very small stone circle, which is nevertheless impressive and handily just beside the road. Its location is interesting as it sits just below the Preseli Mountains, which is where the famous bluestones of Stonehenge come from. Gors Fawr is also made of bluestones and while you’re looking at this site, you might well be drawn to dwelling on the much-discussed question of how the 80 or so stones were moved the 150 miles or so east, from this part of Pembrokeshire to Wiltshire.

Henges and stone circles tend to be sited in places that were easily accessible, often in river valleys. Richard Bradley notes that this “may be metaphysical but it’s probably more to do with access”, as waterways would have served as useful transport arteries for people, and perhaps stones, in prehistory.

Visit www.megalithic.co.uk

 

7) Castlerigg, Cumbria

Where the circular landscape perhaps inspired the builders

This is a very well-preserved stone circle, probably of an early date, with a peculiar inner enclosure that has never been convincingly explained, and no surrounding henge. It occupies a spectacular location, completely surrounded by a circular landscape of Lake District hills. Richard Bradley thinks this is significant: “Henges and early stone circles tend to be located in basins so that you have the optical illusion that you’ve got a circle which is built within a circle taken from nature.”

Castlerigg stands at one of the entrances to the uplands of the Lake District and it’s noteworthy this area was the biggest supplier of stone axes in Neolithic Britain, which, along with the circular landscape theory, might go some way to explaining the location of this stone circle. It certainly makes it one of the most photogenic of monuments to visit today.

Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk

 

8) Cairnpapple, West Lothian

Where you can track the changing purpose of a circular monument

This henge is similar to Arbor Low, in that it’s on a hill and has a narrow and wide entrance, providing the same effect of a dramatic view from the wide entrance. The place has a long history – there was some sort of stone setting before 3000 BC – and the interior is complicated. Along with the henge, it had either a stone or timber circle, and it also had a cove. What is interesting is that increasingly the interior was taken up by a burial cairn. It was begun in the early Bronze Age and, as time went by, it got bigger and bigger until it occupied quite a lot of the interior, changing it from an open area to something that’s congested.

Richard Bradley sees that as an indication that here “people are taking over and appropriating a monument that was originally conceived as communal”. This is something that seems to happen elsewhere too, perhaps in association with the arrival of metal technology. If you visit today, you can see the henge, and the burial chamber of the cairn (it has been removed), which is now displayed under a concrete dome (summer opening only). Guided tours are offered and you’ll also get good views over central Scotland, assuming you’ve come on a day when the weather is kind.

Visit www.historic-scotland.gov.uk

 

9) Tomnaverie, Aberdeenshire

Where a stone circle has been raised up once more

This is a stone circle that Richard Bradley excavated, and it’s one of the rare places where we have a good date. It’s a rubble platform on a low hilltop, which was enclosed by a stone circle about 2300 BC. There is no henge and it’s got a tremendous all-round view, with an illusion of an entrance on the south-west side. It’s illusory as it is blocked by a huge stone. This false entrance is aligned exactly on a mountaintop some 20 miles away. The circle was reused in the late Bronze Age as a cremation site.

In the early part of the 20th century, the site was threatened by quarrying. Alexander Keiller, who went on to dig at Avebury, stopped its destruction, but not before the quarry workers had taken most of the stones out of their sockets and laid them flat. Following Richard Bradley’s excavations, the stones were refitted back into their sockets. Apparently it was quite obvious which hole each stone should go in as they had a very snug fit.

Visit www.historic-scotland.gov.uk

Richard Bradley is professor of archaeology at Reading University and author of The Prehistory of Britain and Ireland (Cambridge UP, 2007).

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