Stone Circles

The stone circle is a type of later prehistoric monument that is commonly found in northwestern Europe but is also found elsewhere in Europe and also in certain other parts of the world. Over 1,300 examples survive in Britain, Ireland, and Brittany, ranging from a few meters to over 350 meters in diameter and containing from five to over thirty standing stones. The stones at some stone circles are mere stumps and rounded boulders; at others they are great monoliths several meters in height.

Stone circles are not always found in isolation. They can be found surrounding tombs, as at Newgrange, or within the banks and ditches of henges, as at Avebury; they can also be connected to lines or avenues of stones, as at Callanish and Beaghmore. Some of the most complex arrangements of several circles and stone alignments are the stone monuments of

One of a complex of Bronze Age stone circles and rows at Aughlish, County Derry, Northern Ireland. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

mid-Ulster. The designs of individual circles are also quite diverse, with a number of regional variants. One of the most distinctive of these is the recumbent stone circle, where one stone is placed on its side. Others include stone circles with entrances, circles with outlying standing stones, embanked circles, and "circles" with distinctive shapes such as ellipses or flattened circles. (Since many are nowhere near true circles, some have suggested that stone circles should more correctly be called "stone rings.")

It is difficult to date a stone circle, but most northwest European examples are thought to have been built in the Later Neolithic or earlier part of the Bronze Age, broadly in the third and second millennia b.c.e. Stones were sometimes transported several kilometers to the site; famously (although exceptionally) the Stonehenge bluestones, weighing up to four tons each, were transported over sea and land some three hundred kilometers (two hundred miles) from the Preseli mountains in southwest Wales.

The purpose of stone circles has long been a mystery. Only a minority are directly associated with tombs. Cists containing small burials are found in some of them, but these are often late additions, perhaps placed at what was already an ancient hallowed or ancestral place whose original purpose was long forgotten. Other than this, archaeological excavations tend to find little in the way of stratigraphy and artifacts, so that for many years stone circles were largely ignored by archaeologists—so much so that the British archaeologist Aubrey Burl once referred to them as the "personae non gratae of British prehistory" (Ruggles 2002, p. 176). Yet an obvious assumption— as for any open ring, whether built of earth, timber, or stone—is that they demarcated a piece of special or sacred ground, perhaps a place used for a ceremonial gathering or ritual activity. This means it makes sense to study the form of the rings, their position in the landscape, and their relationship to visible features in the surrounding environment, including objects in the sky. Such investigations are now carried out by archaeologists, but until late in the twentieth century they were the almost exclusive preserve of engineers, astronomers, and others from outside the discipline.

One of the most famous of these was the engineer Alexander Thom, who proposed that many British stone circles were laid out using a standard unit of measurement, the "megalithic yard," of 0.83 meters (2.72 feet). He also claimed that many evidently noncircular rings represent precise geometrical constructions, such as ellipses and various types of "flattened circle," laid out using Pythagorean triangles more than a millennium before they were (re)discovered by Pythagoras. Given all this, Thom's other main idea—that many stone circles incorporated remarkably precise alignments upon the rising and setting positions of the sun, moon, and certain stars— seemed less surprising.

However, time has dealt harshly with the specifics of "megalithic mensuration," "megalithic geometry," and "megalithic astronomy," even though Thom himself is remembered as an important pioneer in getting people to think about such issues. Statistical reappraisals of the diameters of stone circles, given the large size of the stones and their often poor state of preservation, only gives marginal support for the notion that some common unit (perhaps related to the average human pace) was used in setting out many of them; there is no sustainable evidence whatsoever for the idea of a precise measuring stick being carried the length and breadth of later prehistoric Britain. Similarly, the observed shapes of stone circles can all be adequately explained by the use of simpler construction techniques: there is no need to resort to Thom's geometrical constructions. Some have even argued that these monuments may all simply be poor attempts at circles, or that the precise shape didn't matter and was simply laid out by eye.

A major problem with studying possible astronomical alignments at stone circles is the number of different ways in which such an alignment might have been set up: in the direction of the entrance where one exists; in the direction of the tallest stone; from the circle center to an outlier where one exists, or vice versa; (either way) along the main axis where one can be identified (e.g., in the case of an elliptical ring); (either way) between the tallest stones; and so on. At many stone circles, many potential alignments of various types may exist, making it quite likely—even, in some cases, highly probable—that one or more of them will align purely by chance upon a prominent feature in the landscape or a major celestial body or event. This means that in order to have some degree of confidence that any alignment we spot was actually intentional and meaningful, we have to pay particular attention to questions of methodology.

In just a few types of stone circle, one direction of alignment stands out from any others as possibly significant. Where this occurs we find some of the strongest evidence of an intense interest in the sun and/or moon, although not consistently. In this context the Scottish recumbent stone circles and the Irish axial stone circles are particularly important. However, as with mensuration and geometry, the high precision astronomical alignments envisaged by Thom have not withstood the test of time. They simply cannot be convincingly demonstrated on the basis of the evidence available. Though absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, until and unless such evidence emerges, we have no need to fit chiefs, shamans, or priests obsessed with the minutiae of the moon's motions over several generations into our models of later prehistoric societies in Britain and Ireland.

On the other hand, solar and lunar alignments of less than pinpoint accuracy are nonetheless highly fascinating. They suggest, for example, that circles may have become charged with meaning at certain times, when the celestial bodies reached particular configurations in relation to the stones of the circle. At some sites, other forms of archaeological evidence reinforce the idea of ceremonies taking place when the celestial configuration was right. A good example of this is the scatters of moon-reflecting white stones such as quartz that are found around the base of the recumbent stone at some Scottish recumbent stone circles, reinforcing the idea that ceremonies took place here by the light of the full moon on a midsummer evening when it appeared low over the recumbent stone. Such ideas must be considered in the broader context of cosmological ideas that could have viewed these monuments as microcosms or placed them conceptually at the very center of the world.

See also:

Methodology; Palaeoscience; Thom, Alexander (1894-1985).

Avebury; Axial Stone Circles; Callanish; Circles of Earth, Timber, and Stone; Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland; Newgrange; Recumbent Stone Circles; Stonehenge.

References and further reading

Burl, Aubrey. A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

-. Prehistoric Stone Circles. Princes Risborough, UK: Shire, 1997.

-. Great Stone Circles. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

-. The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. New Haven: Yale

University Press, 2000.

Ruggles, Clive, ed. Records in Stone: Papers in Memory of Alexander Thom, 175-205. Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press, 2002.

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