Skyscrapers of the Prehistoric: an introduction to stone circles

To begin discussing stone circles by referring to Stonehenge is like starting a discussion on birds by referring to the dodo. Neither is a typical example of it’s class. Both are above average in size, of peculiar construction and both represent a dead end in evolution. Yet Stonehenge is not unique, it had many counterparts across Britain, lintelled uprights enclosing circles many paces across. But these were timber rings, now having rotten, distorting peoples understanding so that, when asked what a stone circle was, it would be Stonehenge that came to mind together with druids and sacrifices, astronomy and astrology, midsummer sunrise, witchcraft, black magic, orgies and stones with supernatural powers. Always Stonehenge, perhaps Avebury might be mentioned, maybe the Rollright stones, or Callanish, or the stone circles in ones own part of the country. Stirred by the mystery of these silent places on the hillsides and moors, men and women come to them, stare, puzzle and often leave disappointed because there is nothing to explain the rings age or purpose. Only expectant emptiness.
They are infamous for their lack of artefacts, and whilst their bleak emptiness deterers the archaeologist, the same vacuum offered the fantasist a free rein which cannot be marred by the presence of facts. In his poem Jerusalem, William Blake wrote of ‘stony druid temples‘ in which men ‘reared mighty stones, danced naked around them‘ but attitudes are changing, megalithic rings can be defined as approximate circles of spaced standing stones, erected between the Late Neolithic and the final years of the Middle Bronze Age, dating from the fourth millennium BC to the second.  Over 1300 rings are recorded, with concentrations in north eastern and central Scotland, the Lake District and the South Peninsula, with lesser groupings in Caithness, the Outer Hebrides, the Peak District, the Wicklow Mountains, Wales and Wessex.
Until 300 years ago, these relics were guarded by indifference, fear and superstition. In 1723 William Stukely grieved at the wanton smashing of Avebury ‘And this stupendous fabric’ he mourned ‘which for some thousands of years, had brav’d the continual assaults of weather, and by the nature of it, when left to itself, like the pyramids of Egypt, would have lasted as long as the globe, [has] fallen a sacrifice to the wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unlickily plac’d within it.’
Some circles now no longer exist, having been fully or partially destroyed by man or nature, the stone circle at Moncrieffe near Perth was moved and re-erected to make room for the M90 motorway. The little ring of Pan y Becon in the Black Mountains is partly overlaid by a car park. Cairnwell in Kincardineshire was threatened with demolition by the need for industrial development. The henge at Goldington in Bedfordshire is buried under a Tesco supermarket. Simple vandalism, led to many stones of the Beaghmore complex in Co. Tyrone to be pushed over. As recently as 1994 the two biggest stones at Mitchell’s Fold in Shropshire were bulldozed just as senselessly. Their re-erection cost over £10,000. In the 1960’s limestone pillars were dragged into the lane, fires were lit and property burned down at the Rollright stones in Oxfordshire.
Even good intention can cause damage, ‘Save the Ponys’ was painted on Stonehenge, saying more for the compassion than the education of the culprit. Arcane idiocy resulted in cabalistic icons being daubed on Avebury. A misguided sense of mission led born-again Christians to de-paganise the Merry Maidens by attempting to take away one of the stones in the hope of sterilising the heathen temple. New Age delusions of power of imaginary fertility rites at the time of the Spring Equinox resulted in eight stones being added to the original six at the Doll Tor stone circle in the Peak District, the illegal ‘restoration’ hacking and wrecking the kerbstones and destroying almost the entire east cairn.

A little bit of prehistory to begin with:

In the centuries around 7500 BC, when Britain and Ireland became separated from the European mainland prehistoric communities slowly changed from hunting and foraging to farming. Stock breeding and agriculture were being practised as early as 4500 BC by people of the New Stone Age or Neolithic who relied on flint and stone for their hardest and sharpest tools and who settled on the easily worked chalk uplands of southern and eastern Britain and north east Ireland. Over decades forests were cleared, the heaviest trees ring braked and allowed to decay, others felled, the undergrowth burnt and raked away to create open stretches for grazing. Huge burial places were constructed, long earthen barrows with wooden burial chambers in the lowlands, stone chambered cairns in the west. Revealing their builders beliefs in a connection between the sun, moon and the dead, nearly all these tombs face somewhere between the north-east and south-east, the rising places from summer to winter of those celestial bodies. Human bones were taken to these ossuaries, in later centuries bones were taken out again, the remaining skeletons show the people to be short lived, the average age for a man being 30-35 years, woman 25-30. Infant mortality was high.

Later in the third millennium BC a widening knowledge of metallurgy in copper and bronze caused changes in technology and in society as privileged families acquired precious objects of rare materials including gold. It is in this Early Bronze Age from around 2200BC that objects are found in the round barrows used for burial such as bronze daggers, and strung necklaces of jet, amber and faïence beads. During a thousand years of warmer, drier weather, farming improved, field systems took in larger areas, populations grew and spread onto higher areas such as Dartmoor and the Yorkshire Moors, the settlers worked the thinner soils unti around 900BC in the Late Bronze Age, a deteriorating climate forced the poorer less productive uplands to be abandoned. Conflicts between the dispossessed and those in less troubled regions developed into the aggression of the Iron Age in the first millennium BC when the class of priests and law givers known as the Druids first appeared. Former causewayed enclosures were converted into defended villages with heavy gateways, at Carn Brea in Cornwall, Hambledon Hill in Dorset and Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire burnt down defences, reduced numbers of entrances and masses of flint arrowheads are evidence of bitter conflict. This change in the climate led to a change in society, perhaps resulting in the fact that stone circles could no longer be relied upon to negate natural disasters.

It is in this period between the later Neolithic and the Late Bronze Age, from about 3300BC -900BC, more than a hundred brief generations, that stone circles were introduced, became popular, reached into further, quieter parts, and were finally abandoned. It was a third of the way through those centuries that the monstrous squatly barred cage of Stonehenge was built, the monument was still undergoing changes over a thousand years later when many of the simpler rings had been deserted or had been wrecked by societies believing them to no longer be of use.


Plan of Crickley Hill showing distribution of defences and arrowheads (after Keeley 1996 figure 1)

If it is assumed that for every known ring, two have been lost, there would once have been about 4,000 stone circles. If it is also assumed that two-thirds were erected during the major phase of building between 3000 and 1300BC, then 2,600 rings were created over 1,700 years, fewer than two circles annually.

The construction of a stone circle
Most stone circles are a product of careful planning and preparation, from the choice of the most desirable site, the size of the intended ring, the transportation of heavy blocks, the laying out of the circle or an ellipse, the preparation of stone-holes often of a specific number and the fact that some rings contain astronomical sight-lines.
Practically consider part of this procedure, that stones of the right shape and rough size have been procured and transported to the intended site, which has already been prepared.
The hole had been prepared by cutting and hacking off the ground with stone or flint axes, the topsoil shovelled out by ox shoulder blades attached to wooden shafts, with the loose carried away in wickerwork baskets. Evidence of fractures arms and legs and distortions of arthritic joints attest to the physical labour involved. The hole was not a mere pit. Unless the bedrock was unmalleable, it’s depth would be decided by two factors. It had to be at least a quarter of the length of the pillar because of it were shallower, the stone might not be held firmly. The second complication was that sometimes, as at Stonehenge’s bluestone inner, the ring was graded in height, so the cavity had to be calculated to create that effect in the finished monument. Where stones were of more than one or two tons, the nearside of the hole would be ramped so that the block could be manoeuvred more easily down the slope before being hauled upright against the vertical back of the pit, to reduce the damage as the stones base grated down the back of the pit, saplings stripped of their bark were used as anti friction devices. Stake holes for these were discovered at Stonehenge.
On occasion there was further refinement; a thick layer of clay was padded down in the base of some holes. This is currently under discussion as to the practical use, some understand it to ensure that the stone was properly balanced on the layer before the hole was backfilled, other’s that the clay was to ensure that the stone found it’s own equilibrium, or that the clay was used as a surface for the stone to slide over and be manoeuvred into position easier.
Eventually the stone is pushed and levered down the ramp and into the hole, when the end is resting about 50o against the back of the hole it had to be levered upwards until it reached an angle of some 70o from the vertical. Then with stout ropes it would be dragged upright.
There is another technique which is now not visible on many stone circles; at Old Keig, a fallen stone circle in Aberdeenshire, one pillar is not flat bottomed, but sharply angled, where a big triangle of stone had been roughly hammered off leaving the base ‘keeled’, like the down-turned beak of a parrot. Margaret Stuart has recognised similar techniques in several rings in Perthshire.
At 70o three quarters of the way to the perpendicular, the stone was exerting a resistance of a fifth of it’s dead weight. Physical trials have shown that for a short while a man can pull 100lbs, 45.4kg. A cubic foot of granite weighs about 162lbs, 73.5kg. A straightforward calculation shows that an average 1.8m high circle stone, about 2.4m long and 1m thick would require a work gang of 24 plus perhaps four or five other workers to assist in wedging the slowly rising block.

(72c.ft divided by 5) x 162lbs

———————————— = 24 men


Once upright and held in place by timber supports, heavy chockstones were rammed in place around the base, and then further ones on top, so that the pillar remains unmoved. Shaping is not common, but aesthetics are noticeable, some, such as the Hurlers on Bodmin Moor, the stones are dressed in situ, at Macrie Moor I on Arran, the stones are alternated between granite boulders and sandstone needles. There also seems to be a widepsread practice of setting the smoother side of the stone towards the centre of the ring.

Numbers of stones:

Because of the fragmented nature of what is now left, it is difficult to tell the exact number of stones intended to be within a circle. Despite this, communities seem to have preferred numbers for their stones, on the Isle of Lewis at the site of Loch Roag the stones number 13, South Western Ireland has collections of rings with 9,11 or 13 stones. The Lake District has preference for 12, the Dartmoor rings have 30 – 36 stones, rings on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall hold 26-28, with 19-22 at Lands End

What for?

The purpose of stone circles fascinates not only us, but also antiquarians from as far back as 1693: John Aubrey did much of the earliest work on the subject, coming to some unfortunate conclusions:

The Romans had no dominion in Ireland or (at lest not far) in Scotland, therefore these temples are not to be supposed to be built by them, nor had the Danes Dominion in Wales… but all these Monuments are of the same fashion, and antique rudenesse; wherefore I Conclude that they were works erected by the Britons, and were temples of the Druids

John Aubrey Monumenta Britannica Parts I and II 1693, pg 129

Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual enclosures had many purposes; as family shrines, seasonal gatherings or trading places. When considering prehistoric ways of life it is essential not to think of the people as simplified versions of ourselves, engaged in meetings, governed by decorous behaviour. Their beliefs, values, customs and cultural background were different. They were superstitious, conservative, dependent on tradition, with little comprehension of the the world’s natural laws, and relying on ritual for protection. The lack of finds from the circles means only whatever the activities inside them they did not demand permanent and tangible offerings be buried there. Astronomical observations, dancing or stone axe trading would leave little except the stones themselves. Astronomy and magic may have not been mutually exclusive, but complementary in the ceremonies within the stone circles. There is some predominance of a correlation between regions of early stone circles and axe factories, and the distribution of the resulting stone axes.


The majority of the large stone circles are to be found along the western coast of Britain, especially in Cumbria and Cornwall. The coastal distribution of these sites is better understood when it is known that for prehistoric man travelling by water was often easier than travelling by land. Seaways and rivers were often preferable to travelling through dense trackless forests and widespread swamps. Even routes along hill ridges might be bisected by valleys and rivers. A boat is better transport for carrying a load of heavy stone axes, and it has been noticed that the distribution of axe factory products ‘was almost entirely riverrine’ (Stone & Wallis 1951 Third Report on the Petrological Determination of Stone Axes Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 17 pg99-158) Not only rivers, but the seas also proved useful trading routes, from Brittany to Ireland, Ireland to Galloway to the Orkney’s.

The combination of maritime activity and the outgoing trade in stone axes made the diffusion of stone circles along the western coasts of Britain almost inevitable. Probably beginning in Cumbria, other regions quickly took up the practice of large uncluttered rings of many stones. In and around the mountains of the Lake District, there is almost a complete absence of chambered tombs and long cairns, so the megalithic circles were built without opposition.

The circles in Cumbria are some of the finest remaining in Britain, with Castlerigg near Keswick, Long Meg and her Daughters, the close set pillars of Swinside with its double portals and the pink boulders of Kemp Howe against the railway. The site of Gunnerkeld can be seen from the motorway, and the stones of Grey Croft, near Sellafield, far south is the ring of the Druids Temple, overlooking Morecambe Bay.

Amongst the features of the early henges are circularity, an unbroken enclosure except for a single entrance, portal stones and an open central arena not more than 61m across. With a mean diameter of 48m the rings here are two and a half times bigger than the average area in Britain and Ireland

Stone circles in Cumbria:

Castlerigg: Originally there were 42 stones in the ring, all of local slate ranging from 3′ to 7’6” high, the largest stone weighing 16 tons. Unusually it was set at right angles to the circumference, like a playing card edge on. There is also a unique rectangle of low stones inside the ring to the SE. The tall pillar at SE (stone 13) can be used to sight the dawnat Imbolc from the centre of the circle. Its local name is Carles, although this is a misreading of William Stukeley’s 18th C. text ‘they call it the careles, and corruptly, I suppose, Castle-Rigg”, otherwise there are no folk stories.

Swinside/ Sunkenkirk: A well preserved 60 stone circle 93’8” diameter, with a SE entrance marked by portal stones. Swinside means the ‘hills on which the pigs graze’ , although it’s other name is Sunkenkirk, because the devil was believed to have pulled down the stones of a new church into the ground each night, until it’s builders despaired of finishing it. Fragments of charcoal and slivers of human bone were found here, although it is not know if the cremation was contemporary with the stones, or occurred afterwards. The tallest stone is 7’6” and is almost exactly to the north of the site, believed to be the female counterpart to the broad squat stone to the south.

Long Meg and her Daughters:

A weight of awe not easy to be borne
Fell Suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that sisterhood forelorn;-
And Her, whose strength and stature seemed to scorn
The power of years – pre-eminent, and placed
Apart, to overlook the circle vast.
Speak Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn,
While she dispels the cumbrous shades of night;
Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud,
When, how and wherefore, rose on British ground
That wondrous Monument, whose mystic round
Forth shadows, some have deemed, to mortal sight
The inviolable God that tames the proud.’

So wrote William Wordsworth after stumbling upon Long Meg and her Daughters in 1833.

The 70+ stone circle known as Long Meg is the fourth largest in diameter in the UK, measuring 109.4m north-south by 93m (359′ by 305′). Long Meg was a medieval catchphrase for any long and slender object, and various tales abound about the origins of the circle, the most common of which is a coven of witches transformed into stones. John Aubrey reported two large cairns stood at the centre, William Stukeley noticed their remains in 1725, but they have now gone, eradicated by the planting of crops in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Kemp Howe: The site of Kemp Howe stone circle has been cut through by the railway and siding, only a few of the pink boulders remain in situ.

Stone Circles in Cornwall:

Cornwall has one of the richest concentrations of stone circles of any region in the British Isles. These beautiful and evocative monuments are found right across Cornwall although there are two principle groups; one on Bodmin Moor and one in West Penwith. The West Penwith group comprises five circles (Boscawen Un, Merry Maidens, Tregeseal, Men-an-Tol, Nine Maidens) although itis likely that once there were many more; indeed four have been documented as being destroyed since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It has been suggested that the holed stone at Men-an-Tolis one of several stones that may have once formed part of a circle.  Whilst stone circles are variable in terms of scale and design across Britain, those in West Penwith are fairly uniform in size being between 21 and 25 metres in diameter; generally smaller than elsewhere in Cornwall. Some circles have carefully selected stones all roughly similar in shape and size while others are more random. Arguably one of the best preserved is the Merry Maidens, or Dawns Men although this near-perfect circle of nineteen stones was restored in the 1860s. The stones appear to have been dressed before they were erected and to have been graded in height, with the tallest stone in the west-south-west sector, aligned on the midwinter sunset.  There is wider variation in design of the sixteen circles found on Bodmin Moor and differences in size, shape and stone size could suggest possible differences in local traditions across the moor. There are a number of flattened circular forms, for example Stannon and Fernacre. There are examples of multiple circles, the best known of which are the Hurlers – a line of three large circles with a possible smaller fourth circle to the north. One circle, the Stripple Stones, is unique in Cornwall being set within an earthwork henge.
A2M, the online guide to Cornwall’s archaeological heritage, says this about Men-an-Tol:

a recent site survey identified a number of recumbent stones lying just beneath the modern turf which were arranged along the circumference of a circle 18 metres in diameter. …If this is indeed the origin of the site, the holed stone would probably have been aligned along the circumference of the circle and would have had a special ritual significance possibly by providing a lens through which to view other sites or features in the landscape, or as a window onto other worlds.
There is a large complex of standing stones at Minions on Bodmin Moor. The Pipers are two tall stones, the Hurlers are three stone circles, one recumbent. It’s two standing circles are of 100 and 140 feet in diameter. Legend has it that the Hurlers were playing a game somewhat similar to baseball. They made the mistake of playing on a Sunday and were turned to stone for their sins, the Pipers, who were providing the musical accompaniment, suffered the same fate. It is also said that you can only count the stones by placing a loaf on each then collecting and carefully counting them. Unfortunately, the devil sometimes likes to steal a loaf or two so counting can be more than a little difficult. The area has been extensively disturbed by mining and only the central circle has a large proportion of its stones in-situ, but this is because they were reset after the site was excavated by Raleigh-Radford in 1935-6. Fourteen stone uprights survive in the central circle, with fourteen markers for missing stones, placed in empty stone sockets during restoration works. Originally all the circles are said to have contained twenty nine stones (though the central circle is considerably larger than the other two) and it was Carew who noted the “…strange observation that a re-doubled numbering never eveneth with the first”.

The Stannon moor – Roughtor summit area contains one of the most remarkable concentration of upstanding monuments dating to the early prehistoric period. Two other stone circles lie close by: Louden is just 850m to the south-east while Fernacre is 2km away, due east of Stannon and south of the Roughtor summit. Stannon appears to have much in common with these two circles; they are the three largest circles in Cornwall, and all are made up of a large number of small upright stones. Stannon has between 64 and 68 stones laid out in an irregular ring. Originally there may have been as many as 82 stones.
Fernacre:  is one of the largest stone rings in Cornwall with a diameter of approximately 44m by 46m, and is distinctive in the number of stones used and their close irregular spacing. The height of the stones falls into two ranges and the tops and inner faces of the stones are also irregular. This is unusual as most of the stone circles in Cornwall have stones with smooth inner surfaces. The overall plan of the circle is sub circular, being slightly irregularly shaped with a somewhat flattened side to the south-east. Only about 61 stones survive, the possible total originally being between 77 and 95
Stipple stones: Rather than a titillating ‘unclothed’, the word Stripple mundanely means ‘dry earth’, understood to be the dry clods of earth cut and laid to protect dry stone walls.
The bank is now overgrown, and a field wall has been put through it, but when excavated in 1905, Harold St George Gray made a good plan and description. As usual there was wide ditch within the circular bank which was flattened at the NE like Stannon and Fernacre. There is a single WSW entrance. Inside the bank was a 44.8m diameter stone circle of 28 stones, of which four remain upright today. The stones are rough granite from the nearby tor, and up to 3.1m high, but rarely set more than 0.8m deep in the ground. Harold’s excavation on a wet July fortnight found a mighty three flint flakes, burnt flints and some fragments of wood in the northern section of the ditch.
The stone circles of Cornwall parallel more closely with those in Brittany, with horseshoe and rectangle outlying shapes being copied here from the European mainland and in no other county. During the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BC Cornwall would appear to have been more in touch with Ireland and Brittany than with the rest of England. It could be that in the centuries when gold and tin were exchanged across the seas from Ireland or Cornwall incomers from Brittany raised their own places of assembly and sanctuary. Given fair weather, crew and cargo in wicker boats could cross the sea in two days.

Timber circles

Timber circles again date to between the Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age, between 20-60m in diameter. Technically they consist of two or more concentric circles of posts, although there are exceptions, such as Seahenge. Animal bone and domestic waste is found at many timber circles, suggesting a temporary gathering, seasonal feasting or ritual site. Isolated burials have been found at some sites, but not enough to provide an absolute funerary link. They are contemporary with the use of stone circles, with wooden posts being supplemented by stones ones in some cases. They may appear on their own, or in conjunction with stone circles or other contemporary monuments.

Seahenge – the Holme Timber Circle: This was a circle 7m in diameter, comprising 55 oak posts, originally standing 2 metres high and a central upturned oak tree. It was originally built on marshy ground, but coastal erosion exposed the site. The timbers were cut in 2050BC during the earlier Bronze Age.

Woodhenge: Woodhenge timber circle, near Bluehenge, Durrington (also known as The Sanctuary, Overton Hill) Built during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, the post-holes are up to 2m deep, which would have held posts up to 7.5m above the ground. The site consists of six concentric rings of posts, then a single ditch and outer bank, around 85m wide.

Further investigations:
a site dedicated to modern megalithic creations

Angell, IO 1976 Stone Circles; megalithic mathematics or neolithic nonsense? In Mathematics Gazette (60) pg 188-193

Barnatt, J 1990 The Henges, Stone Circles and Ringcairns of the Peak District. University of Sheffield Press
1978 Stone Circles of the Peak London

Burl, A 2000 The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany Yale University Press
1999 Great Stone Circles. Yale University Press
1979 Rings of Stone, London
1980 Science or Symbolism; problems of archaeoastronomy In Antiquity 54 pg 191-200

Cope, J The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European (Element Books 2004)

Dyer, J 1981 The Penguin Guide to Prehistoric England and Wales. Allen Lane, London

Hollier, J 1989 Nothing But Circles; map and guide to stone circles of England, Scotland and Wales J Hollier, Crewkerne

Milligan, M Circles of Stone; the Prehistoric rings of Britain and Ireland

Thom, AS and Burl A 1980 Megalithic Rings Plans and Data for 229 sites in Britain. British Archaeological Reports, Oxford

Google Earth has many of these prehistoric sites marked, although sometimes the marker can be a bit out!

2 thoughts on “Skyscrapers of the Prehistoric: an introduction to stone circles

  1. Of the books referenced, Circles nothing but Circles by Jan Hollier, my mother, has been unavailable for several years since her passing away. But copies are now available from myself. Later this year it is hoped the second edition will be available with a few additions and corrections.

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