Stone Circles in Britain
Britain has some of the very finest stone circles, many dating from well before recorded history. The worlds most interesting stone circles are all relatively close together. Stanton Drew, Avebury and Stonehenge in that order. While the last two of these are on the tourist trail, and visited by large numbers Stanton Drew is not visited by great numbers and most people have yet to hear of it.
Although most are said to date from between 3,000BC and 1,500BC and evidence on the Stonehenge site is recorded twice as long ago, others are later. In total there were at least several thousand stone circles, of which nearly a thousand still exist in some form. Over recent decades some have disappeared, while others have been created. Particularly in Wales you will find large numbers of new stone circles, created as a part of the annual Eisteddfod events, where the archdruid plays a role. In addition some new circles have been created by those who follow Pagan paths.
The older stones vary greatly from the village sized circle with huge stones at Avebury, to a small handful of relatively small stones that can be easily overlooked. From complex monuments like Stonehenge to some that were originally probably a part of some other item. In many places there are stones close together with another balancing on top and most of these were most likely earth covered burial mounds where over the centuries the earth has eroded away. Some others may be the remains of older hut style homes and the base of early versions of building that had the floor raised off the ground.
Some, but far from all, stone circles are within a 'henge', this means they have some sort of ditch and bank around. This earthworks is however common with most other hill forts, and enclosures and the like from this time period. Some suggest that due to erosion over the centuries they could have been considerably larger, and in the case of Avebury archaeologists say up to twice as big as they are now with ditches more than twice as deep. We defiantly see many landslides on the edges of earthworks, as we look around these sites today. Given that it is thought the water table was higher in that time period, and the ditches deeper a lot more would have been moated (filled with water) than are today.
There is a common belief that most had some connection with the calendar, or the movement of the planets, and some clearly have some alignments that do identify the position of sunrise or sunset on the longest and shortest days. Many are on lines, often called lay lines, which are thought to have some connection with energy flow, and many circles have energy that can be detected with dowsing rods and pendulums. Some people also think that the combination of earth works, stone circles, and some container like monuments in a variety of designs, were connected with directing a flow of something, perhaps the earths magnetic path, perhaps energy, perhaps gravity affects. The earths magnetic strength was many times the power it is today back in the period when many of these monuments were created. Stories exist coming from India, of the ability to move large weights and items by some such power. Most of our monuments, although still often producing measurable effects anyone can detect with dowsing rods, don’t have much that science can understand and many over the years have been quite altered, stones destroyed, some put back where they are thought they were originally and some for artistic effect. The Stanton Drew stone circle, the second largest after Avebury, has been less affected and overlooked for much of history, although not complete, is perhaps different in that it has its own magnetic field that you can detect with any compass, although far more complex studies have been done. It has three stone circles (as does Avebury), a pattern of postholes, not marked, that is similar to that found at The Sanctuary near Avebury and at Woodhenge, near to Stonehenge. It also has the remains of many closely lined up pits or containers.
Early archaeology was done with a trowel in one hand and a bible in the other, and anything that could not be explained put down to ceremonial use. Today we have in part the inherited effects of this, a mixture of factual information, early conjecture, unproven theories, and complete fallacies, and no easy way to sort one from the other. Much of what we take for granted is shaky to say the least, for example we call this year 2008, and most think this means it is 2008 years after the date thought to be when Christ was born, however no early calendar existed and a guy multiplied a number of unrelated astronomical cycles together and said this was one cycle of time and his existence marked the beginning of the second of these, then placed the year 0 or 1 a set distance before. Okay it’s a bit more complicated than that, and meddled about with, but it's still a mixture of guesswork and astrology that most would not take too seriously today. However some of the old documents do contain diagrams of houses (star signs) and within them plots of planetary positions that look very much like the pattern of post holes we have mentioned above.
Christianity was successful by merging in other beliefs and traditions, building its sites on older traditional sites and involving some parts of the traditions into its own rituals. Early Christian texts have spells, charms and all matter of other aspects that today we would feel more at home in a Harry Potter novel than the modern church. We find many churches on lay lines, near or over older monuments and perhaps this may indicate that once there were many more times the number of stone circles and other sites that existed. It is likely that at the time the greatest monuments were absorbed, and it therefore follows that what we have left may not be the key parts of the overall system, if one existed. Another effect of the spread of Christianity was the destruction of the records of what came before, we can see this well documented later when the Mayan civilizations were overrun, and their depositories of records destroyed. We would not have had the knowledge of the Egyptian history if they had not carved it onto their monuments in a code that the early Christians could not understand.
Not far from Stonehenge we have Old Sarum, a huge earthworks inhabited first around 5000 years ago, and over early history many important castles were upon this site. It was the home of the Kings of Wessex. It was here in 1086 that all the nobles of Britain had to come and pay homage to William the Conqueror, and it was from here that the order went out to create the Doomsday book. Other national councils followed, and a large Cathedral was constructed. Eventually the cathedral was taken down and rebuilt just over two miles away at, what was then called New Sarum now, Salisbury. Today we are left with huge ditches and banks, the remains of the last castle, and the foundations of the cathedral spread out before us. Stonehenge, the old cathedral at Old Sarum and New Sarum (Salisbury) cathedral sit on a line. Perhaps there were major stone circles in each of these locations.
Stone circles often have avenues, or sometimes odd stones that people feel may have been avenues, where these avenues exist they appear to be shaped like snakes or serpents, some may say dragons, and its from this that the concept of earth energies or healing energies and dragons or serpents originates, and are found on many medical organisations coats of arms and the like. Early churches that were placed on ancient sites are often called St Michaels. There are many tales of tunnels and chambers beneath the Tor, and up until the early 1960’s jazz sessions used to take place in the tunnel entrance, but has since been blocked up. People have experienced weightlessness, experienced leaps into the air, and had a range of other experiences. Many experienced dowsers are convinced of the Tors hollowness and the existence of a variety of underground springs forming a vast network of hidden subterranean waterways. It is also believed that the spiral maze is represented within as well as without, and that a Druid cave or temple lies within. Water is also a common feature connected with stone circles, is often where the avenues lead, and at Avebury, in the centre of the circle you find a thatched pub (The Red Lion) and found under this was an ancient well, you can see into it from within the pub. Some feel this well was the centre point of the Avebury stone circle. Avebury also has its own partly manmade Tor one mile away at Silbury Hill.
We are often led to believe anything we can't explain was ceremonial, connected with magic or religion, however given that the main reason for the huge banks and ditches at Old Sarum and many earth work enclosures or encampments was defensive, some suggest is it possible that Avebury was also. Perhaps it had several look outs, including on The Ridgeway, Windmill Hill and the manmade Silbury Hill and in the age before major weapons, a large ditch filed with water and banks, was there major defence and the stones were just there to shelter behind when they wanted to throw spears and retreat to safety. Perhaps The Sanctuary was a wooden scaffolding like tower providing another look out, and The Avenue just the main road from The Ridgeway, the main track of the time. The Avenue after all goes to The Sanctuary and this is on the edge of The Ridgeway. Perhaps it housed a village as it does today. This sounds plausible but then we might ask why was the ditch on the inside and why would it have been built so that those who climbed the outer bank were higher and had a good shot at all those within, the exact opposite of the defences earth work structures.
Some suggest that Avebury was an early market place, with traders either being at a stone or having a pitch between them, and that the Silbury Hill would have had a beacon fire lit on, an evening a few days, before the market was to take place.
Some also suggest that the circles were early parliaments or meeting places, similar in design to the round chapter houses found in some major cathedrals, for example York Minster, and the design of some later castles. Leaders or knights occupying a place in front of a stone. The idea of a round table tied to King Arthur originally was copied by later kings, and appears elsewhere as well. Except the version that one king had made and a later one had hung on the wall at Winchester, there was no physical table, and in most castles, and the huge 200ft across round table building built, but not surviving now, at Windsor castle, and the Chapter House at York Minster, the seats were in the walls, and no physical large table could exist as such.
Perhaps some of the smaller stone circles were walled enclosures to keep in animals, we find later enclosures for holding sheep in similar countryside. Perhaps they were the main structural stones to hold up early buildings and the infill mud and sticks have since rotted away, perhaps they're ditches and banks were just protection from flooding and drainage. Perhaps we are looking at them collectively as stone circles when they are greatly different in design, size and probable use, and origin.
While it may not be as romantic to consider our ancestors interested in protecting their lives and property and working on ways to store food above ground, and perhaps to better handle animals, as wells as some remains being of more mundane structures, this is, in at least some cases, likely to be more in line with the needs of the time.
Some may even be natural rock distributions or where early farmers moved large boulders out of their fields to the edge of tracks that have since disappeared.
The wheel of the year, working out when the longest and shortest day will be and perhaps also the ideal time for sowing crops, are often alignments that are expected and often seen. Some also match up patterns of planets and other features. While sunrise and sunset and possibly the positions the moon rises and falls may be features they may have found interesting, and alignments of long barrow burial mounds and some other features tend to support this, some other theories are probably well beyond what they would have been able to see. Its easy to find alignments when you have a lot of potential stones and other features to draw lines on and especially when you allow a margin of error for drift over time.
Some like to link them with Pagan religions, Druids, New Age and traditional craft practices, and with the elements. Some with energy or mysteries of various types, some with patterns, and some fearing anything they do not understand as well as some Christian groups would like to see them all wiped away.
In some other cases stones appear in lines or spread across the countryside and some of these are way markers, guiding people across difficult terrain. We might expect some stones near circles to be connected with this and perhaps some entrances to circle to line up with the direction they were approached from or maybe roads through the settlements. Some today are added by people along the side of the road to keep passing traffic off their grass edges and some stones are a part of rockery features.
There are some similarities between Avebury, Stonehenge and Stanton Drew amongst these are:-
Some think there was another major site originally at Glastonbury with its Tor, river and similar alignments.
For every stone circle that you can now see, there are several detailed that are now either destroyed or lost. Even in recent years stone circles have been taken off maps, and some have been thought to have been further destroyed. Some have quite long and detailed histories but were in the way of a motorway of where houses were to be built and have now been destroyed Some of the now lost circles were detailed or measured, but many were never photographed. While we would all agree that you cannot preserve everything, there does not appear to have been any public discussion as to the abandonment of so many. It may be that the objective has been to save the best, or what is thought to be one example of each, but without a full understanding of what each is and how it came about, we are probably year on year loosing more great chunks of our heritage, and in many cases we are the last generation to be able to see these ancient monuments or mysteries, whatever they are, with histories going back over 4000 years in many cases. It may be that the photographs we are able to take now become the only record for future generations to see.
Perhaps also the stone circle is a symbol of the circle of knowledge , the more you understand, the larger the area around and the more you realise you have yet to discover. If they had some knowledge since lost, and ability to harness the earths energies, conquer gravity and more, it would help us to understand how they built such huge monuments, vast ditches and mounds, moved giant stones, and more.
There are similarities between some burial mounds and some stone circles and in some cases its easy to mix up the remains of the two. Any of the long barrows point to the rising sun and some have specific alignments so that at midsummer the sun goes along the passage and lights up the main chamber. Many of the stone circles are located near to or amongst barrows of various designs, we assume today that they were burial mounds as remains have been found in them, but this was not necessarily there original use. Where the earth has weathered away and left just the stones standing you have in some cases a circle like structure. Before we discount this as accounting for only the smaller ones perhaps we should look at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland, a massive structure, and although much of what we see today is perhaps a reconstruction, so also are many of our stone circles where stones have been moved or put back. At Newgrange (see below) the tunnel is aligned so that the chamber is illuminated at sunrise on the shortest day in mid winter. In practice light goes down the tunnel for about 17 days.
The old villages in Cornwall have stone houses, openings to the east, but with courtyards and other items this has nothing to do with the sun, but having their backs to the prevailing wind. Similarly in Britain most airports are aligned so as to take off into the prevailing wind, and you can imagine in a few thousand years time someone digging up one and deducing it was a site connected with the primitive people of the time, us, being involved in ceremonials involving the rising sun. Of course if scraps of our calendars, involving Christmas celebrations and long periods schools are shut in the summer were discovered this would reinforce the case. School holidays in the summer, by the way, are a hangover from some time back when children had to have a gap at this time of the year when as an agricultural nation we needed them to help bring in the harvest.
For some so much uncertainty, makes it difficult to follow for some of us however its this ‘unknown’ aspect that is the draw, to look, to consider and perhaps come up with our own philosophy, perhaps just as crazy as others, or perhaps enlightened by the other knowledge and information we have available to us.
Other articles we have on stone circles can be found by clicking here.
Not a circle as such but thought to be a passage grave where the main chamber is illuminated by the sun at sunrise on the shortest day. This is the view from the restored front the unrestored rear looks more like a stone circle.
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