Stone Circles and Alignments
The ancient stone circles of Britain, Ireland, and Scotland represent one of Europe's most enduring enigmas. In their design and function, they are clearly related to the passage tombs that precede them, but they are not tombs. Hundreds of stone circles of varying complexity can be found throughout the British Isles and beyond, first appearing during the Neolithic period and continuing well into the Bronze Age. While some show signs of use as tombs, it is obvious that they served a larger purpose, possibly as temples, calendars, or even astronomical observatories. In many cases, they appear to be all three.
The earliest form these ancient monuments took was the henge, which consisted of a circular or ovoid ridge surrounding an inside ditch or circular pit. These were sometimes surrounded by wooden posts arranged in circles and, later, by stones. Most were relatively small, around 60 feet in diameter, although larger examples could be as large as 1,200 feet. Most consist of a single ring of stones, although as time passed, the circles grew in size and complexity, with some having as many as three concentric rings. Another popular style of stone monument is called an alignment, consisting of rows of menhirs (standing stones).
Literally thousands of stone circles, alignments, and monuments are scattered throughout Europe. Here are some of the best-known:
Stonehenge, a prehistoric ring of large standing stones, is thought to have been erected around 2200
Avebury Henge, a ritual complex located in Southern England, is a monument that rivals Stonehenge in size and importance.
Uisneach Hill, the “navel” of Ireland, is also called the “Stone of Divisions.” Uisneach represented the symbolic center of Ireland and was the legendary location of the first Beltaine fire.
The Ring of Brodgar is a prehistoric stone circle in Orkney, Scotland.
The Carnac Stones is an alignment of thousands of stones that stretches nearly two miles in length in Carnac, France.
The Rollright Stones are long rumored to be the remains of an enchanted king and his men.
The Callanish Stones of the Isle of Lewis are slender megaliths arrayed in the form of a large Celtic cross.
The ancient monument of Stonehenge is inarguably the best-known prehistoric monument on earth. Located on the Salisbury Plain in the geographic center of England, the site is more than 3,000 years old and may have been erected on the remains of an even earlier circle constructed from timber. On the plains, there is evidence that a large settlement once surrounded the site.
The origin and purpose of Stonehenge have puzzled historians and archaeologists for centuries. In medieval times, its conception was attributed to the Saxons, the druids, Merlin, and even to the devil himself, who was said to have built it from stones spirited from Ireland. In the centuries following, it was assumed to be a Roman temple and, later, a druid observatory.
Time and patient excavations have shown all of these ideas to be false, although the romantic notion of druids conducting solemn solstice rituals at the monument has been impossible to shake. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the monument predates the druid orders by thousands of years; nonetheless, Stonehenge is still home to annual rituals conducted by druid revival groups.
Perhaps because people were so accustomed to its presence, Stonehenge wasn't regarded as very remarkable by most people until relatively recently. In fact, in 1915, a lawyer named Cecil Chubb purchased the monument as a gift for his wife for less than $10,000. History records her reaction as less than enthusiastic, and he eventually donated the site to the British government for use as a public park.
When compared to other prehistoric stone circles and monuments, Stonehenge is unique in both structure and layout. Its stone trilithons, the unique groupings of three that make up the remaining ring of the monument, are not found in any other monuments. There is archaeological evidence that Stonehenge may have begun as a ring of timber, which was later replaced with stone. There is also evidence that the monument was rebuilt several times over its long existence.
Despite its name, Stonehenge is not a true henge. A genuine henge consists of a circular or oblong ditch, surrounded by a raised earthen mound or ridge. Stonehenge is technically not a true henge at all because the position of its mound and ditch are reversed.
Standing Stones: Menhirs
The word menhir is from the Welsh meaning “long stone.” It is a pretty exact description of the monuments, which occur most often as solitary standing stones. Often carefully shaped, they sometimes appear in groups or as part of stone circles. They are often decorated with a variety of symbolism and imagery. Menhirs are primarily an artifact of the Neolithic period.
Though their purpose is unknown, it is assumed they served some religious purpose. Theories about the purpose of menhir range from territorial markers to memorial monuments — at one time, it was even suggested they were sacrificial altars. Roman observers noted that when the stones were erected, sacrifices would be placed in the holes they were set in and that the stones were regularly anointed and hung with garlands of branches and flowers.
There are some hints that they served a religious or magical purpose, as they are tied to various supernatural occurrences in mythological stories. Whatever their purpose, Christians found them loathsome pagan idols and toppled them by the thousands. All the same, literally thousands of the enigmatic stones remain standing. The Carnac site in Brittany, for example, contains more than 3,000 individual stones arranged in clusters. Brittany is also home to the largest standing menhir, which reaches an astonishing height of 30 feet.
The standing stones have many connections with fertility rites, and even in the present day they are believed to promote conception and prevent complications of childbirth.