Exploring Britain’s Prehistoric Past
Scattered across the islands of Great Britain are countless stone circles and monoliths. As successive waves of different peoples settled and lived in Britain, many would erect stone monuments and carve stone engravings, in an attempt to leave behind permanent markers of their respective cultures and beliefs. The islands of Britain have therefore been marked by the physical remnants of its previous inhabitants, with the features and landmarks of the British landscape hinting at its storied past.
If you’re interested in discovering the rich archaeological history of Britain, then you’ve come to the right place. Odyssey Traveller visits a number of these prehistoric sites in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In our small group tour focused on Prehistoric Britain, for example, we take a scenic drive through England and the Scottish Highlands and visit several Neolithic Sites including the Uffington White Horse and the inspiring Stonehenge. In Walking Rural Britain, we experience the beautiful white cliffs on the coast of Dover, the scenery giving us much to think about the region’s ancient history and culture. We take a walk with our local guide through country lanes, wandering through rural towns and its thatched cottages to be inspired by the local beauty and hear the legends of people who first settled in the area.
Join us as we explore the fascinating historical sites of Britain’s former inhabitants.
Throughout the Neolithic period, stone monoliths were erected during across Britain by its prehistoric inhabitants. Standing stones were mostly erected in the south-west and north of Britain where large stones could be easily sourced. Although the exact reasons for the raising of standing stones remains unknown, it is possible they were erected to honour certain religious deities, denote a space of worship, or demarcate territory.
From the end of the Stone Age to the dawn of the Bronze Age, Britain’s Neolithic peoples erected stone, timber and earthwork circles across the country, with more than 300 stone circles surviving to this day. Henges, which were circular earthworks that featured a ring-shaped bank and ditch, were often created as monuments in their own right, before the later additions of standing stones. Henges sometimes had pits containing an assortment of offerings, including stone tools, deer antlers, human bones or pottery fragments.
The earliest stone circles, found in Cumbria, date back to around 3000 BC, with other stone circles erected elsewhere in the country around 600 years later. Experts have speculated as to why Britain’s Neolithic peoples erected the numerous stone circles found across the British Isles, but there are no conclusive answers.
It has been noted that many stone monuments have an alignment with astronomical events; as such, much like Britain’s Neolithic burial chambers, it is possible that many stone circles were erected for the specific purpose of observing astronomical events and understanding the heavens and the universe.
Other archaeologists such as Aubrey Burl, the author of Prehistoric Stone Circles, have suggested that the circles were built during a period of catastrophic weather. The cause of this change in weather patterns remains unknown, but many scientists believe that that the catastrophe was the result of a volcanic eruption. The effects were felt all over Northern Europe for decades. Burl writes that:
‘Helpless in a seemingly never-ending calamity, they turned away from the ancestors they believed had once protected them and, instead, looked to the threatening skies. […] Open-air rings were put up, of earth in the east of Britain, where there was no stone, of posts in woodland areas, of stone in the west, where thousands of boulders lay exposed on the hills.’ (Burl, Prehistoric Stone Circles, 10).
Stone circles were built over a period of more than 2,000 years, ranging from the Late Neolithic to the Middle Bronze Age. Their use and structure evolved considerably over the years, as we will see below.
Early Stone Circles: The Late Neolithic Age c. 3650-2900 BC
Pre-historians believe that the very earliest stone circles in the British Isle were built in the north-west of Ireland. The Carrowmore cemetery in County Sligo contain ‘boulder-circles’, open rings of high boulders which contain burial cairns (or stone mounds) – a transitional form from passage-tombs to the true stone circle.
Some of the best examples of early British stone circles can be found in Britain’s Lake District, including Castlerigg, which is visited on our Prehistoric Britain tour. Prehistorians believe that – based on their mountainous situation – that the rings in the Lake District were created by peoples who engaged in the prospecting and manufacture of valuable stone axes during the middle and late Neolithic periods. These circles have closely set stones, similar to the continuous banks of older henges. Castlerigg, like other Lake District circles, has an obvious entrance, defined by two pairs of stones or taller pillars.
Castlerigg was built of local stone dragged to the site by men and women, possibly using oxen or castrated bulls. Charcoal was discovered onsite, indicating that it was used for ceremonial purposes. Little more can be known about these stone circles since only a small number of objects have since been recovered.
The Lake District is also home to Long Meg, a set of 59 stones also built in the Late Neolithic, and one of the largest stone circles in England. Particularly interesting is a decorated stone standing outside the main circle. Prehistorians suggest that this was erected in line with a celestial event – such as the midsummer sunrise or midwinter sunset. Wordsworth famously entreated the circle to ‘Speak Giant Mother!’, but she has refused to give her secrets away to the poet or any subsequent historians. Little is known of her purpose.
Our tour also visits the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. These closely resemble the architecture of Swinside, near Castlerigg in the Lake District, indicating that this may have been a staging post for the movement of axes from Cumbria to southern England.
The Middle Period: Late Neolithic to early Bronze Age, c. 2900-2200 BC.
During this period, the ‘Beaker people’, named after their distinctive and elegant pots (often buried with the dead under round barrows), arrived in Britain and Ireland and mixed with the native people. They are believed by many to have been the first people to use metallurgy in Britain. This period saw the building of many of the most perfect stone circles, while the practice of building circles spread until it was seen in virtually every part of the British Isles.
Some of the rings built in this period, such as Avebury, in Wiltshire, southern England, were enormous – with more than a hundred massive stones, more than 400 metres across. The Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, 104 metres in diameter, is another example of a vast stone circle. The majority of circles were much smaller, however, between 20 and 30 metres in size.
Unlike their predecessors, the stone circles built during this period were explicitly decorative. Their designers tried to create elegant shapes, including ovals, perhaps created by the use of a loop of rope held tightly against three pegs set in the ground. Each region tended to have a preferred number of stones – twelve in the Lake District, or ten in the north-east of Scotland, suggesting elementary numeracy and simple counting systems among these early societies.
The standing stones of Callanish on the island of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides are indicative of the evolution of stone circles over thousands of years. The monument began as a simple five metre high stone near the coast, erected as a landmark for seamen. Decades or centuries later an oval of around 13 by 12 metres was built around it, dated by radiocarbon at between 2800 and 2700 BC.
Four centuries later, a long avenue was laid out from the north north-east, aligned to the most southerly setting of the moon. More rows were added, aligned to astronomical phenomena – one to the south (aligned to the meridian), one to the west (aligned to the equinoctial sunset), and one to the east north-east (aligned to the galactic cluster of the Pleiades). Finally, a chambered tomb was crammed in the ring.
In 300 BC, the Greek explorer Pytheas visited Callanish, which he described as a ‘spherical temple’ and learned that the moon visited every nineteen years. Folk memory holds that Pytheas visited Stonehenge, but its latitude is too far south for the moon to have behaved as he described. Though Pytheas had a good grasp of astrology, the astrological messages of the circles were only grasped in modern times.
Late Stone Circles: early to middle Bronze Age, c. 2200 – 1500 BC.
It was during this period that the majority of Britain’s stone circles were erected. By this point, most sites are ovals – though because many are very small, it is often hard to tell if a monument was a good oval or a poor attempt at a circle.
During this era, most sites were no longer megalithic. Remnants from this period are close together and stones are relatively small, indicating that most were raised by individual families. In this period, stone circles were closely linked to burial cairns. Though larger than the average Derbyshire stone circle, the Nine Ladies near Stanton Moor is a good example of a later period stone circle visited on our tour.
It is unlikely that any stone circle was built after 1500 BC. Deterioration in the climate meant that uplands were abandoned, while changes in religious belief saw new ceremonies and forms of worship emerge.
Despite our increased knowledge of stone circles, Stonehenge remains an enigma. It was built in an unlikely place, on a plain with few boulders, only forests and timber. Burl suggests that at first, Stonehenge was not a typical stone circle, but a representation of an earlier timber building, likely a mortuary house where the dead were laid until their bones dried.
A century or two later, burials were added. Twenty-five cremations have been recovered from the Aubrey Holes, a ring of chalk-cut pits winding along the inner edge of the bank, while thirty other cremations have been found in the ditch.
Around 2700 BC, bluestones from south-west Wales were put up in two concentric settings in the shape of horseshoes. How the stones reached Wiltshire is a matter of debate between prehistorians. Some argue that they moved by human transportation, while others argue that glaciation in the region led to the emergence of bluestone.
At this point, there was a change in ritual and the north-eastern entrance was widened so that it would frame the midsummer sun. This suggests a change from a lunar to a solar cult. Inside the bank sits a rectangle, built in that shape so that its east south-east/west north-west diagonal indicated the May Day sunset.
Around 2500 BC, the bluestones were uprooted and heavy blocks of sarsen were brought from the Marlborough Downs to the north. Five towering archways, known as trilithons, were set up inside the circle of sarsens, arranged in a horse-shoe shape to the north-east. The bluestones were returned to form a rough circle inside the sarsen circle, and a long altar stone was laid at the heart of the monument.
However, the builders of the new monument were not experienced with sarsen stones. Many stones had foundations that were dangerously insecure, some were not long enough, and some were cracked. The result was the ‘impressive but ramshackle edifice’ that we see today (Burl, Prehistoric Stone Circles, 47).
Indications are that Stonehenge was influenced by similar monuments in Brittany. The horseshoe shapes, along with carvings of Bronze Age weaponry and figurines of the protectress of the dead on the stones, were all unknown in the megalithic monuments of the British Isles – but common in Brittany.