great, ceremonial stone circles are the most enigmatic of all the
Neolithic farmers creations. They were built between 3,000
- 2,000 BC by a wide variety of Neolithic communities. Today only
the stones remain, but in their time they were part of a wider landscape
of ritual sites built of timber and stone, and set in prominent
positions in the heart of vibrant farming communities.
Those communities seem to have had a shared interest in the movements
of the sun and moon, which may have had a religious significance
to them, but used their stone circles in differing ways across time.
were they built?
The stone circles were built with locally available
stone, quarried from natural rock outcrops like the
Orkney flagstones. Natural cracks in the outcrops
were exploited and wooden wedges used to split the
stones. It needed complex and ordered societies to
move the stones to the site of the circles. A
five-metre-long stone weighs about five metric tons, requiring
about a hundred people to move it or less if they
used ropes, levers, rollers and ramps to move it into
were they built?
Its possible the stones were erected to commemorate
the dead or to highlight the prestige of the organiser.
Whatever they were for, they show a commitment to
long-term planning. It would have taken a great deal
of time and effort to construct these monuments and
may have taken several generations to complete them.
circle, built of timber or stone, sometimes with surrounding earthwork
ditches, seems to involve ideas on defining special, ritual spaces
and of excluding some people from the ceremonies within.
do they differ?
earliest of stone circles date to around 3,000 BC: like the Stones
of Stenness on Orkney, where twelve stones were built inside a massive
earthwork, probably by the same people who built the nearby tomb
at Maes Howe. The tombs passageway points towards the rising
midwinter sun, showing these people had a religious interest in
the suns movements, but that is not reflected in the stones
themselves, which have no significant alignment.
stone circles, like at Callanish on Lewis (2,900-2,600 BC), do have
significant alignments. Set in a landscape of Neolithic fields and
houses, its central ring of stones is built around a small chambered
cairn and has four avenues of standing stones leading off roughly
to the points of the compass. The northern avenue points to a burial
cairn, and from the southern avenue the moon can be seen to skim
along the top of the hills every 18.6 years. A thousand years later
a similar interest in the heavens can be found at Balnuaran of Clava
near Inverness (2,000-1,700 BC), where a chambered cairn enclosed
in the stone circle is orientated to the mid-winter sun.
Aberdeenshire stone circles, such as Easter Aquhorithies,
have a massive horizontal stone between two vertical stones
which dramatise the setting of the moon and sun. Archaeologists
have discovered that the cremated remains of the dead
were placed within the circle. All these stone circles
reveal the diversity of uses and the differing interests
of the communities who built them.
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