Stone Circles

Stone circles are ubiquitous:  There are over 900 stone circles in Britain. Most stay out of view, except to stone circle enthusiasts who drive off the main roads and walk across barren moors to find them, and perhaps it’s better that way. Lost in nature they retain their timelessness.

Stone circles are old: They are the oldest, man-made, architectural monuments in the world. In Britain most were erected between 3,500 and 2.500 B.C. That’s roughly 5,000 years ago, during the neolithic period and into the early bronze age. For global comparison, that’s sometime before the Egyptian pyramids were built, before writing was invented, and long before the Adam and Eve story was conceived. It’s also two millenia before Mycenae, Knossos and Troy; those ancient Greek palaces that some historians place at the ‘beginning of civilization’. Not sure I quite agree. Anyway, 5,000 years ago is well before the Celts arrived with their druidic religious leaders – so modern day druids can not really claim religious ownership of them. In fact, 5,000 years ago is actually the time between when horses were first ridden upon the Asian Steppes and the wheel was invented. In Britain it’s around the time when farming practices were first coming into vogue and settlements were replacing nomadism. That’s all really too long ago to imagine. But you can try if you like.

Stone circles are permanent. Well, they’re still here after having lasted longer than any other man-made architectural feature. They’ve survived invasions, wars, revolutions and epidemics. Forests have been cleared, rivers diverted, irrigation installed, flood plains drained, agricultural land developed and cities built – whilst the stones have stayed, still and silent. Permanent. Yes, and presumably that was the intention. Like graffitti with an indelible pen. Marks upon the landscape made in such a way that the marks never disappear. A marking of the landscape to indicate possession and ownership – concepts which arrived with farming and settlements. Why else did tumuli burials take on such importance if not to show that land belonged to certain people? Bury your dead to claim the land.  That’s how cemetries came about.

Stone circles are enigmatic: Religious monuments for moonlit ceremonies communing with the gods – or plain and simple burial grounds to dispose of the dead? Both or neither are possible. They may not all serve the same function. Cattle or sheep holding pens? Yes, that idea has been suggested, without being completely dismissed. It’s one way to keep an eye on your herds without them wandering off, being rustled, or attacked by wild beats. Tribal meeting places or tribal borders? Again, could be both. Inclusivity and exclusivity are created by any circle. Are you ‘inside’ or ‘out’?  For outsiders perhaps a tribal alliance would be a good idea – so why not throw a feast and invite the neighbours? A stone circle set apart from daily life settlements would be a perfect place to conduct such an affair. Are they then places to exchange goods or places to conduct sacrifices? Sometimes both, perhaps. Flint was then the all important material that was mined and crafted into tools and weapons to be used and ‘swapped’.  On the other hand, maybe such flint objects were simply ‘given’ in ‘friendship’, consolidating peaceful relations and assuring the passage of potential brides. Making and breaking alliances has been a political game from the beginning of time.  Astronomical calenders predicting solar eclipses, lunar phases and tides?  In those days such information was pretty useful to know in advance to determine exactly when the lambing season started or the salmon returned; when it’s was safe to take out the boat, or time to start sowing the grain.  Architectural objects of prestige for powerful chiefs? Art is rarely just for art’s sake. Politics, wealth and displays of power are normally involved somewhere too.

Stone circles are feats of human engineering: So, how much man-power was needed to haul these great stones into place? How did they drag enormous boulders miles across land and then stand them up on end? How were the societies organized that enabled these grandious efforts to be undertaken? How did these societies evolve to create such stupendous structures as Stonehenge? Who ordered their construction? Yes, on hillsides, under dark stormy clouds they may well be photogenic, but they also hold profound questions about early social organizations.

Stone circles are ‘spiritual’. Stop for a while, on a stone circle adorned hilltop, and breathe in with the wind. Appreciate the agelessness of your surrounds. You, the stones, and time, standing together in harmony. ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Perceive the stone circle’s timeless permanancy. It becomes transcendental and you enter that transcendence – an ontological awareness beyond the mundane. That’s my ‘spiritual’ sentiment of stone circles, anyway. Damned difficult to express in words!

4 comments on “Stone Circles

  1. Hello Phil, Another very good post. Nice photos as well. Megaliths are the first manifestations of ‘land art’, and also all that you’re describing here. I went to Stonehenge in 1975: a ‘must’ when visiting the south of England. I’ll explore everything else you have written in this site little by little: I like your style: perfectly written but terse, descriptive and clear. Regards

  2. english13 says:

    Hi Hubert,
    I’ve just been reading about Gobekli Tepe, an Anatolian site of several stone circles built around 10,000 BC and seemingly even more impressive than Stonehenge! Yes, ‘land art’. I like that. Have you come across the work of Richard Long?

  3. Hello Phil, I’ve just had a look at Richard Long’s site, following the link. Land Art can be long lasting, but is often intended to be ephemeral, like crop circles, which you mention in another post.

  4. english13 says:

    Yes, I agree. The permanent ‘monumentalism’ of stone circles contrasts with such impermanent, transient art form structures like crop circles. Monumentalism, though, by definition, seems to imply a more ritualistic/religious/symbolic affair – though whether this was ‘always’ the intention of the builders – who can say? Perhaps that’s our modern day analysis giving significance where it was not ‘always’ originally intended?
    Impermanent ‘land art’ structures, by contrast, seem to concentrate more on human/environment interaction for temporary reflection and involvement with our surrounds. And of course, nature itself is impermanent. In the same way, that’s why I like to think of my own landscape photography as ‘communing with nature’ – and I think fishing has a similar basic element to it, too.
    Great to muse on such issues, isn’t it?
    By the way, as an ‘ex-teacher’, what subject did you teach? Your interests seem far and wide.

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