Stone circles are an iconic part of the British landscape. Everyone instantly recognises a photo of Stonehenge and knows it’s in the UK. People come from all over the world to marvel at Stonehenge, and to a lesser extent sites like Avebury in Wiltshire and Castlerigg in the Lake District. They are beautiful places, and invoke a sense of awe and wonder due to there age and mysterious origins. They also provide people with a tangible link to the dawn of civilisation, letting people forget about the complex modern world for awhile; instead imagining the simpler, more natural life of our ancestors.
There are many theories as to why stone circles were built, ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous. However, not many people know that one of the main purposes of the stone circles may have been as navigation aids to help people travel across ancient Britain.
History of Stone Circles in Britain
The first stone circles in Britain were built over 5000 years ago during the Neolithic period. During this era farming had spread across the islands from Europe, and populations had consequently become more sedentary, with villages appearing all over the country. With increasing populations and better technology came the desire and means to start monumental building. The first stone circle called the ring of Brogador was built in 3200BC in the windswept Orkney islands. Over the following centuries over 1000 more were built across ancient Britain, stretching from the far north to the south coast.
Some of the most notable of these were Avebury stone circle in what is now the county of Wiltshire. This is the biggest stone circle ever built in Britain, and one of the largest in the world. Avebury was built between 2850BC and 2200BC and contains three rings of stone circles. It’s so massive that part of the modern village of Avebury sits inside of the stone circle. Castlerigg stone circle in the Lake District has one of the most dramatic settings: it lies at the heart of a valley surrounded by the majestic mountains of Lakeland. It’s also one of the oldest stone circles outside Scotland, having been erected around 3000BC. World famous Stonehenge is the most impressive stone circle, with it’s lintel topped sarsens giving it a more sophisticated look. The stone circle was constructed between 2500BC and 2200BC, though a wooden circle inside a ditch was constructed as early as 2900BC. What surprises many people is Stonehenge is not actually a henge – for it to be a henge the ditch needs to be inside the mound rather than outside. Really Stonehenge should be called Stonecircle, though that doesn’t sound as impressive.
Neolithic and Bronze age Britain was a lot more interconnected than is commonly assumed. There was a significant amount of long distance trade around the country, along with a thriving sea trade that connected the islands with the Mediterranean world. To assure travellers and traders didn’t get lost required some type of navigation system, and this is where the stone circles may have came in. Every stone circle had a heelstone for orientation, along with a stone with a capstone on it to indicate sunrise at that time of year. The heelstone pointed to the next stone circle, so that a traveller could navigate their way across the island using stone circles and other signposts in the land to show them the way. If a person got lost on the way, so long as they had remembered the position of the heelstone and sunrise they would be able to re-orientate themselves and continue on their journey. It’s possible people even made rudimentary compasses from leather and wood, to show the position of the sunrise and direction of travel. There were paths and ancient drovers trails between many stone circles too, so these would have made it easier to travel between them.
If this system existed it would show that the Ancient British were more developed and advanced that previously thought. To developed should a navigational system over hundreds of miles would take some organisation and a means to pass on the knowledge through the generations. Perhaps they were more civilised than they are often given credit for.
Other Uses of Stone Circles
Of course stone circles weren’t just used to make sure people could have their order of tin delivered from Cornwall. They probably served several other purposes, as befitted sites that required should manpower to build. Stone circles were used to bury and honour the dead over a two thousand year period. Bones have been found at many sites, along with evidence that cremation was commonly used. At Stonehenge the remains of hundreds of people have been discovered. Recent research shows that there were huge feats here which were attended by hundreds of people, some of them travelled across Britain to reach the site. This shows that Stonehenge at least was a place to honour the dead – a site of pilgrimage for ancient Britons.
Stone circles were also used as as places to observe and worship the cycles of nature, with some standing stones set-up to align with the cycles of the sun and moon at different times of year, such as Stenness in the Orkneys. For example at some stone circles we can see that two standing stones have been used to frame the rising sun at the summer solstice, with another pair used to frame the setting sun. This allowed people to mark the changing of the seasons, which was vitally important in Pagan religion. At summer and winter solstice there were celebrations at many stone circles, which involved plenty of feasting and drinking- something that has become extremely popular again at Stonehenge. The last possible major use of stone circles was as an astronomy observatories. Some people have speculated that stones were lined up to reflect certain consolations, and to calculate astronomical events.
Whatever the exact uses of stone circles it’s clear they were a central part of ancient Britain for several thousand years. They provided places for people to come together and honour the dead, while also celebrating the turning of the seasons. Perhaps they really were used as a primitive navigational aid too, helping trade to flourish across the islands.