Stone circle

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Swinside stone circle, in the Lake District, England.

A stone circle is a monument of standing stones arranged in a circle. Such monuments have been constructed in many parts of the world throughout history for many different reasons. Outside of Europe, stone circles have also been erected, such as the 6300~6900 BCE Atlit Yam in Israel and 3000~4000 BCE Gilgal Refaim nearby, or the Bronze Age examples from Hong Kong.

The best known tradition of stone circle construction occurred across the British Isles and Brittany in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, with over 1000 examples still surviving to this day, including famous examples like Avebury, the Rollright Stones and Stonehenge. Another prehistoric stone circle tradition occurred in southern Scandinavia during the Iron Age, where they were built to be mortuary monuments to the dead.

The size and number of the stones varies from example to example, and the circle shape can be an ellipse.

Dates and archaeology of European Megalithic stone circles

All experts agree that stone circles are of pre-Christian date, but beyond that stone circles have proven difficult to date accurately. Radiocarbon dating has produced a wide range of dates at different sites. This is at least partly due to an inadequacy of materials suitable for radiocarbon dating that can be reliably obtained from the sites. The diversity of radiocarbon evidence may also suggest that stone circles were constructed over a very long period, or were sometimes reconstructed at later dates. It is often not clear when building started.[citation needed] A further obstacle to dating is that there are generally no other archaeological artifacts associated with the stone circles. Traditional archaeological artifacts, such as pottery sherds, bones, etc., are not often found at the sites, and when found are frequently of a later date than the associated stone circle.

The sites display no evidence of human dwelling, and rarely[citation needed] encompass graves. This suggests that stone circles were constructed for ceremonies (perhaps religious ceremonies) and were in use on ceremonial occasions only. The type of ceremonies (if any) is entirely unknown. An alternative hypothesis is that they were a form of amulet or talisman, i.e., an entity acknowledging and appeasing supposed spirits dwelling in nature, meaning that their ceremonial use was secondary to their talismanic value, or equal to it. The crudeness and variety of the stones excludes the possibility that they had astronomical observation purposes of any precision. Sometimes a stone circle is found in association with a burial pit or burial chamber, but the great majority of these monuments have no such association. A stone circle is an entirely different entity from a henge, and different also from an isolated monolith, yet sometimes these other types of ancient stone monuments are found in close proximity.

The earliest known circles were apparently erected around five thousand years ago during the Neolithic period[citation needed] and may have evolved from earlier burial mounds which often covered timber or stone mortuary houses. The suggestion that they may have evolved from earlier burial mounds is undercut by the fact that, of the hundreds of Neolithic and Bronze Age circles that have been identified, none are provably centered on a burial. That suggests religious context, the details of which are still obscure.[citation needed]

During the Middle Neolithic (c. 3700–2500 BC)[citation needed] stone circles began to appear in coastal and lowland areas towards the north of the United Kingdom. The Langdale axe industry in the Lake District appears to have been an important early centre for circle building, perhaps because of its economic power.[citation needed] Many had closely set stones, perhaps similar to the earth banks of henges, others were made from unfounded boulders rather than standing stones.

By the later Neolithic, stone circle construction had attained a greater precision and popularity.[citation needed] Rather than being limited to coastal areas, they began to move inland and their builders grew more ambitious, producing examples of up to 400 m diameter in the case of the Outer Circle at Avebury. Most circles, however, measured around 25 m in diameter. Designs became more complex, with double and triple ring designs appearing along with significant regional variation. These monuments are often classed separately as concentric stone circles.

The final phase of stone circle construction took place in the early to middle Bronze Age (c. 2200–1500 BC) and saw the construction of numerous small circles which, it has been suggested, were built by individual family groups rather than the large numbers that monuments like Avebury would have required.[citation needed]

By 1500 BC stone circle construction had all but ceased.[citation needed] It is thought[by whom?] that changing weather patterns led people away from upland areas and that new religious thinking led to different ways of marking life and death.


Concentric stone circle

A concentric stone circle is a type of prehistoric monument consisting of a circular or oval arrangement of two or more stone circles set within one another. They were in use from the late Neolithic to the end of the early Bronze Age and are found in England and Scotland.

Connected features at some sites include central mounds, outlying standing stones, avenues or circular banks on which the stones are set. Burials have been found at all excavated concentric stone circles both inhumations and urned or unurned cremations. A funerary purpose is thought likely, especially by Burl who sees the Cumbrian sites as being analogous to the kerbs that surround some chamber tombs and cobble pavements have been found in the centre of many examples. Alternatively, they may be skeuomorphs of earlier timber circle sites rebuilt in stone, especially the examples in Wessex.

Recumbent stone circle

Easter Aquhorthies recumbent stone circle near Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Dunnideer recumbent stone circle near Insch, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Recumbent stone circles are a variation of the types of circle found throughout the British Isles and Brittany with the recumbent type being peculiar to the north east of Scotland, where there are 71 examples,[1] and south west Ireland (Drombeg stone circle near Glandore and Rosscarbery, Co. Cork). Recumbent stone circles date back to approx 3000 BC.

A recumbent circle is formed principally of a ring of stones, like all other stone circles; however, there is one, large recumbent stone laid on its side, usually flanked by the two largest of the standing stones immediately on either side. The stones are commonly graded in height with the lowest stones being diametrically opposite to the tall flankers. It is not uncommon for the circle to contain a ring cairn and cremation remains. The recumbent stone typically lies between the SSE and SW points of the circle.[2] It is thought that this configuration was used for lunar observations; however such an alignment also coincides with the Winter Solstice Sunset. These circles are usually in good farmland, near hill-tops.


Megalithic monuments are found in especially great number on