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        Stone Circles: (Form and Function)

 

 

 

 

   The Chronology of Stone Circles:

With approximately 1,000 stone circles in the British Isles, there is no question that the islands were host to a peopple for whom the circular shape it was the homeland of the stone-circle builders for thousands of years. In Britain, the stone-circle building phase was preceded by a short period of  'Henge' building. However, there are also stone-circles outside the British Isles, and some are considerably older....

9,000 BC Gobekli Tepe, Turkey. The oldest known megalithic temple/circle in the world.
   
4,500 BC Nabta, Egypt. Oldest known stone circle. Placed on the Tropic of Cancer.
4,000 BC Cromleque dos Almendres, Portugal. Twin circles. Possibly the oldest in Europe.
3,800 BC Xaghra circle, Gozo, Malta. (location of Hypogeum II)
3,300 BC First British circular enclosures of earthen banks (1)
3,250 BC Newgrange (stone-circle), Llandegai I Henge (1)
3,200 BC  Stonehenge I, Barford Henge, Arminghall Henge (1)
3,100 BC Ballynoe, Carles (1)
2,950 BC Stennes (1)
2,600 BC Stonehenge II, Avebury (1)
2,500 BC Early Recumbent Circles (1) - (Lunar observation)
2,400 BC Arbor Low (1)
2,350 BC Merry Maidens (1)
2,300 BC Stonehenge III, Rollrights, Woodhenge (1)
2,200 BC Llandegai II Henge, Druid's Circle (1)
2,000 BC Callanish  (1)
1,900 BC Berrybrae recumbent ()

No stone-circles appear to have been built in N. Europe after 1,500 BC (2)

(After Burl - 1.)

 

 

   The Classification of Stone-circles:

The classification of stone circles.

The plain stone-circle (one which is circular), is not as common as might be first expected. There are now several classifications of 'circles', such as:

Oval, Ellipse, Egg-Type I, Egg-Type II, Recumbent, Henge, Henge (1A), Henge (1B), Henge (1C), Henge (II), Henge (IIB), Circle-Henge, Ring-Cairn, Kerb-Cairn, Flattened Circle A, Flattened Circle B, Flattened Circle C, Flattened Circle D, Timber, Concentric, Sub-circular, Four-poster, Axial... (Enough... enough...)

The very fact that so many of these categories are determined by the shape of the 'circle', and that circles are classified according to their shape confirms the suspicions of Prof. Alexander Thom, who first proposed the existence of a 'megalithic yard' and thereby, that there is an underlying geometry that determined the shape of many of the more significant European stone-circles.

(More about the Megalithic Yard)

 

 

 

   The Purpose of Stone Circles:

Stone-circle development occurred around the ancient world for thousands of years, and there are several different types of circle, with several showing changes in use and design over time. Many stone circles have been shown to have strong associations with both geometry and astronomy, and in several examples, the specific location of the circle can be shown to have been more important than the availability of stone.

Even more remarkable than the stones themselves is our ignorance over their original purpose. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in 1135 wrote that the builders of Stonehenge originated in the 'remotest confines of Africa' and that the stones were 'transported by giants', while Fergusson attempted to tackle the subject in 1880, concluding that they were originally constructed as 'holding pens', 'meeting places', or 'memorials of great battles'. 

The evolution of the stone circle reveals much about their probable purposes. It has long been suspected that henges were designed in order to create an artificial horizon line, and in Scotland, recumbent circles have been shown to have had an intimate lunar association (see below). It is now reasonably accepted that most circles included astronomical orientations and alignments, and geometry, with the obvious inclusion of rituals of death (i.e. at Xaghra circle, Malta and Stonehenge, England). The discovery of specific astronomical purposes behind the stone circles (see below), is far removed from the earlier ideas of Fergusson (although we are still a long way from understanding them).

 

 

Stone-circle Facts:

Excavations under the Xaghra stone circle on Gozo, Malta have revealed the presence of a second Hypogeum, which was built from huge slabs of stone and has so far revealed the presence of over 70 bodies.

(Click here for more about the Xaghra circle and the Hypogeum II)

 

 

 

   Stone Circles and Astronomy:

                Although it is not possible to say that all stone circles were built with an astronomical consideration...            It is clear that many share an intimate association with both astronomy and landscape.

A connection to both lunar and solar observations has been recognised in the design of several prominent stone-circles such as Callanish, Stonehenge, Almendres, Newgrange and the numerous RSC's (recumbent stone circles) of Scotland, which are identified with lunar observation.

There are only two latitudes in which the Moon's maximum declination is the same as the latitude, meaning that at its maximum elongation it goes through the zenith (directly overhead). These two latitudes are 38.33˚ N (Almendres), and 51 10' N (Stonehenge).

As well as being associated to Stonehenge, Almendres has a secondary lunar connection with another two significant monuments in Portugal, which are the Zambujeiro passage-mound and the 'cromeleque' da Xarez (The reconstructed 'cromeleque' da Xarez is in-fact a quadrangle). The three sites form a 50km alignment which has been suggested to be related to the spring moon (110).

(Click here for more on this subject)

 

The connection between stone circles and astronomy is not however, so clean-cut. A visit to almost any circle is all one needs to realise that although certain stones were selected to demonstrate a preference for orientation (with portal stones or through a gradation in height), the stones of most circles were placed evenly apart around the circumference, having a symbolic placement rather than a functional one. The choice of stone over wood added to the selection and transport of specific types of stones over long distances also demonstrates the importance of stone itself to the circle builders.

 

Nabta, Egypt:

Because of Nabta's proximity to the Tropic of Cancer, the noon sun is at its zenith about three weeks before and three weeks after the summer solstice, preventing upright objects from casting shadows.

The Nabta stone-circle is the only megalithic construction of its kind in all Egypt. It is positioned exactly on the Tropic of Cancer.

The people at Nabta built an observatory a 12-foot (4-meter) circle of huge slabs of stone, with four pairs of taller stones aligned opposite each other. Two pair provided a "window" on the solstice sunrise, while the other two aligned on an almost-perfect north-south axis. Nabta's calendar circle was used at least 6,000 years ago, and probably earlier

Nabtans erected several other megaliths in the area - dark stones up to 3m above the desert landscape, scattered across a square mile. Some of the megaliths formed north-south and east-west sightlines, like a giant stone compass, and probably remained visible when the summer inundation filled the Nabta basin.

"We see two kinds of astronomy here solstice alignments and cardinal alignments," says J. McKim Malville, a professor of astronomy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a member of the team that confirmed the alignments in a paper published earlier this year.

"The astronomical nature of the site was clear while we were there," says Malville. "These alignments are so simple and straightforward, there's no doubt about them."

(More about Nabta)

 

Castlerigg, England:

The Stone circle at Castle Rigg, Cumbria was one of the most successful that Alexander Thom came across in terms of combining astronomical sight-lines with the geometric construction of the stone circle itself. Thom himself pointed out the remarkable difficulties in trying to find a site where the skyline yielded the exact right properties to match the astronomic requirements and geometry of the circle itself. Although the geometric connections with the landscape are not immediately visible today, it has become clear that the builders were endeavouring to express, control or 'come to terms with something'. In addition, J. Glover made some interesting comments regarding Castle Rigg, namely that the specific placement of certain stones enhanced the shadow-effects caused by the sun at specific times of the year. As the circle was built onto a gentle slope, the largest stone creates a shadow nearly a half-mile long at sunset on midsummer's day.

(More about Castlerigg)

 

 

   The Geometry of Stone-circles:

Burl makes note of the 'mistaken coincidence' about the number of stones in the British stone-circles. He says of it:

'From Brodgar, where there was once 60 stones, to the Stripple stones with a probable thirty, the builders may have counted in multiples of six. Stennes had twelve. The inner and outer rings at Balfarg have been computed at twenty-four and twelve respectively. Twenty-four has been suggested for Cairnpappel, thirty-six for Arbor Low, and the same number for the devils quoits'. (3)

 In contrast to Burl's suggestion that such geometry was purely coincidental, Prof. Alexander Thom radically suggested that geometry was deliberately em[loyed in the design of certain prehistoric sites (such as at Avebury, left).

He surveyed hundreds of European megaliths and concluded that fundamental mathematic principles, based upon a common unit of measurement (which he called the megalithic yard), had been applied in the design of certain sites. As the megalithic tradition in Europe can be traced back to at least 4,000 BC, if not earlier still, his work is still not accepted by most archaeologists, although such a strong presence of geometry should not be ignored, as is clearly suggests that the design of many sacred sites seems to have been based on a sophisticated philosophy of sacred science such as was taught centuries later by the Pythagorean school.  As Professor Thom observes in his book Megalithic Sites in Britain (1967):

 

It is remarkable that one thousand years before the earliest mathematicians of classical Greece, people in these islands not only had a practical knowledge of geometry and were capable of setting out elaborate geometrical designs but could also set out ellipses based on the Pythagorean triangles.

John Michell showed in the 1970's that the several stone circles of South-Western England shared a geometric relationship to each other.

(European Stone 'Quadrangles' and their Latitudes)

(Geometric Alignments)

 

 

Stone circle facts:

The circumference of the Stonehenge sarsen-stone-circle (100ft), is the same as that of the flattened top of Silbury hill.

The same measurement is also exactly one 'quarter aurora', a standard unit of Egyptian area measurement.

(More about the Geometry of Giza)

 

 

 

   Recumbent Stone Circles (RSC's)

Scotland is home to hundreds of 'Recumbent' stone circles. These circles are usually fairly small, the largest being (Innesmill (B5/1 at 110 ft diameter). Recumbent circles in the Grampians of Scotland have been shown to have a primary association with the observation of the extreme setting points on the lunar cycle. They are defined by a prominent 'recumbent' stone, positioned horizontally, so that the moon sets behind it at both extremes of its cycle, and upon which stones cup-marks are often found.

It is an interesting fact that the only recumbent circles found outside of Scotland, are in the Ross-Carbery area of Ireland, which places them too far south to make them any use as lunar observatories, and have in fact been shown to be solar in their orientation. Cope (4), makes note of the Drombeg RSC, where the sun has been observed setting at midwinter (solstice), directly into a notch in the landscape behind the recumbent stone.

Recumbent Stone Circles are one of the most definite proofs we have that Neolithic people were not only aware of the 18.6 year lunar cycle, but that they followed it closely. They demonstrate that the lunar cycle was considered an important part of the social complex in North-eastern Scotland c. 3,000 BC - 1,500 BC.

(More about Recumbent Stone Circles)

 

 

 

   Triple Circles:

England is home to examples of numerous double circles, as well as several 'Triple-circles' such as 'The Hurlers', Merrivale, Stanton Drew, Avebury, Thornborough and Grey Wethers, to name but a few. Their exact purpose is still only to be guessed at, but a geometric and/or astronomic association is predicted . (More to follow soon...)

The Hurlers has been suggested by astronomers to have been aligned to Orions belt at the time of building (Circa 1500 BC).

The Hurlers triple circles.

(From left to right: Clava cairns, The Pipers, The Hurlers and Avebury).

The theme of triple-aligned circles is also common to Henges, such as the Priddy circles, and Thornborough.

Devil's Arrows.   Thornborough Henges.

The three Devil's Arrow's (left), are aligned towards the Thornborough Henges (right).

(More about Triple Stone-circles and Orion)

 

 

   Stone Quadrangles:

There are a handful of megalithic structures in Europe which whilst retaining an essential geometric design - are not circles. Remarkably, they also incorporate a relationship between their dimensions and the latitudes upon which they were built.

  

Quadrangular enclosures at Stonehenge (left), and Crucuno (right).

(More about Quadrangles, Geometry and Latitude).

 

 

   Gallery of Stone-circles:

Stone circles from around the world.

 
 
Other stone-circles.
 
Name Location Description
Nabta Egypt

This stone circle is only a part of the important megalithic complex at Nabta, located on the tropic of Capricorn.

Nr Tangiers Morocco

A stone circle was found near Tangiers. (9).

Los Milhares Spain

A chambered mound surrounded by a stone circle.

Talati de Dalt

Spain

A Stone Circle and 'talayot' towers.

Trepuco

Spain

A Stone Circle and 'talayot'.

 

(Recumbent Stone Circles)

(Index of Ancient Sites)

(A-Z Site Index)

 

References:

1). A. Burl. Rings of Stone. 1979. Book Club Assoc.
2). A. Service & J. Bradbery. Megaliths and their Mysteries. 1979. Macmillan.
3). Burl. A. Prehistoric Henges. 1997. Shire publ.
4). D. Sullivan. Ley Lines: A Comprehensive Guide to Alignments. 1999. Piatkus press.
5). http://www.crookscape.org/textjulb2005/text04.html
6). http://www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/archaeology/special/recumbent.asp
7). P. Deveraux and I. Thomson. The Ley Hunters Companion. 1979. Thames and Hudson.
8). Prof. A. Thom. The Astronomical Significance of the Crucuno Stone Rectangle. 1978. Current Anthropology. Vol 14. No 4.
9). Rene Noorbergen. Secrets of the Lost Races. 1977. New English Library.
 
 
Further Research:

Stone Circles and Measuring Wheels: An Article By Michael Spender (Quick-link)

 

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