Stone circle

From Academic Kids

A stone circle is a circular space, delimited by purposefully erected stones and often containing burials. They should not be confused with henges or isolated monoliths, although all these features are often encountered together. Nor should they be confused with earlier rings, such as the Goseck circle in Saxony-Anhalt, that may have served similar religious/calendrical/astronomical purposes, though at a much earlier epoch. Archaeological evidence, coupled with information from astronomers, geologists and mathematicians, implies that the purpose of stone circles was connected with prehistoric peoples' beliefs and that their construction can shed light on ancient engineering, social organisation, religion and, for want of a better word, science. Their precise function however will probably always remain open to debate.

From the eighth to the twelfth century in Senegambia stone circles were built as funerary monuments. More than a thousand are known, including the Sine-Saloum stone circles in central Senegal.

Prehistoric stone circles are megalithic monuments found almost exclusively in the British Isles, with two atypical examples known in Brittany. Often orientated on sight lines for the rising or setting sun or moon at certain times of the year, it seems likely that for their builders, fertility and the cycle of life were very important concepts. The crudeness of the stones means that they could not have been used as advanced astronomical calculators however, and their positioning is more symbolic than functional.

The earliest circles were erected around five thousand years ago during the Neolithic period and may have evolved from earlier burial mounds which often covered timber or stone mortuary houses.

During the Middle Neolithic (c. 3700-2500 BC) stone circles began to appear in coastal and lowland areas towards the north of the British Isles. 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. 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. Rather than being limited to coastal areas, they began to move inland and their builders grew more ambitious, producing examples of up to 400m diameter in the case of the Outer Circle at Avebury. Most circles however measured around 25m in diameter however. 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.

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

Scandinavia and the Goths

In Scandinavia, there was a tradition of making stone circles during the Iron Age and especially in Götaland. The appearance of these circles in northern Poland is considered to be a characteristic of the migrating Goths (see Stone Circle (Iron Age) and Wielbark Culture).

Links

  • The Megalith Map (http://www.megalith.ukf.net/), a site showing every stone circle in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales
  • Stone Pages (http://www.stonepages.com/), a web guide to megalithic Europe
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