From Stonehenge to Stenness, Britain’s stone circles are veiled in mystery and magic. Marc Zakian investigates
They are the symbols of the Stone Age: 4,000 giant standing-stone monuments rising up from the British landscape. Built as places to feast, to honour the sun, moon and stars, to summon up the dead and to reach for the gods, they stood proud for over a millennium. Then, around 4,000 years ago, their glory ended. Lost to time and new beliefs, the megaliths faded into the landscape. History turned into mystery. Who built them: god-like aliens? Flying wizards? A race of giants killed in Noah’s flood? Nobody knew, but everybody had an explanation.
Ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus – who never visited Britain – claimed that Stonehenge was a magnificent circular temple dedicated to Apollo. Medieval author Geoffrey of Monmouth declared that the wizard, Merlin, flew the stones from Ireland and that King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, was buried there. Stories of healing powers abounded. It was said that children who passed through the hole at the centre of Menan-Tol were cured of chronic illnesses, while women who visited the Cornish megalith under the light of the full moon would become pregnant.
Oyster shells were the Stone Age burglar alarm. Spread on the ground outside houses, the noise of them being walked on would alert inhabitants to any intruder.
The stones were also fortune-tellers. If a woman cups her ear to the Rollright Stones they will speak the name of her future husband. If she sits on the Devil’s Chair stone at Avebury on May Day eve all her wishes will be granted. Place two brass pins on top of the rock at Men-an-Tol and they will rearrange themselves to answer your questions. Against this mystical background, the first ‘scientific’ investigations began. In the 1620s, King James I – a fierce believer in witches and wizards – visited Stonehenge and commissioned Inigo Jones to study the monument. The architect concluded that it was built by the Romans. He was wrong by over 2,000 years.
Forty years later, the antiquary, John Aubrey, surveyed Stonehenge. He correctly stated that it was built by Britons but attributed it to the Celtic druids. Wrong. But only by 1,300 years. A century on, the antiquary William Stukeley – regarded by many as the father of archaeology – surveyed Stonehenge, accurately documenting its processional avenue. But he too thought it was a druid monument.
The truth about Stonehenge’s ancient origins was finally revealed in 1901, when Professor William Garland excavated the henge and dated it back to the late Stone Age, some 5,000 years ago. The following century has given us carbon dating, geophysics and aerial photography. We understand more and more about stone circles, yet the mysteries of the megaliths remain.
With the hippy movement paving the way for New Age travellers, techno pagans and 21st century wizarding and witchery, henges have become literal and symbolic touchstones for the spiritual beliefs of our time.
Wood you believe it – A couple of miles from its more famous stone sibling is Woodhenge. Rather eerily, the body of a child was found buried here, its skull split in two. Was Woodhenge the site of infant sacrifice?
STONEHENGE – THE ORIGINAL ROLLING STONES
If ancient Britain were a brand, Stonehenge would be its logo. This half-collapsed circle crouched on the side of chalky Salisbury Plain is world-famous. Begun around 3,000BC as a circular banked ditch, its first incarnation was probably as a wood henge. With 56 giant poles guarding hundreds of cremated bodies buried below in the ditch, it was the largest Neolithic cemetery in Britain.
Around 2,500BC the first stones arrived. Known as the bluestones, these five-tonne megaliths were dragged 150 miles from the Preseli Hills in Wales. It would have taken 20 people half a year to move each stone from south-west Wales to Wiltshire. During the next two centuries, 30 enormous sarsen stones were transported to the site and arranged in a circle. They were heaved into place, slotting into holes in the ground dug out with animal bones.
Weighing twice as much as a London double-decker bus, the megaliths were shaped and fitted with mortise and tenon joints to secure lintel stones around the top. At the heart of the circle stood five 40-tonne stones arranged in a horseshoe. After 1,500 years of additions and changes, ancient Britain’s biggest building project was complete.
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
We understand how Stonehenge was made but not why. What compelled the ancients to dedicate over 10 million man-hours to the building? With no written records, this is where science slides into mystery. The circle is a giant astronomical clock, marking the summer and winter solstice. Stone Age astronomers placed a megalith known as the heel stone to the east of the henge, indicating the direction of a tunnel of light that beams into the building when the sun rises on the longest day of the year.
For Britain’s first farmers the darkening winter was full of foreboding. Would the light return in the new year? A temple to honour the seasons might encourage the sun into the sky, in readiness for the planting of new crops. It’s likely that the most important festival at Stonehenge was the winter solstice. Burials around Stonehenge indicate a sacred site. It may have been where the ancients came to worship their ancestors. The dozens of round-barrow tombs that surround Stonehenge suggest that it was once a temple dedicated to the spirit world.
Stonehenge has its own song:
Before the dawn of history,
Lived an ancient race of people.
No one knows who they were or what they were doing.
But their legacy remains.
Hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge.
In the 1984 comedy film Spinal Tap, a life-size model of Stonehenge is lowered down on to the stage as the band, Spinal Tap, perform the song. Due to a mix-up, the replica turns out to be 18 inches tall rather than 18 feet.
WHEN IS A HENGE NOT A HENGE?
Technically a henge is a circular raised bank with an internal ditch surrounding a central area. Stonehenge is not a true henge, as its ditch runs outside its bank. But the archaeological term henge was coined in 1932 with reference to Stonehenge. So Stonehenge is the original henge.
WRITTEN IN STONE
Ancient images of daggers and axeheads are carved into the sarsen stones. More recent graffiti includes the name ‘Tom Senior, 1817’, etched into stone 23. Stone 52 features the words ‘I Wren’. Was this architect Sir Christopher Wren? He was born 15 miles from Stonehenge, and the diameter of the inner dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is the same as the sarsen circle – 102 feet from edge to edge. Coincidence?
In 1915, a barrister was sent to an auction by his wife to buy some chairs. Cecil Chubb’s eye was caught by lot No 15: a few acres of Wiltshire downland, plus one ancient, crumbling, monument. Stonehenge was sold to Chubb for £6,600. Three years later he gave it to the nation.
Henges may have been used for music. Archaeologists have discovered that when you strike the stones they ring like wooden bells. Were they played during the world’s first rock concerts?
There are so many pagan and druid groups performing ceremonies at Avebury they need a rota. The Loyal Arthurian Warband (LAW), the Secular Order of Druids (SOD) and the Glastonbury Order of Druids (GOD) use it on Saturdays, while the Druid Network and the British Druid Order (BDO) visit on Sundays.
Silbury Hill is near Avebury. The largest artificial prehistoric mound in Europe stands 30 metres high and 160 metres wide. It took 500 people 10 years to build. We still do not know its purpose.
AVEBURY – STONEHENGE’S BIG BROTHER
Avebury is 20 miles north of Stonehenge. Originally consisting of over 100 stones, this mega henge is the largest in Europe, with an outer circle circumference of over a mile. Each stone has its own name, and some feature unusual holes that disappear deep into the rocks.
Avebury’s origins have been attributed to ancient seafaring Phoenicians, to native Americans who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and, inevitably, to aliens – apparently the stones are identical to ones on Mars. Visit the local Red Lion pub in the centre of the circle – the village surrounds the henge – to hear more mysterious theories. For a more earthly explanation, Avebury hosts a first class museum that houses the remains of a prehistoric child called ‘Charlie’ who lived at the stones.
STANTON DREW – THE DEVIL’S HENGE
The three stone circles at Stanton Drew in Somerset make up the third largest collection of prehistoric megaliths in England. Completed over 4,000 years ago, investigations have uncovered human bones buried under the stones, as well as a mysterious ‘round bell’. Legend has it that a wedding party was held here one Sunday, but the only musician who would play was a mysterious man dressed in black. The partygoers were turned to stone for their wickedness, and the stones are said to represent the dancers awaiting the devil who promised to return someday and play for them again.
Many people bring small offerings to Stanton Drew, hiding them in the holes of the stones. It’s very unlucky to remove them. The henge is a popular site for pagan weddings, which often end in the garden of the Druids Arms pub – built around three stones from the henge.
THE KNOWLTON CIRCLES
The Knowlton Circles in Dorset feature more than one henge. The best preserved has a 12th century church at its centre, giving it a fairy-tale appearance. Church Henge symbolises Britain’s evolution from pagan culture to Christian worship. The chapel remained in use until the roof fell in. It is reputed to be one of the most haunted sites in Britain.
Stone Age dentists drilled out cavities with flint tools and packed them with ancient fillings made of tar and hair.
THE ROLLRIGHT STONES – KING OF THE MEGALITHS
The Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire are 77 standing stones. Known as the Whispering Knights and the King’s Men, they are commanded by a solitary eight feet-high megalith called the King Stone – shaped more like a circus seal than a monarch. According to legend they represent a leader and his soldiers who were turned to stone by the witch Mother Shipton. In the 1990s, a group of pagans grouped together to buy the stones and formed a trust that looks after the site.
CIRCLING AROUND CUMBRIA
There are over 50 stone circles in the Lake District and Cumbria. Castlerigg is the most atmospheric, with panoramic views of the mountains of Helvellyn and Skiddaw. Swinside originally consisted of 60 stones and is remarkably intact with 55 remaining. Legend says it is impossible to count the stones – a few minutes on Google Earth quickly busts that myth.
THE RING OF BRODGAR – THE LORD OF THE STONE RINGS
With its Tolkeinish name, this icon of the Orkneys features narrow, jagged stones that lord it over a marine landscape. Invading Scandinavians worshipped at the Ring of Brodgar as a temple to the sun where young people made vows and prayed to Woden. Several of the stones display runic Nordic carvings – including one featuring the name ‘Bjorn’.
There are over 50 stone circles in the Lake District and Cumbria
Stone Age people drilled holes into human skulls. The earliest trepanned skull is more than 7,000 years old, but with no anaesthesia it was a painful, life-threatening procedure. The survival rate was surprisingly high and it may have had a practical effect of relieving pressure on the skull after an injury. It could also have been a way to release trapped demons.
ROCKY ALL OVER THE WORLD
● Esperance, in Western Australia, has an astronomically aligned, full-scale, exact replica of Stonehenge.
● Missouri University boasts a halfscale replica built from solid granite, as does the University of Texas.
● Nebraska is home to Carhenge, constructed from vintage American cars.
● Phonehenge – made of oldfashioned British telephone booths – lives at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
● Fridgehenge was built outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, from junked refrigerators.
● Mudhenge was erected for the 1996 Burning Man Festival in Nevada, followed in 2001 by Twinkiehenge.
● At the 2007 Glastonbury Festival, artist Banksy constructed a ‘Stonehenge’ from portable toilets.
● In 2012, British artist Jeremy Deller created a life-size inflatable bouncy castle replica of Stonehenge that now tours internationally.
● Steel Henge – actually made from iron ingots – is at Centenary Riverside park, Rotherham.
STONES OF STENNESS – BRODGAR’S LUNAR SISTER
Standing by the south shore of Loch Stenness, only four stones remain – reaching a height of 19 feet, they are visible for miles around. According to local history, Stenness was the Temple of the Moon. One account tells that during the five days of New Year feasting, lovers would visit the stones where they would kneel and pray. They then made their way to the Ring of Brodgar to repeat the ritual, before finalising their pact at the Odin Stone.
BRYN CADER FANER – THE WONDER OF PREHISTORIC WALES
From the land where the stones of Stonehenge originated and druidry still lives and breathes, this remote moorland monument features a burial mound and a circle of 15 slender stone slabs. Each about six feet high, they lean outwards like bristling spears. Bryn Cader Faner is thought to mean ‘the hill of the throne with a flag’.
Many Blue Badge Guides specialise in visits to Britain’s ancient monuments.