Stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany
The stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany were constructed as a part of a megalithic
A megalith is a large stone that has been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones. Megalithic describes structures made of such large stones, utilizing an interlocking system without the use of mortar or cement.The word 'megalith' comes from the Ancient...

 tradition that lasted from 3,300 to 900 BCE, during the Late Neolithic
Neolithic British Isles
The Neolithic British Isles refers to the period of British, Irish and Manx history that spanned from circa 4000 to circa 2,500 BCE. The final part of the Stone Age in the British Isles, it was a part of the greater Neolithic, or "New Stone Age", across Europe.During the preceding Mesolithic...

 and Early Bronze Age
Bronze Age Britain
Bronze Age Britain refers to the period of British history that spanned from c. 2,500 until c. 800 BC. Lasting for approximately 1700 years, it was preceded by the era of Neolithic Britain and was in turn followed by the era of Iron Age Britain...

. Educated estimates have been made that there would have been around 4,000 of these monuments originally constructed in this area of north-western Europe during this period, although currently, only around 1,300 of them are recorded, the others having been destroyed.

Although stone circles have been erected throughout history by a variety of societies and for a variety of reasons, in the Late Neolithic and Bronze Ages, this particular tradition was constrained to the British Isles
British Isles
The British Isles are a group of islands off the northwest coast of continental Europe that include the islands of Great Britain and Ireland and over six thousand smaller isles. There are two sovereign states located on the islands: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and...

 and the neighbouring area of continental Europe now known as Brittany
Brittany is a cultural and administrative region in the north-west of France. Previously a kingdom and then a duchy, Brittany was united to the Kingdom of France in 1532 as a province. Brittany has also been referred to as Less, Lesser or Little Britain...

. The rings were not distributed equally across this area, instead being centred on several highland regions, namely north-eastern and central Scotland, the Lake District, the south peninsula, and northern and south-western Ireland. Less frequent groupings can also be found in Caithness, the Outer Hebrides, the Peak District, the Wicklow Mountains, Wales and Wessex.

Their original purpose still remains partially elusive, although archaeological light has shed some light on this issue. It is widely thought that they served a ritual or ceremonial purpose, particularly in relation to solar and/or lunar alignments. In a minority of cases, some were also used as cemeteries, with burials being made in and around the circle.

Antiquarian investigation began in the Early Modern period, intensifying after the publications of notable English antiquarian William Stukeley
William Stukeley
William Stukeley FRS, FRCP, FSA was an English antiquarian who pioneered the archaeological investigation of the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury, work for which he has been remembered as "probably... the most important of the early forerunners of the discipline of archaeology"...

 in the 18th century. At the time, scholars understood little of prehistoric Britain, with the megalithic circles typically being ascribed to either the druid
A druid was a member of the priestly class in Britain, Ireland, and Gaul, and possibly other parts of Celtic western Europe, during the Iron Age....

s of the Iron Age
British Iron Age
The British Iron Age is a conventional name used in the archaeology of Great Britain, referring to the prehistoric and protohistoric phases of the Iron-Age culture of the main island and the smaller islands, typically excluding prehistoric Ireland, and which had an independent Iron Age culture of...

 or to the Danish settlers of the Early Medieval. In the 20th century, with the development of archaeology
Archaeology, or archeology , is the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes...

, archaeologists were able to undertake more accurate investigations into the stone circles, establishing that they were of Late Neolithic and Bronze Age date. It was also during the 20th century that many of these monuments were adopted as 'sacred sites' by adherents of Contemporary Pagan religions such as Neo-Druidism
Neo-Druidism or Neo-Druidry, commonly referred to as Druidism or Druidry by its adherents, is a form of modern spirituality or religion that generally promotes harmony and worship of nature, and respect for all beings, including the environment...

, Wicca
Wicca , is a modern Pagan religious movement. Developing in England in the first half of the 20th century, Wicca was popularised in the 1950s and early 1960s by a Wiccan High Priest named Gerald Gardner, who at the time called it the "witch cult" and "witchcraft," and its adherents "the Wica."...

 and the Goddess movement
Goddess movement
The Goddess movement is an overall trend in religious or spiritual beliefs or practices which emerged out of second-wave feminism, predominantly in North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s...

, who have used them for their magico-religious rites.

Early Neolithic

The Neolithic, or 'New Stone Age' saw massive changes occur across north-western Europe. The introduction of agriculture
Agriculture is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms for food, fiber, and other products used to sustain life. Agriculture was the key implement in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that nurtured the...

 led to an end of the hunter-gatherer
A hunter-gatherer or forage society is one in which most or all food is obtained from wild plants and animals, in contrast to agricultural societies which rely mainly on domesticated species. Hunting and gathering was the ancestral subsistence mode of Homo, and all modern humans were...

 lifestyle which had dominated in the preceding Palaeolithic ('Old Stone Age') and Mesolithic ('Middle Stone Age') periods.

The Early Neolithic in Brittany and the British Isles had seen the rise and fall of a megalithic tradition of building chambered tombs in which to house the dead. The chambered tomb tradition lasted between circa 4000 and 3500 BCE, although an earlier example, at Carrowmore
Carrowmore, County Sligo is one of the four major passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland. It is located at the centre of a prehistoric ritual landscape on the Cúil Irra Peninsula in County Sligo in Ireland....

 in County Sligo, has been disputably dated to 5000 BCE. The length of this tradition led the prominent prehistorian Mike Parker Pearson
Mike Parker Pearson
Michael "Mike" Parker Pearson is a professor in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield in England. His books include The Archaeology of Death and Burial, Bronze Age Britain, Architecture and Order and In Search of the Red Slave...

 to note that it was "a relatively short-lived fashion in archaeological terms." In southern England, 84% of chambered tombs were built in a north-east to south-east direction, thereby being an important consideration in their construction, likely holding some sort of special significance for these megalith builders.

In some parts of the British Isles, architectural changes were made to the style of chambered tomb, which may have been a forerunner to the later circular design of the stone rings. At the later Clyde tombs on south-western Scotland and the court-cairns of northern Ireland, crescentic forecourts were constructed inside the tombs, which would have allowed for more people to enter the tomb and take part in any rites there, all within the light of the open air.

The Early Neolithic also saw another form of monument constructed in the British Isles, now known by archaeologists as causewayed enclosure
Causewayed enclosure
A causewayed enclosure is a type of large prehistoric earthwork common to the early Neolithic in Europe. More than 100 examples are recorded in France and 70 in England, while further sites are known in Scandinavia, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Slovakia.The term "causewayed enclosure" is...

s. Consisting of circular ditch-and-bank earthworks, the causewayed enclosure tradition flourished around 3800 BCE, but by 3200 BCE, almost all of them had been abandoned by their users. Built across the lowland regions of southern England, no known equivalents have been found in the highland areas of northern Britain. Despite having excavated a number of these sites across southern Britain, archaeologists remain unclear as to the exact purposes that they served in Early Neolithic society. Many possibilities have been suggested, arguing that they were camps, markets, cattle kraals or occassional settlements, whilst other suggestions have argued that they were ritual centres for the celebration of seasonal festivals or that they were cemeteries for the dead.

Late Neolithic

The transition from the Early Neolithic to the Late Neolithic was - in the words of historian Ronald Hutton
Ronald Hutton
Ronald Hutton is an English historian who specializes in the study of Early Modern Britain, British folklore, pre-Christian religion and contemporary Paganism. A reader in the subject at the University of Bristol, Hutton has published fourteen books and has appeared on British television and radio...

 - "as fundamental as that from the Mesolithic had been." Archaeological pollen analysis has shown that it was a period when scrub and weeds were spreading over what had formerly been cultivated fields, and forests that had previously been cleared began to grow back. It was a time when the chambered tombs were blocked up and abandoned, implying that Neolithic people were ceasing to use them as cultic sites. Several former causewayed enclosures were converted into defensive structures with gateways and walls, and in some cases they were attacked, with evidence for conflict being found at Carn Brea
Carn Brea
Carn Brea is a civil parish and hilltop site in Cornwall, United Kingdom. The hilltop site is situated approximately one mile southwest of Redruth.-Neolithic settlement:...

 in Cornwall, Hambledon Hill
Hambledon Hill
Hambledon Hill is a prehistoric hill fort in Dorset, England, situated in the Blackmore Vale five miles north of Blandford Forum. The hill is a Chalk outcrop, on the south western corner of Cranborne Chase, separated from the Dorset Downs by the River Stour....

 in Dorset and Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire. Various archaeologists have suggested that this was a period of particular turmoil within the British Isles, perhaps caused by an overuse of land, the failure of crops, famine, plague, climactic change or an increase in population that was not supported by the food supply.
The Late Neolithic also signaled an ideological change in the British Isles, as communities ceased performing cultic ceremonies at the chambered tombs of the dead. Instead, stone circles began to be erected across this part of Europe, which had apparently different purposes.

As the prominent megalithic-specialist and archaeologist Aubrey Burl
Aubrey Burl
Harry Aubrey Woodruff Burl MA, DLitt, PhD, FSA, HonFSA Scot is a British archaeologist most well known for his studies into megalithic monuments and the nature of prehistoric rituals associated with them. Prior to retirement he was Principal Lecturer in Archaeology, Hull College, East Riding of...

 (2000) noted; "There was a change from the cramped, gloomy chamber of a tomb to the unroofed, wide ring, a change from darkness to light, from the dead to the living, from the grave to the sky." Similar observations were made by the historian Ronald Hutton, who commented that the circular shape of the rings "mirrors the sun, the full moon and the bounds of the horizon" and that such a shape can also be "profoundly egalitarian".

Early Bronze Age

The start of the Bronze Age in Britain was signaled by the introduction of bronze
Bronze is a metal alloy consisting primarily of copper, usually with tin as the main additive. It is hard and brittle, and it was particularly significant in antiquity, so much so that the Bronze Age was named after the metal...

, a metal alloy that is created from the mixing of copper
Copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu and atomic number 29. It is a ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity. Pure copper is soft and malleable; an exposed surface has a reddish-orange tarnish...

 and usually tin
Tin is a chemical element with the symbol Sn and atomic number 50. It is a main group metal in group 14 of the periodic table. Tin shows chemical similarity to both neighboring group 14 elements, germanium and lead and has two possible oxidation states, +2 and the slightly more stable +4...

. Ideologically, there is no evidence for a change in Brittany and the British Isles at this time, with communities continuing to construct megalithic stone circles.


The archaeologist and stone circle-specialist Aubrey Burl
Aubrey Burl
Harry Aubrey Woodruff Burl MA, DLitt, PhD, FSA, HonFSA Scot is a British archaeologist most well known for his studies into megalithic monuments and the nature of prehistoric rituals associated with them. Prior to retirement he was Principal Lecturer in Archaeology, Hull College, East Riding of...

 noted that the stone circle builders would have had to undertake "careful planning" before they erected these monuments. There was much that they had to take into consideration; the choice of location, the size of the ring, the transportation of the heavy stones, the laying out of the circle or ellipse and the preparation of stone holes. They may have also had to plot astronomical alignments, making the task more difficult.

Most stone circles were constructed upon flat ground, although some were instead built on a slope. In some cases, such as at Kiltierney in County Fermanagh, the land was flattened especially for this purpose, although in other cases it is clear that the land had been flattened by earlier communities, who had used the land as an area for settlement or agriculture.

Dating, number and size

Archaeologist Aubrey Burl
Aubrey Burl
Harry Aubrey Woodruff Burl MA, DLitt, PhD, FSA, HonFSA Scot is a British archaeologist most well known for his studies into megalithic monuments and the nature of prehistoric rituals associated with them. Prior to retirement he was Principal Lecturer in Archaeology, Hull College, East Riding of...

 noted that there was an assumption among archaeologists that for every stone circle that survived to the late 20th century, then there would have been two lost. From the 1300 surviving examples, Burl therefore calculated that there might have been originally around 4000 stone circles across Britain, Ireland and Brittany.

Since the 1950s, archaeologists have been able to use radiocarbon dating
Radiocarbon dating
Radiocarbon dating is a radiometric dating method that uses the naturally occurring radioisotope carbon-14 to estimate the age of carbon-bearing materials up to about 58,000 to 62,000 years. Raw, i.e. uncalibrated, radiocarbon ages are usually reported in radiocarbon years "Before Present" ,...

 of the material around the stones in order to accurately date their original construction. As of 2000, the earliest known radiocarbon dating of a stone circle was from the Lochmaben Stone
Lochmaben Stone
The Lochmaben Stone is a megalith standing in a field, nearly a mile west of the Sark mouth on the Solway Firth, three hundred yards or so above high water mark on the farm of Old Graitney in Dumfries & Galloway in Scotland. Map reference: NY 3123 6600. The area is also known as Stormont...

 in Dumfriesshire, which was dated to 2525 ± 85 bc, whilst the latest examples came from Sandy Road in Perth (1200 ± 150 bc), from Dromberg in County Cork (790 ± 80 bc) and from the Five-Stone ring of Cashelkeety from County Kerry (715 ± 50 bc). Aubrey Burl related that, once these dates were calibrated, it indicated that the stone circle tradition existed between 3300 and 900 BCE, a period of 2,400 years.

The size of the megalithic rings varied, perhaps according to the amount of people who would be using it during ceremonies. Burl calculated that the largest stone circle in terms of both diameter and area was Stanton Drew
Stanton Drew stone circles
The Stanton Drew stone circles are at just outside the village of Stanton Drew, Somerset. The largest stone circle is the Great Circle, 113 m in diameter and the second largest stone circle in Britain...

 in Somerset, with a diameter of 112.2m and an area of 9,887m². Second came the Ring of Brodgar
Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic henge and stone circle on the Mainland, the largest island in Orkney, Scotland...

 in Orkney at 103.6m in diameter and 8,430m² in area, whilst third was Avebury
Avebury is a Neolithic henge monument containing three stone circles which is located around the village of Avebury in Wiltshire, south west England. Unique amongst megalithic monuments, Avebury contains the largest stone circle in Europe, and is one of the best known prehistoric sites in Britain...

 in Wiltshire, which had a diameter of 102.4m and an area of 8,236m². All of the largest circles were found in or near to earlier henge monuments. Nonetheless, such gargantuan monuments were rare, and Burl calculated that the majority of the megalithic rings (92%), had an average diameter of 13.7m, with an average area of 150m².

Megalithic yard

The archaeologist Alexander Thom
Alexander Thom
Alexander "Sandy" Thom was a Scottish engineer most famous for his theory of the Megalithic yard, categorization of stone circles and his studies of Stonehenge and other archaeological sites.- Life and work :...

 proposed that the stone circles were built using a unit of measurement which he called the "megalithic yard
Megalithic Yard
A Megalithic Yard is a unit of measurement, about , that some researchers believe was used in the construction of megalithic structures. The proposal was made by Alexander Thom as a result of his surveys of 600 megalithic sites in England, Scotland, Wales and Britanny...



The original purposes of the stone ring monuments has been widely debated by antiquarians and archaeologists for several centuries.

Southern England

Southern England also contains the two best known, though most untypical stone circles, Avebury
Avebury is a Neolithic henge monument containing three stone circles which is located around the village of Avebury in Wiltshire, south west England. Unique amongst megalithic monuments, Avebury contains the largest stone circle in Europe, and is one of the best known prehistoric sites in Britain...

 and Stonehenge
Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument located in the English county of Wiltshire, about west of Amesbury and north of Salisbury. One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is composed of a circular setting of large standing stones set within earthworks...


Northern England

In what is now northern England, there was a particularly rich stone circle tradition in the Lake District
Lake District
The Lake District, also commonly known as The Lakes or Lakeland, is a mountainous region in North West England. A popular holiday destination, it is famous not only for its lakes and its mountains but also for its associations with the early 19th century poetry and writings of William Wordsworth...

. Several large megalithic rings were constructed here, such as Castlerigg stone circle
Castlerigg stone circle
The stone circle at Castlerigg is situated near Keswick in Cumbria, North West England...

, Swinside
Swinside, which is also known as Sunkenkirk and Swineshead, is a stone circle lying beside Swinside Fell, part of Black Combe in southern Cumbria, North West England...

 and Long Meg and Her Daughters
Long Meg and Her Daughters
Long Meg and Her Daughters, also known as Maughanby Circle, is a Bronze Age stone circle near Penrith in Cumbria, North West England. One of around 1,300 stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany, it was constructed as a part of a megalithic tradition that lasted from 3,300 to 900 BCE, during...



Late Bronze and Iron Ages

Evidence for the destruction of stone circles first comes from the Late Bronze Age.

Mediaeval period

Following the Christianisation of Britain in the Early Mediaeval period, various Christian clergyman denounced those pagans who continued to venerate at stones in the landscape, which in some cases perhaps implied stone circles.

By the Late Mediaeval period, references to prehistoric monuments in the British Isles were rare, and were usually only to note down practical matters, such as that a judicial court would be held near to one or that a farmer's land lay near to one.
A rare exception is found in the fictionalised History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136), in which the chronicle's author Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a cleric and one of the major figures in the development of British historiography and the popularity of tales of King Arthur...

 claimed that Stonehenge had once been the Giants' Ring, and that it had originally been located on Mount Killaraus
Mount Killaraus
Mount Killaraus is a legendary mountain in Ireland, most famous for being the source of the stones of Stonehenge in Arthurian legend.Geoffrey of Monmouth records the story in his Historia Regum Britanniae. He describes how Aurelius Ambrosius returned from his exile in Brittany and burnt Vortigern...

 in Ireland, until the wizard Merlin
Merlin is a legendary figure best known as the wizard featured in the Arthurian legend. The standard depiction of the character first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, written c. 1136, and is based on an amalgamation of previous historical and legendary figures...

moved it to Salisbury Plain.


In the Mediaeval and Early Modern period onward, much folklore developed around the subject of the stone circles.
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