When I first began researching castles on the internet I happened to stumble upon a page on a stone circle in Cumberland, Castlerigg, which piqued my interest in them and I have been meaning to delve deeper for some time to find out more. In England they are considered to be druidical by some people but they are not unique to England at all. Scotland, Ireland and Wales have numerous such sites and they can be found in various places throughout Europe, Russia and Scandanavia including Brittany in France and are called by various different names such as domrings and thingsteads in Scandanavia or cromlechs in France and Portugal. They consist of mostly menhirs (literally, the Breton word for long stones) which are unhewn stones, set up at intervals in a circle or ovoid configuration principally on level ground. It has been suggested by experts that the British stone circles were set up for the purpose of observing the rising and setting of the stars- like an observation point- for the various festivals and sacrifices to be made.
Aerial photo of Castlerigg
Even though Stonehenge is by far the most famous of these, Castlerigg has the distinction of being the first scheduled (scheduled: documented as historical ) ancient monument in Great Britain (1883) beginning the process of historical and archaeological preservation in England and her possessions. Under Canon Hardwick Rawnsley the grounds were purchased in 1913 and the conservation of it was donated into the care of the National Trust. The stone circles of Cumberland have been determined to be the earliest in the entirety of Europe and this one may have been constructed by 3200 BC, which would make it an Early Bronze age monument. The stones match the local metamorphic slate having the distinction of basically conical-type shapes with the tallest stones being measured at 2.3 meters in height. The circle sits on a high plateau above Keswick at Castlerigg Fell and all of the highest peaks in Cumbria can be observed from there. These are Helvellyn, Skiddaw, Grasmoor and Blencathra.
Starting in the 18th century, antiquarian and archaeological studies and excavations have been carried out at Castlerigg- starting with William Stukeley in 1725 and later C.W. Dymond in 1878 and 1881 who drew up a flawed but basically precise map of the placement of the stones overriding an earlier work by Benjamin Williams in 1856 who had observed two more cairns than was noted by Dymond later. The actual excavations were carried out by W. Kinsey Dover a year later who took soil and burned wood (or charcoal) samples much of which was lost but from which his observations were written.
This early study by the antiquarians and archaeologists stands today because further excavation is unlikely to be permitted due to the erosion from visits which have been taking place through the centuries. None of the stone circles of Cumberland have ever been scientifically dated in a modern context. However, English Heritage conducted a geophysical survey in 1985 so that an interpretation of the phenomenon could be made available for visitors. A report of the findings has not yet been officially published.
Two men who have been writing on the subject of stone circles for nearly fifty years, Aubrey Burl and Alexander Thom, take opposite approaches to what the implications and possible uses that these monuments could have been used for and why they are worth the speculation. Neither writer deals with any of them on an individual basis, however, and they both make strong opposing statements in the area of intelligent use and early Briton primitivism. Both of them have written books which might help you find out more if your interest takes you further than this article. I will add them to my book list so have a look if you dare!
The most intriguing and popular stone circle monument in the world is, of course, Stonehenge. Located on Salisbury Plain near Amesbury in Wiltshire, this 5,000 year old World Heritage Site configuration resembles the dolmans (two upright stones with a lintel stone placed on top) seen at Carnac in South Brittany in France. However, the stones are so strategically placed and unusual in their placement in relation to other stone circles it has received much more attention by scholars of the Stone and Bronze Ages. It has been asserted that it is in fact a huge astronomical calendar- one of its most remarkable features.
Stonehenge has the distinction of being encircled by a ditch three hundred feet in diameter and the site is approached from the northeast by a wide avenue. Looking at the photo you will see the stone formations very close in proximity in comparison to other stone circles and sites, and it comprises four rows of large stones with the outer two forming a double circle one hundred feet in diameter, the third row shaped like a horseshoe with the opening toward the wide avenue, and the inside forming an ovoid angled enclosure. The outside circle of sarsen stones had thirty upright menhirs 13 & 1/2 feet in height with a continuous line of lintels, at one time, of which sixteen remain. Quite a few of the upright stones along the rows have toppled or overturned and not all are accounted for- meaning that the original numbers of stones of some of the rows are unknown. The Altar Stone and Slaughter Stones lie flat, as always, and are key to the configuration along with the Friar’s Heel (an upright stone) which stands in the avenue approaching the monument. The three form an axis which points to the place on the horizon where the sun rose on Midsummer Day in 1680 BC and some archaeologists assume that because of this it was built as a temple for sun worship. There are others who speculate that it was a sepulchral monument and was added to until the late Bronze Age and many artifacts found at the burial mounds in the area support this idea.
Carnac in Brittany, France is exceptional because there are an incredible amount of stones erected over a very large area that are within the commune of Carnac itself and extends east within La Trinite’-sur-Mer. At one time more than 3,000 stones were counted at this extensive site which defies true explanation. No other such site has such a huge collection of stones- the most remarkable feature so, of course, legend was used to explain which runs from Merlin turning a Roman legion to stone (his fabled nearby spring at Paimpol makes this an accessible reason) to a Christian legend that Pope Cornelius was pursued by pagan soldiers who were also turned to stone. Legends aside, there must be a natural reason why so many large stones were available in this relatively small area. It has been determined that some of these stones may date as far back as 4500 BC !
There are long alignments of menhirs and dolmans of which the latter were extended to alle’e couvertes near Carnac and further north is the Kerzerho at Erdeven. These alignments were upright stones placed so that they could be roofed with lintels to form covered alleyways. Scattered stones in upright positions are all around the sites which extend into the peninsula down into Quiberon and a tumulus (a dolman covered over well with stones as a burial mound) can be found at Gavrinis at the Gulf of Morbihan fifteen kilometers away from Carnac. Another is the Merchant’s Table at Locmariaquer at land’s end near Carnac and there are other burial sites as well.
Literally thousands of ancient granite rocks in and around the site are arranged in various configurations including small dolmen tombs such as Er-Roc’h-Feutet and quadrilateral enclosures called tertres tumuli. The stone circles, which in France are referred to as cromlechs, are very much like those found in England. The placement of them is obviously not random but were precise placements which include the burial places. The cromlechs can be found at the Me’nec alignments both east and west ends and at Kermario there is one on the east end. The west end of the Kerlescan rows has a cromlech consisting of 39 stones. It has been suggested that some of these configuration are astronomical observatories like Stonehenge and the massive menhir at Locmariaquer is linked to this exact purpose. (Most of the stone circles- such as at Castlerigg- have such outlying stones, generally far afield.)
James Miln, a Scottish antiquarian, conducted the first excavations in the 1860s and found many stones out of place or no longer standing. He and his assistant Zacherie Le Rouzic did much to gather artifacts in and around the area and the collection numbers in the thousands. The Muse’e de Prehistoire was established on these artifacts by Robert Miln and Le Rouzic became the director of the museum becoming an internationally recognized expert on the local megaliths. Through their influence, work was eventually carried out subsequently to re-erect stones in the 1930s and 1980s although locally the work has been considered controversial.
If you visit these sites do not be surprised to see sheep grazing around the stone alignments as it is part of a new management strategy to keep gorse, weeds and moss under control.
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Le Chateau Demoiselle bien sur !
Proverb of the Day: Remove not the ancient landmarks… Prov. 23:10a