Standing Stones: More Than Stonehenge!
Stonehenge is the most famous stone circle in the world, and with good reason. Its size and structure make it a fascinating feat of engineering. But, there are many other stone circles, and other neolithic stone structures, to be found around the world.
Despite all the public interest and archaeological research, we still do not know why these monuments were built. The best we can do is study them and speculate. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and in some cases mythologists, all take their own background knowledge into account when hypothesizing just what the ancient stone circles were used for. Most of the stone circles in Britain and Ireland are believed to be built between 3,000 - 2,000 BC near the end of the Neolithic Era.
Although prehistoric people did not leave written records, they did leave clues that give us hints about their lives. We assume that they were spiritual people due to certain finds such as neolithic homes that include spaces not used for living purposes and appear to have ritual purpose. The burial of bones beneath home floors indicates a belief in the afterlife and probably a worship or reverence of ancestors. So it is fair to postulate that the large monuments likely had ritualistic purposes as well.
Much has been written about Stonehenge and Avebury as places where processions took place. That stone circles and other neolithic monuments were built to align with solstices and equinoxes indicates that the builders were very much in tune with the natural world, the happenings in the sky, and the seasons. The so called Neolithic Revolution was actually a revolution in agriculture. Human beings moved from primarily hunter-gathers into farming communities. Therefore, paying close attention to seasonal changes would be crucial to the survival of the settlement.
There are many other neolithic stone monuments and circles found around Britain and Ireland, so let's explore some of them.
The Druid's Altar: Drombeg Stone Circle
Drombeg stone circle, also called The Druid's Altar, is located in County Cork, Ireland. Its builders placed this ancient monument high upon a flat clearing on a rocky terrace that gives sweeping views of the countryside with the ocean in the distance. It is one of Ireland's best examples of a stone circle, and like other neolithic monuments it is associated with ancient ruins located nearby.
The circle is comprised of seventeen standing stones. Excavations have revealed that there was once an urn burial site located in the center. And, there is thought to be a male and female association with two of the stones, with one of the larger pillar shaped stones representing the male, and the shorter round stone representing the female.
As with other monuments, The Druid's Altar was built with the changing of the seasons in mind. On December 21st, the winter solstice, is when the setting of the sign aligns with the axis of the structure.
Located nearby are Fulacht Fiadh, a communal cooking pit, and two neolithic huts. It is not known exactly what the cooking pit was used for, and several hypotheses have been suggested. Cremated bones have been found buried there (my sources do not say if they are human or animal bones). Tests have shown that up to seventy gallons of water could be boiled very quickly by placing red hot stones into the cauldron. It may have been a feasting site. A large scale cloth dying operation has also been suggested.
The Callanish Stones
The Callanish Stones are located near the village of Callanish (in Gaelic, Calanais) on the west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
This region was a hub of Neolithic activity, and over twenty ancient monuments can be found around the Callanish area. In fact, there is not one, but three stone circles in the Callanish region. They are known as Callanish I, Callanish II, and Callanish III. Featured here is the Callanish I circle.
This is a very impressive circle. Although the stones may not be as massive or intricately constructed as those at Stonehenge, the Callanish Stones are nothing to balk at. The site contains over fifty individual stones situated in a complex arrangement. The tallest stone is placed at the center, measuring sixteen feet high and weighing over five tons. Surrounding the center stone are thirteen large stones, between eight and thirteen feet tall.
More standing stones radiate outward from the main center circle in lines forming a cross, almost like rays of light from the sun. Two sets of lines leading northward seem to form a walkway where a procession was likely led to and from the circle.
A burial chamber is found within the circle, and excavations indicate that the tomb was built a few generations after the circle was originally erected.