I can’t remember when my interest in ancient Britain started. Of all times and places in the world, this is one that resonates with me the most, which is fairly odd, considering that I’m a city girl and proudly Canadian.
My parents took me to England when I was very young. I have vague memories of smoky pubs and picking blackberries in the drizzle with yellow slickers and black galoshes. Winding stone staircases with birds nesting in glass-less windows show up in my dreams.
The first time I travelled to the U.K. as an adult, I felt like I was at home. In planning our upcoming family trip to the south of England for a wedding, my husband asked me if I want to go to Stonehenge. The standing stones haven’t change since before dirt was dirt. I’ve been there twice before. I’ve seen a number of stone circles and megaliths from ancient Britain. I even got engaged in one. But, hell, yes, I want to go again!
Megaliths are large stones that form a monument, or its remains, from a civilization before written history. Historians offer conflicting theories, complicated by ever-improving science. I find standing stones so captivating, that part of me hopes we never truly find the answer.
Most people know of Stonehenge and its 4500 year old iconic trilithons and articulated outer ring. The sarsen sandstone possibly comes from Marlborough Downs, 30 kilometers north. The bluestone blocks (believed to be quarried from Preseli Hills in Wales, 250 k.m. away) are said to have a different temperature (or energy?) when touched. Was Stonehenge a giant calendar, a site for annual pilgrimage, or the last stage of funereal rights along the River Avon? And how did stones weighing up to 40 tones get to this site?
Aside from Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series, Stonehenge may be the most well known ancient Briton site in fiction. From Celts, to aliens, to druids (plus or minus sacrifices), to aliens who inspire druids and then erupts from beneath Stonehenge and beats up Marvel’s Thor (true, dat), Stonehenge is no stranger to creative storytelling. In fact, Michael Bane’s Transformers blow up Stonehenge in his latest offering, Transformers: The Last Night, the filming of which was captured by Waldor Vale. Yes, this is a replica… no amount of money would convince English Heritage to destroy one of its biggest tourist draws! The filming took place about 8 miles away from the real Stonehenge.
Despite the grand remains, and the more grandiose original, Stonehenge isn’t the biggest circle of standing stones in terms of circumference.The best thing is, most of the other sites of ancient Britain are accessible without a free – and you can touch the stones!
100 standing stones comprise the outer Avebury circle with a diameter of 427 meters (1401 ft). Avebury is the largest stone circle in Europe. It encloses two smaller rings, and a portion of the town of Avebury. Wear washable shoes if you visit, because sheep graze among the stones and their poop lies everywhere. The second widest is Stanton Drew in Somerset (diameter 113 m; 371 ft), and the third largest is the Ring of Brodgar (diameter 104 m; 340 ft) in Stenness, Orkney (northern Scotland). The diameter of the outer ring of stones at Stonehenge is 33 m (108 ft).
Nor is Stonehenge the oldest neolithic feature with an uncertain purpose in the U.K. North of Stonehenge is a 3km long rectangular enclosure running east-west. The feature was dug out of the earth 1000 years before the first standing stone at Stonehenge went up.
This Google Satellite image shows the Greater Cursus. The feature lies on public land, accessible by car at the mid point (shown with the red indicator). The western end of the Greater Cursus cuts through a tree line. There is a parallel Lesser Cursus (smaller) but it’s on private property (not indicated here).
In 1723 William Stuckley discovered these features and named them cursus, assuming they were Roman racing arenas like the Circus Maximus in Rome. He was wrong, but the name stuck.
Similar ditches carved by hand with deer antlers have been found across the country. Many more have been ruined by human activity. Few artifacts have been found within the enclosures, which begs the question, what were they used for if not to protect a village or gathering within?
Also seen on this photo is the location of Woodhenge, on the east (right) side, nearer the top. The construction of Woodhenge may have been a cyclical ritual itself. That may explain the multiple post holes (now marked as ugly concrete stumps).
There are different types of stone circle megalithic structures. In Scotland, large recumbent stones often form part of the ring, as pictured here, in the Loanhead of Daviot. Stone circle rings may be singular, concentric, or elliptical.
Low tide at Holme-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk, revealed a unique ring of hewn timbers sunken into the earth surrounding an upturned oak root at the centre. The Bronze Age site is affectionately known as Seahenge, and was excavated (with controversy among locals and practicing Druids) in 1999. Seahenge didn’t have the same features as other sites, including a very narrow opening, if there was one at all. What is it meant to have contained?
No one truly knows the purpose of these sites in ancient Britain, Europe, and beyond, even though we have so many of the pieces, including how they line up with celestial events and solstices. Theories related to ley lines and sacred geometry have not been discounted.
To me, the mystery of ancient Britain is pure magic. I love spending hours amid around the stones, letting my mind wander with possibilities. What forgotten power exists, awaiting to be unleashed. My fascination with stone circles and the enigma of Seahenge inspired key parts of my world building and storytelling in The Queen’s Viper and The Wrath of Atticus.
If you’re interested in Megaliths, Standing Stones, or Prehistoric Britain, check out the following titles. This is not an exhaustive list by any means and I expect I’ll be adding to my collection. Do you have additional suggestions?
A Guide to the Prehistoric and Roman Monuments in England and Wales by Jacquetta Hawkes
Seahenge: A Quest For Life and Death in Stone Age Britain and Hengeworld by Mike Pitts.
Your Book of Prehistoric Britain by James Dyer
Megaliths in History by Glyn Daniel
Prehistoric England by Richard Cavendish
Stonehenge by Rosemary HIll
Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape by Francis Pryor (Time Team legend)