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Rethinking the great stone circles of Northwest Britain

Colin Richards


It was during my first venture north to Orkney that I met Daphne Lorimer. At that time it was simply a short visit to see if fieldwalking would be a viable method of discovering Neolithic settlement in the islands.

Of course, I was entranced by the islands and this first encounter marked what was going to be the beginning of a never ending fascination with Orkney. But during the early years of investigation, when searching for the elusive settlements and villages of the Neolithic on a very small budget, it was Daphne's kindness that I most remember - from baths to dinners (and I love Daphne's dinners!) - it was always a treat to visit her and Ian in Orphir. There is no doubt in my mind that the amazing vibrancy of Orcadian archaeology is due to her perseverance and enthusiasm.

The Orkney Archaeological Trust has flourished under her guidance and includes some of the nicest people I know. This is not accidental but due to her tireless work. So Daphne, as some small recompense for dragging you out countless times to examine skeletal remains (often my mistaking sheep bones for human bones!) I would like to keep you up to date with my latest project on stone circles - this is a small gesture but I think you know my feelings towards you and your work for Orcadian archaeology.

"The most important question about stone circles, of course, is what they were used for, what happened in them, and this can still not be answered completely" (Aubrey Burl 2000, 64).

One of the most spectacular classes of archaeological monuments in Britain are the great stone circles of the late Neolithic. Throughout the north and west of Britain these magnificent monuments are often clustered in discrete groups, for example at Stenness-Brodgar, Orkney; Callanish, Lewis; Macrie Moor, Arran; Stanton Drew, Somerset, etc., where they dominate the landscape like few other monuments.

Unsurprisingly, more people visit stone circles than any other form of prehistoric sites. In many ways their popular appeal lies not only in the striking imagery of a ring of massive stones but also in the curiosity of the apparently intangible labour and practices that gave rise to the 'completed' monument encountered today.

In short, visitors may stand in awe at the scale of these monuments but they also want to know how and why these great circles were erected and what they were used for. As the quote from Aubrey Burl's The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany so aptly reveals, such questions are not restricted to the visitors alone but still appear to confound archaeological enquiry.

As a response to these questions a new research project examining the great stone circles began in 2002. As a starting point the questions themselves were scrutinized. At first sight they appear quite reasonable but they do contain a series of assumptions as to the nature of stone circles. For instance, they are considered to represent a monumental 'type' much like henges, cursus, passage graves, etc.

This way of thinking about monuments leads to comparisons between types and in the literature stone circles are often compared to henges; being seen as their counterpart in western areas of Britain. Implicit in this form of thinking is that the stone circle is a unitary entity which was built to act as a backdrop or context for particular activities. These activities have been seen in terms of ceremonial or ritual practices, possibly incorporating astronomical observations.

This notion that a stone circle is built for a subsequent purpose can therefore be seen to lie behind the questions asked by Burl such as 'what it was built for' and 'how it was used'. Consequently, the difficulty in answering these questions may not lie in the deficiencies of the archaeological evidence but, on the contrary, may be a direct result of our ideas and assumptions concerning the nature of a stone circle.

Clearly, with regard the understanding of stone circles we are encountering a series of legacies ranging from the way monuments and material culture were classified early in archaeology in the twentieth century, to a pervasive view that circles virtually represent prehistoric 'temples'.

Once such a dominant interpretation is established it produces a framework which determines how other aspects of the evidence will be understood. For instance, the size and scale of a stone circle may be considered to be directly related to the numbers of a 'congregation' that are assumed to gather within the circle.

When viewed in this way it is interesting to observe how this series of assumptions and expectations are produced from a particular interpretation - the completed stone circle as ceremonial or ritual monument. When thought about in this way, it is easy to understand the archaeological bewilderment of a site such as Stonehenge that appears to have so many 'unfinished' phases. Similarly, the paucity of material evidence recovered from stone circles also seems anomalous and puzzling, and attempts to rationalise its absence have been forced to invoke activities which leave little material trace such as dancing, etc.

A different consequence of these assumptions involves our understanding of the physical methods of constructing a stone circle. Again the completed monument is privileged and drawing on ideas of 'Neolithic engineering' in conjunction with principles of least effort, there is a search for the most efficient means to fulfil that goal.

Take, for example, the experimental archaeology of construction. If a graph was drawn through time of the various estimates of numbers of individuals required to drag or move a forty ton megalith, from Atkinson's (1956, 109-10), initial experiments through to more recent attempts (e.g. Richards & Whitby 1997), it would show a steady decrease from 640 to 100. Such preoccupation with efficiency has led to numerous reconstructions, each of which attempts to outstrip earlier efforts in terms of a lower number of people necessary to move and erect a stone circle.

Clearly, this obsession is linked to western industrial concepts of labour, efficiency and profitability, however, when we turn to ethnographic examples of stone dragging and monumental construction we find this whole line of reasoning totally inappropriate. Indeed, the exact opposite frequently applies whereby it is the ability to obtain the largest possible labour force which provides an index of the status of the organising or sponsoring group. Yet again, contemporary ideas and assumptions appear to dictate the way construction and labour are understood within archaeology.

Given the apparent deficiencies of the evidence in conjunction with a particular line of reasoning, stone circle studies seem to have reached an impasse. But surely we have not exhausted the possible interpretative possibilities of gaining a greater understanding the great stone circles?

The research project

Having exposed some of the ideas that have directed stone circle studies and provided a particular framework of understanding, how then can we think about stone circles differently? There are several alternative lines of enquiry, first, it is important to recognise that the people engaged in the process of construction were involved in an undertaking, the like of which had never been attempted before.

Never had such massive stones been quarried and moved. This draws attention to the stones themselves; where they came from and what significance they held as material entities. With emphasis being placed on the completed monument, with the notable exception of Stonehenge, the significance of different types of stone composing the circles seems to have been overlooked.

Even though geological variation has been carefully noted by Burl (e.g. 1976, 105), a privileging of the finished entity causes this observation to be diminished and the stones are assumed to come from the most accessible and convenient sources (Burl 2000, 44). Where the possibilities of sourcing rock types has been considered it has been portrayed in a very pessimistic manner, e.g. "the study of movement of stones over… distances would frequently require detailed geological analysis which have never been undertaken. This would be of limited value over much of Britain because glacially derived deposits have been affected by millennia of clearance" (Barnatt 1989, 20).

It is not simply a question of geological provenance, but of different types of stone having different qualities and coming from different places. Such places may already have special or sacred associations and be intertwined with different social identities. If we are guided by a range of ethnographic examples from Indonesia and Oceania where large monoliths have until recently been quarried and dragged, it is suggested that archaeologists may have misconceived the special nature of different types of stone and the very nature of megalithic construction.

Rather than being built solely as ritual or ceremonial centres it may have been the actual acts of construction that provided the main social focus. This effectively shifts attention from the completed entity (the stone circle) to the process of building and the events that surrounded this process. It is suggested that these great monuments are actually composite in nature and rather than being built to be used they were used in their building. Certainly, with the great stone circles each stone quarried, moved and erected constituted a huge amount of effort on the part of large numbers of people.

Just imagine the gathering of hundreds of people to both watch and participate in the dragging of a massive single stone. Undoubtedly, this would have been a great social event in its own right because we have to realise that these stones were, in many cases, larger than had ever been moved before.

But could the 'circle' be a place where over considerable time many different groups brought stones, with each completing sections or adding to those of others? If so, the stone circle could truly be described as a microcosm (see Bradley 2000 for a variation on this theme).

By thinking about stone circles in this way the 'finished' or 'completed' form diminishes in importance. Instead, prominence is attached to the types of stones forming the circle, from where these were derived and how they were quarried and transported.

Furthermore, by shifting attention from the completed entity to the acts of construction a number of points can be made. Firstly, the final completion of the stone circle may have been more of a secondary abstract 'ideal', in the minds of the builders, as opposed to the immediate and socially significant acts of quarrying and dragging individual stones to the site. Hence, because the social focus was the transportation and erection of individual stones, in some instances we may expect the stone circle to remain incomplete. Secondly, the stones have always been considered to be obtained from the most convenient source because the final form was assumed to be of prime concern.

However, if several social groups were involved (and given the scale of these circles this possibility seems highly likely) then we may expect stones from different places and sources to form the circles. As the position and order of the stones within the circle may relate to the sequence and in which they were brought to the site, discrete sections of the circle may be composed of different types of stone.

Thirdly, the stones themselves may have been seen as sacred before they were ever quarried and brought to the circle. Thus, the quarry sites could be recognised as special or sacred places in their own right and the movement of the stones may be conceived as a form of 'rites of passage'. Finally, the 'materiality' of the selected stones now becomes important because their place of origin and the qualities of the stone (see Whittle 1997, 153-161; Bradley 2000, 90-6), will also serve to identify the different groups involved in construction.

This importantly shifts attention away from the circles and back to the location of the megalithic quarry sites. Also as construction was a social process as much as a feat of engineering we may expect large numbers of people involved in the quarrying and dragging of stones. Within this process large scale feasting was almost certainly an important component, the remains of which may be in close proximity to the circles.

By considering these implications an alternative understanding of stone circles may be achieved. Indeed, if it can be shown that some circles consist of different stones from different sources across the landscape then we can begin to offer new interpretations of the nature of the circles and the ideas of people and materials they embodied.

They could be seen as slowly taking shape over many years, perhaps being built in sections and parts by individual social groups who together are constructing a monument representing a 'geography of stone'. More generally, the discovery and investigation of quarries may reveal them to be special places, possibly already having sacred qualities.

The acts of construction, particularly, quarrying and moving enormous stones, now take centre stage in both an understanding of stone circles and the formation of social relationships. This process need not be seen as a unification of society but as a highly competitive mechanism for enhancing social status between groups and communities. The aims of this project are then to provide alternative interpretations of the nature of stone circles in different areas of Britain and the social forces that lay behind their construction.


The Ring of Brodgar
Figure 1. The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney.

As a starting point a provisional geological examination of the two spectacular circles, the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar (Fig. 1), by Allan Hall of Glasgow University, has revealed that many of the stones were derived from different sandstone strata (see also Collins 1976 for the Stones of Stenness). Immediately this alerted us to the possibility that stones may have been brought from different sources, and places, across Orkney.

In an attempt to locate possible quarries, attention shifted to a neglected entry in the Royal Commission Inventory for the Northern Isles published in 1946. Here, a site at Vestra Fiold in western Mainland, Orkney, was tentatively identified as a possible quarry for the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar. Interestingly, the quarry lies on a hillside just north of the late Neolithic village at Skara Brae.

Survey and excavation, funded by Historic Scotland, Orkney Islands Council and University of Manchester was undertaken at Vestra Fiold, Orkney, in July 2002 and 2003, where clear evidence was discovered for both the methods of quarrying and movement of the monoliths (Fig. 2).

Vestrafiold Excavation
Figure 2. The massive monolith at Vestra Fiold, Orkney, under excavation.

The 2002 excavations centred on two monoliths of similar shape and size to stones forming the two stone circles that lay in a hollow on the hillside. Overall, it seemed that the two large monoliths had been quarried upslope and dragged down to the level ground within the hollow.

The eastern monolith had then been pulled over a rock-cut pit onto two masonry trestle supports located at each end of the stone.

Unfortunately, during the manoeuvre the masonry trestles had collapsed and the stone slipped sideways effectively flattening both trestles. What does the pit and trestle supports represent in terms of the process of removing large monoliths from Vestra Fiold?

In the past many authors have addressed the question of the practicalities involved in dragging the large monoliths used for megalithic construction. All agree that the most likely method of transport would have been for the stone to be supported by a wooden sled that would run over wooden rollers.

As to manoeuvring the sled beneath the stone, Garfitt suggests that this task would have involved "mounting the stone on the sledge, by means of levers probably aided by partial cutting away of the earth below…" (1979, 190).

Given that the position of the monoliths at Vestra Fold are on a slope it would have been relatively easy to push the stone directly onto wooden rollers. Mounting the monolith onto a wooden sled without damage would be more difficult.

Here Garfitt's (ibid.) suggestion of the need to cut some form of pit or depression so that the sled can be placed beneath the stone in the correct position has direct relevance to the features encountered at Vestra Fiold.

Although evidence was obtained of how megalithic stones were raised ready for transportation, at Vestra a calamity had struck and although undamaged, the stone had simply been left where it fell and abandoned.

Unfortunately, little evidence of the actual quarrying process was obtained during the first season of excavation and a second period undertaken in 2003 was to examine a likely place of stone extraction.

Monolith Extraction, Orkney
Figure 3. An area of 'monolith' extraction showing a large stone which had broken into several pieces in the attempts to move it from its bedding plane. The unusual geological characteristic of 'monoliths' effectively rising out of the earth can also be seen clearly.

Further upslope, an area of quarrying was uncovered, but here too disaster had struck. A massive monolith had been partially removed from the bedrock, however, during attempts to drag it onto stone supports it had broken into several pieces (Fig. 3).

Although the area of the quarry investigated was relatively small it provided evidence for the entire quarrying process and provided an answer as to why Vestra Fiold was chosen as a source for some of the monoliths in the Stenness - Brodgar circles.

Due to the unusual geological characteristics of the strata composing the hillside at Vestra Fiold, relatively narrow beds of sandstone were available to be exploited. Not only were these beds of sufficient quality but they possessed fault lines that periodically produced monoliths of between 5 - 6m in length with characteristic angled tops.

Because of the presence of these fault lines, the actual procedure of quarrying would have been relatively straightforward given sufficient available labour and involved wedging and levering stones from their bedding planes. Overall, the two seasons of excavation in different areas of the quarry at Vestra Fiold produced evidence concerning the movement of monoliths and the process of their extraction.

While some caution should be employed about the extrapolation of these results to other late Neolithic quarries, it does seem likely that single bedding planes were selected for exploitation in different places and that Vestra Fiold constituted one such place.

But what was the significance of Vestra Fiold? Was it simply a place that through an unusual geological formation produced monoliths 'ready made' for extraction? In many ways we will never know the answers to those questions but we do know Vestra Fiold took on 'sacred' qualities because next to the quarry an unusual long cairn was built.

Examination of the long cairn at Vestra Fiold was undertaken concurrently with the quarry, with to the expectation that it was an early Neolithic stalled nature as had been suggested by Davidson and Henshall (1989, 185-6).

Vestrafiold Chamber
Figure 4. The broken standing stone and associated remains of a 'burial' chamber or cist at the front of the long mound at Vestra Fiold.

The excavation revealed this not to be the case and the long cairn seems to have been simply a device to highlight a standing monolith associated with a ruined burial chamber which may have stood well before the long cairn was added (Fig. 4). Although the form of the cairn was difficult to interpret in the frontal area, it does seem that possible 'horns' encircled the monolith and chamber.

One area of interest was the construction techniques employed to form the long cairn. The use of large slabs, stacked upon one another and leaning against a spine of uprights, within a revetment wall seems a very effective method of construction in order to create an illusion of a well built and solid cairn. No chamber was present within the cairn and the whole thing was to direct attention to the monolith and 'chamber'.

Just as today the monument has been mistaken for an early Neolithic stalled long cairn, so in the past this may well have been the main impetus for initiating the construction - in order to provide the place with a 'history' and ritual tradition. If this was the case we may expect the date of construction to possibly lie within the late Neolithic period, at the same time as monoliths were being quarried.

Perhaps the most significant aspect is the association between the standing monolith and a possible burial chamber. This linkage provides some indication that standing stones were devices of commemoration which may or not be directly associated with the physical remains of the dead.

Although the Orcadian component of the project is still ongoing with attention being switched back to the undated Ring of Brodgar in July 2005, what have these investigations added to our knowledge of stone circles in Orkney?

First, through work at Vestra Fiold we can say that if this quarry is typical then the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar are composed of stones coming from different places throughout Mainland, Orkney.

Furthermore, that they were brought to the circle by different groups probably occupying these different areas and that this may have been a mechanism of competition between villages and communities.

Thus, rather than being some harmonious joint effort between different communities in late Neolithic Orkney, as suggested by Colin Renfrew, we may be witnessing a ritualised and high risk social strategy to obtain high social status involving the extreme competition embodied in dragging massive monoliths to a partially formed stone circle.

A further aspect involves the actual role of the standing monoliths, both individually and within the circle. Here the association of a monolith at Vestra Fiold with a burial chamber comes into play.

If monoliths were associated with the dead in terms of commemoration (possibly of named individuals) then we can begin to understand why groups of similar types of stone are present at the Ring of Brodgar.

By slowly adding to discrete sections of the circle were not social groups composing their own genealogies in stone? Genealogies that could be recalled by simply moving around the stone circle. Under these circumstances the completion of the circle is immaterial because it is an ideal construct that is worked towards, as opposed to the idea of an entity that must be fully built before subsequent use.

Some support for this idea comes from the Stones of Stenness which although never completed (Stone 12 was never erected within the circle) provided much evidence of possible feasting when it was excavated by Graham Ritchie in the early 1970s.

We therefore obtain quite a different view of stone circles and their construction from Orkney but is this a more general trend or do the circles in different areas of Britain give a different picture?


Possibly the most famous group of stone circles in Northern Britain, the Callanish complex, lies on the west coast of Lewis and comprises at least five stone circles with another possible example to be confirmed (Callanish XI).

A preliminary examination of the different circles in September 2002 revealed the stones to have been quarried (as opposed to glacial erratics) and to be composed of different types of Lewisian gneiss.

Figure 5. View of Callanish (I), Lewis, looking along the ridge and up the avenue

As with Orkney there seemed to be a mixture of different types of Gneiss present within each circle (Fig. 5).

However, the main circle (Callanish I), renowned for both its long avenue and projecting lines of monoliths, differed slightly in that it did comprise numerous stones with black hornblende 'eye' inclusions (which could be interpreted as a form of rock art or decoration, albeit naturally derived) (Fig. 6).

These distinctive stones were almost certainly obtained from a single outcrop and so far the only identified outcrop containing hornblende inclusions is the natural 'knoll' at the end of the ridge upon which the circle and avenue lies.

Examination of the monoliths comprising the other three circles provides a less consistent pattern with the presence of gneiss, some of which appears to be derived from a variety of different sources.

Hornblende Eye
Figure 6. The black hornblende 'eye' inclusions in the stones forming part of Callanish I. These could be interpreted as constituting a form of megalithic art.

So at Callanish we immediately see a difference with Orkney in that there are more smaller circles which although incorporating different types of gneiss show a tendency to a predominance of one particular type - probably obtained from the same outcrop and place.

In 2002 a four day period of survey was undertaken with Joffy Hill to locate possible quarry sites for the circles. In particular, attention was given to a supposed quarry and 'ruined' stone circle (Callanish X) at Na Dromannan; a ridge on high ground to the north of the Callanish circles.

The 'ruined' stone circle was represented by a number of angled stones projecting through the peat at the southern end of a long ridge. The supposed quarry was a revealed rock cliff forming the western side of the ridge.

Close examination of the rock revealed in the cliff indicated it not being a source for monoliths composing the four definite Callanish circles in that the Gneiss was of different colour and grain size.

After initial inspection of the 'ruined circle' there remained a possibility that the angled stones projecting through the peat were actually stones propped up for removal after being quarried from outcropping on the spine and southern end of the ridge. Also a monolith designated as a 'standing stone' lying on a parallel ridge, 150 metres east of Na Dromannan, was clearly a monolith wedged on its side; presumably for future transportation that never occurred (Fig. 7).

Wedged Monolith
Figure 7. The monolith wedged on its side for later removal.

To investigate these possibilities excavations at Na Dromannan were undertaken over a four week period during late summer in 2003.

When the peat was removed it immediately became clear that the reason for the tilt of the recumbent monoliths was that each stone rested on the slope of a pile of large packing-stones which resembled small cairns.

While some stone blocks were clearly displaced others resembled the packing stones commonly seen surrounding the bases of standing monoliths; supporting and stabilizing the standing stones within their sockets (Fig. 8).

The interpretation that the stones had all originally stood upright was quickly confirmed when a number of broken upper sections of the monoliths were revealed beneath the peat. Clearly, these had snapped when the stones had fallen onto the hard bedrock.

Stone Excavation
Figure 8. Excavating collapsed stone 15 within Na Dromannan stone circle (Callanish X).

The hardness of that bedrock appears to have prohibited deep sockets being excavated and consequently the base of each stone rested upon the exposed rock, being supported by a group of boulders packed around its base.

This raised the intriguing question of why the circle had been positioned on the rock surface; as this had caused the instability which led to eventual collapse.

The answer to this question is difficult to resolve but two features of the circle perhaps hold the key. First, Na Dromannan stone circle was situated on the hillside overlooking the Callanish circles and when viewed from below it appears on the immediate skyline to the east.

Consequently, it was positioned in a highly visible - almost dramatic location. Although on higher ground the circle is positioned at the southern end of the narrow ridge running north-south. The ridge is formed by a combination of rock outcropping and peat of a variable depth filling in the declivities between the projecting rock.

Morphologically, the ridge is extremely similar to the those upon which the lower stone circles are positioned, particularly Callanish I, II and III, where each circle assumes an intermediate position in relation to a large glacial knoll at the end of the ridge.

Hence, in terms of topographic position, the fallen stones at Na Dromannan corresponded to the other Callanish stone circles.

The second point is that the outcropping rock at Na Dromannan appears to have been exploited as a quarry for monoliths.

As was a similar ridge approximately 100m to the east where the single monolith remained propped up (Fig 7). Here then we have the quarry site itself marked by the presence of a stone circle which again indicates the significance and special qualities attached to this place.

The evidence from Callanish paints a different picture to that seen at Stenness and Brodgar in Orkney. A large proportion of the monoliths comprising the main Callanish circle and avenue appear to have been derived from outcropping on the ridge upon which it lies.

A similar situation appears to occur at Na Dromannan stone circle. The three remaining circles seem to be more variable in composition, however, these require further investigation.

Callanish View
Figure 9. View of Callanish III showing the position of the circle on a ridge with the large natural knoll at its end.

In Lewis it seems as if the actual location of each circle is paramount in its understanding. In being positioned at an intermediate point along a narrow ridge, with a large natural knoll at the end, each circle constitutes an 'in-between' or transitional point within a pathway leading to the knoll (Fig. 9).

This passage along the spine of the ridge is formalised within the main Callanish circle by the presence of an impressive avenue (Fig. 5). Under these circumstances it is the natural knoll that provides the main focus of attention and to which the monumentality will constantly be referenced.

Moreover, the stone source for the majority of monoliths within the ring appears to be derived from the knoll itself (Callanish I) or outcropping on the ridge (Na Dromannan - Callanish X).

Here the possible 'sacred' nature of the stone and the 'place' may well be determining the composition and location of each circle.

The presence of monoliths within each circle from other stone sources suggests a further component of complexity which again may relate to the drawing together of different places, people and identities.

As opposed to Orkney where massive monoliths are dragged many miles from different sources to compose the circle, in Lewis people may be coming from a distance and gradually constructing different circles. However, they may be dragging and including stones from distant sources to compliment the monoliths quarried from the place of the circle.


One of the most spectacular locations for a stone circle complex is that of Macrie Moor, Arran. Here a group of 6 stone circles are situated on a bleak moor is encircled by a ring of, often snow covered, mountains and hills.

Macrie Moor
Figure 10. Red sandstone Circle 3 on Macrie Moor.

In contrast to both Orkney and Lewis, the Macrie Moor circles are grouped a few paces apart.

Each circle appears different prompting Aubrey Burl to describe the complex as "the best group of architecturally varied stone circles in western Europe".

Here the concern is with typological differences, however, the circles are distinctive in that apart from circles 1 and 6 (which combine both types of stone), each appears exclusively composed of either red sandstone monoliths (Fig. 10) or white granite boulders (Fig. 11).

Granite Circle
Figure 11. White granite Circle 5 on Macrie Moor.

At least one other circle originally stood as part of the group as identified by a single standing monolith, now destroyed, on a sketch by James Skene in 1832.

As investigations at Macrie Moor are the third element within the project only a brief period of fieldwork was undertaken in May 2003.

Nonetheless, the broken stump of the monolith illustrated by Skene was relocated to the north of circles 2 and 3.

The stump is of a substantial monolith of red sandstone, and if consistent with the other circles (and if indeed this does represent a circle as opposed to a single standing stone), it will have been exclusively composed of tall sandstone monoliths.

Examination of the remaining sandstone monoliths of circles 2 and 3 revealed them to be quarried stones. This contrasts with the large rounded white granite boulders, composing circles 4 and 5, that were clearly detached and eroded through glacial action. This does not prevent them having been brought to the site over long distances but does prohibit identification of their source.

Auchencar Quarry Site
Figure 12. Possible quarry site at Auchencar, where the strata of the red sandstone cliff fragments into 'monolith' sized blocks.

The red sandstone monoliths stand over 5 metres high and are variable in geology with some being fine grained and others being coarser with large inclusions.

Aubrey Burl identifies a possible source for these stones at Auchencar, situated c. 5 km to the north (Fig. 12).

Fieldwork for this phase of the project is scheduled for 2005, but in the absence of a more detailed picture it is clear that yet a different process is at work on Arran with the exploitation of a single source for the red sandstone monoliths. While the white granite boulders may have been collected from the immediate vicinity, there does remain the possibility that they were dragged to Machrie Moor from the mountains to the northwest.

The Great stone circles

To summarise, the Great stone circles of northern and north-western Britain have tended to be grouped together as ritual complexes.

Questions of purpose have revolved around what they were used for after their erection. Their construction, when considered at all, has been in terms of technological ability as opposed to social process.

Furthermore, while some attention has been given to the sources of the stones this has been undertaken merely in a descriptive vein. In rethinking these monuments it is important to consider the practices of construction, particularly the networks of social relations necessary to provide the materials and labour force to drag a stone, and the resources necessary to instigate such an undertaking.

Also the significance of the places from where the stones were derived, the qualities attached to such places and the transformation that occurs when a stone is quarried, dragged and erected in a vertical position within a slowly forming circular arrangement. Nor should we neglect the question of materiality; the visual and tactile qualities of the stone itself and how different stones would have been spoken of and understood by Neolithic people. When these factors are considered we find that the circles differ enormously between areas, and more importantly, they provide a huge interpretative potential for understanding the social diversity of the late Neolithic in quite a different way.

At present the project is in its infancy and it is planned to also examine the circles of Cumbria and Somerset over the next few years. In anticipating future results it is expected that each area or group of circles while having superficial similarities will provide quite a different story when the places and practices which lie behind their construction are further investigated.


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