Saturday, November 22, 2008
Stonehenge is a comparatively small henge site and, with its curious inner bank and outer ditch, one of a small, rare group within the eight different henge forms that have been identified. Most henges have outer banks and inner ditches, crossed by one to four causewayed entrances. With the largest henges spanning 500 meters in diameter, Stonehenge measures only 110 meters; clearly, its size is not a significant factor. Stonehenge’s ceremonial complex of sites is repeated as a distinctive “module” elsewhere in Neolithic Britain. At Avebury, Dorchester, Cranborne Chase, the Thames area, and the Fenland, similar associations of successive enclosures, barrows, monuments, and henges have been documented. In the uplands, tor (high granite outcrop) enclosures seem to represent comparable ceremonial foci, and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, pit enclosures, palisade sites, and cursus and other structures similarly cluster around concentrations of early burials and megalithic tombs. Research shows that the distribution of these complexes is related closely to the parent rock and draws on local traditions. Eastern Britain tended toward monuments built of ditches and pits, earth, wood, and gravel, whereas the rockier north and west invariably made use of local stone, with fewer attempts to excavate deep ditches. Common to all areas was construction of manmade landscapes of ritual significance, focused on a series of ceremonial sites.
The use of megalithic stones in monument building was adopted from the beginning of tomb building in the west and north of Britain, soon after 3900–3800 B.C. Megalithic cemeteries, such as Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in County Sligo, Ireland, employed large boulders and stones in early passage graves. The use of large stones in other types of ceremonial monuments is difficult to date, as the complex succession of Stonehenge demonstrates, but it seems likely that standing stones became common as ceremonial markers and components of structures during the first half of the third millennium B.C. For example, the stone circles at Avebury in Wiltshire, Stanton Drew in Somerset, Arbor Low in Derbyshire, the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, Callanais on Lewis, or the Grange circle in Limerick, Ireland, seem to have been constructed in the second half of the third millennium B.C., in the Late Neolithic, with additions in the Bronze Age. Beaker burials inserted at the base of some standing stones show that these structures were erected before the end of the third millennium B.C. Many of the stone circles of the west of Britain, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland—such as Machrie Moor on Arran (an island off the west coast of Scotland)—and the recumbent stone circles of northeastern Scotland— such as Easter Aquhorthies—date from the earlier Bronze age, contemporary with the final stages of Stonehenge. Although local practices clearly continued in remote areas, the use and construction of stone-built circles, rows, alignments, and individual menhirs seem to have faded in the mid-second millennium B.C.
The range of megalithic structures across the British Isles is varied and often regional in distribution. In Scotland complexes of stone rows, often in elaborate fanlike arrangements, as at Lybster in Caithness, appear to have had observational functions. Similarly, the concentrations of stone rows in southwestern England and Wales represent alignments on major focal points, such as barrows and ceremonial sites. The equivalent structures in the lowlands and in eastern Britain are represented by earth avenues and post alignments, both of which are found at Stonehenge and many other sites that have been identified through aerial photography.
The interpretation of Stonehenge and thus, by association, many of the other stone-and-earth ceremonial complexes across Britain suggests that these monuments were focused on mortuary, death, ancestral, and funerary concerns. Barrows, deposits, stone and timber structures, and ritual activity indicate dimensions of a spiritual and symbolic worldview. Analysis has indicated that the use of stone was itself symbolic of the dead, whereas the living were represented by wood and earth.