As you may have noticed if you've looked at my pictures from last week in Cumbria
, I visited a few stone circles while I was there (Castlerigg
). I find them interesting for a couple of reasons: firstly, because of their extreme antiquity and secondly, because of the varieties of interpretations of what they actually are (or were) - I think a lot of the interpretations reveal more about the interpreter than they do about the actual site. Bear that in mind when you read this interpretation of them.
I haven't visited or read enough about stone circles to be anything like an expert on them - most of my knowledge about them comes from bits and pieces I've read and heard throughout the years (especially Julian Cope's excellent guide The Modern Antiquarian
) rather than any systematic research but one of the trends I've noticed with interpretations is that they try and make every circle or set of standing stones fit with just one theory as to what they are with only minor variations from the theory admitted. For me, the problem with this is that it seems to assume a common culture amongst all the various builders of the monuments, assuming, for example, that the builders of Avebury
and the builders of Callanish
would have had some kind of indirect contact that motivated them in the same way. There is obviously a connection in that they both chose to make monuments of standing stones in a formation, but that doesn't mean that the structures they built have a necessary connection in the same way that two modern buildings made of concrete, steel and brick will have the same function.
Also, our interpretation is limited in that we can only make theories based on the monuments that have survived until the present day (or that we have evidence for existing). This is, I believe, likely to be only a small percentage of the total number of monuments erected in the past. For instance, most of those that have survived are in what are now remote areas without a large local population - many circles have been destroyed over the years by local communities using the stones for making new buildings and their sites might have been completely built over. Thus, what survives may not be a representative sample of the monuments that have existed.
(As a sidebar, Jack McDevitt's Eternity Road
is interesting in the way it applies a similar perspective to our culture. In this future, we are known to historians and archaeologists as the 'Roadbuilders' because those are the main examples of our time that have survived.)
There's also the Stonehenge issue, which Cope identifies in The Modern Antiquarian
- many people see Stonehenge as being the culmination of the other stone circle building, but some evidence suggests it may have been built as part of a different culture, 'borrowing' inspiration from the previous circle-building culture. This can be seen in many people assuming all the other circles have some astrological purpose because Stonehenge has while ignoring the possibility that any circular arrangement in the open air will have some 'link' to the skies, even if that was not intended. For instance, one can use any single standing stone as a sundial to tell you the current time, but that doesn't mean it was built as a sundial. (Or if you want a modern example, a lamppost can be used for the same purpose, it doesn't mean it was built for that)
Finally, I think we also project our own cultural beliefs on the builders of these circles. In our culture, a place is often made special by the act of erecting a building there - for instance, the building of a church or place of worship makes that place 'sacred' (the concept of 'consecrated ground') regardless of what it was before but the building is the important place, not the ground it lies on. We assume that these builders followed the same thought process, and look for the special features of the 'structure' (the circle or standing stones) rather than the ground it lies on. My belief, and this comes from Cope's argument that many circles are placed in position relative to 'Mother' hills, is that the many of the monuments are to mark a special place rather than being special in and of themselves. For instance, I think that one of the possible explanations for Castlerigg (and maybe Sunkenkirk) is that it marks some neutral meeting place for separate families/clans who lived in the area and that the three 'gates' point towards the different places they lived. The circle was built to show that a place was important, not to make a previously insignificant place important.
Anyway, that's just my poorly-informed speculation. If anyone wants to make any corrections or knows some more then please leave a comment - I'm sure I've contradicted myself in a couple of places (especially in talking about culture) and I'd appreciate other views. I'll probably do some reading on the web about this in the next few days, so I could return to this later in the week.