Monday, 14 November 2011

Stoned on Sunday

When asked by the Bridport History Society to give a talk on stone circles earlier this year I was not overjoyed. I knew that stone circles are not the easiest monuments to give an insight into past societies. There is no reliable dating due to little in the way of artefactual evidence, no graves and no domestic refuse to rummage through. All we can say is that they are related to henges, chambered tombs and isolated monoliths and thus probably date to  the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

The average diameter of circles is between 25m and up to 40m, with a decrease in size into the Bronze Age. They stopped being erected around 1500 BC. We do not know if that was because of environmental, religious or social changes.

They were associated with many cultures by the early antiquarians, including the Egyptians (of course), the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Mycenaeans and the Druids. Of course, the local thicko's could never have made such monuments. Many of these monuments are more complex than at first appearance. Geophiz and magnetrometry has revealed, at many sites, a complex and long lasting series of developments over generations of building and rebuilding. Some stone circles have developed from earlier wooden ones and due to later people taking the stones away for building material, many sites have been partially or totally destroyed.

The monument we went to see on Sunday is called the Nine Stones (for an obvious reason). This is an elliptical monument, 9m x 7.8m with two large entrance stones to the NW. One is a pillar and the other a rough square block, both c.2m high. The other stones are less than a metre. The 17th century antiquarian John Aubrey described another stone circle about half a mile to the west since destroyed, although a fallen 2 metre stone lies partially buried next to the road and is called the Broad Stone. He sketched it as a circle 8 paces in diameter and described the stones as "petrified clumps of flint", which we now call conglomerate. 

So what are they for? One idea is that they are connected to rituals relating to death, similar to henges. Many had avenues, long gone, of stones or timber and that the community had zones of the living and zones of the dead. They were connected by avenues and/or rivers, along which the dead were transported from one zone to the other. The rings of stone were portals that the dead passed through into the place where they would be buried. In this case in the round barrows that dot the landscape still. It was important to align the monuments to the heavens - stars, moon and sun - at a time of the rising and setting of these bodies. 

Of course we shall never have definitive answers to the many questions regarding these monuments and theories will come and go. But humans are humans and will always look for the meaning of existence. So did they. We have gone beyond terms such as 'barbarian' and 'savage' and now respect the abilities and sensibilities of past societies.           

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