Circles of Earth, Timber, and Stone


The practice of building circular, or at least roughly circular, enclosures and monuments was widespread in Europe in the Neolithic and Bronze Age. In Britain, for example, some of the earliest farming communities in the fourth millennium b.c.e. built earthworks known as causewayed enclosures. These are mostly fairly circular, although some are highly irregular, and most of the examples are in southern England. They seem to have had a range of purposes, but they were almost certainly places where people from small surrounding communities came together. Later in the Neolithic, more regular circular earthworks known as henges started to appear, as did circles of upright timbers and circles of standing stones. Henges are generally more regular (better approximations of true circles) than causewayed enclosures. They consist of a ditch and exterior bank, usually with one or two entrances, and vary in size from a few meters across to the large henge enclosures or superhenges such as Avebury in Wiltshire, southern England. The large henge at Avebury is some 350 meters (1,150 feet) across, had a ditch some nine meters (thirty feet) deep and a bank eight meters (twenty-five feet) high, and surrounds an entire village. (Ironically, the name henge was coined for a type of monument that was like Stonehenge but without the stones; the name Stonehenge means “hanging stones” in Old English. The irony is that, by the generally accepted definition we have just given, Stone-henge is not actually a henge; its earthen enclosure has the bank on the interior of the ditch.)

A set of concentric timber ovals at Woodhenge, Wiltshire, England, viewed along the major axis in the direction of midsummer sunrise. The positions of the original timber posts are marked by concrete pillars.

A set of concentric timber ovals at Woodhenge, Wiltshire, England, viewed along the major axis in the direction of midsummer sunrise. The positions of the original timber posts are marked by concrete pillars.

In trying to understand the purpose and meaning of this type of monument, it is less helpful than was once thought to classify them primarily by the type of materials used, that is, as earthen circles, timber circles, or stone circles. This is because these do not form three separate categories—far from it. Excavations suggest that many circles of uprights were probably sculpted first in wood and then repeated in stone, a good example being Temple Wood in Argyll, western Scotland. Many henges containing stone circles have survived into modern times (e.g., the Ring of Brodgar and Avebury), although the sequence of chronological development is seldom clear without excavation. Others contained timber circles, and Woodhenge, situated some three kilometers (two miles) east-northeast of Stonehenge, contained no fewer than six concentric ellipses (some have suggested that they represent the postholes of a roofed building, but this has been the subject of intensive debate). Finally, Stonehenge itself represents an earthen circle with an interior ring of timber uprights, later superseded by the famous constructions in stone.

Stone circles (whether built as such or as elements of more complex sites) survive relatively well and the remains of many of them are still conspicuous in today’s landscape. Timber uprights, on the other hand, have long since rotted away, perhaps leaving postholes that might one day be discovered by excavation. Many earthen ditches have long since filled in and banks been ploughed away, only to be revealed, where we are lucky, in cropmarks visible from aerial photographs. It is a reasonable supposition that the number of timber and earth circles built in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain was at least comparable with, and possibly considerably greater than, the number of stone circles.

Why build a circle? On the face of it, a circle is the simplest way to mark off an area of sacred space, but there may be a great deal more to it than that. Important cognitive principles surely lay behind such monuments and helped determine how they were integrated into the landscape. The later prehistoric circles of earth, timber, and stone were surely places where people gathered, very likely for formal or ritualistic activities or observances. Perhaps, in some cases, only a privileged few were allowed to take part. The presence of apparently formal approaches to some sites, such as the earthen avenue that leads into Stonehenge and the stone avenues leading into Ave-bury, suggests that the experiences of the participants were carefully orchestrated. The permeability of the boundary is clearly important: there would have been a world of difference between undertaking a private observance inside a large henge with a high outer bank, cut off from the wider world and hidden from outside view, and giving an open performance inside a stone circle, feeling fully a part of that wider world. The British archaeologist Richard Bradley has identified a number of examples where circles seem to have been “closed off” over time, perhaps as part of a wider process of making both the places themselves and what went on there less generally accessible, more limited to a privileged few.

One possibility, for which there are plenty of historical and ethnographic parallels, is that many of these circles might have been conceived as central places, conceptual centers of the world. It is even possible that the circular shape might have been intended, at least initially, to be a reflection of the visible horizon, and that some circles might have been perceived as a microcosm encapsulating and reflecting the properties of the wider cosmos in various ways. Following this idea, a number of British archaeologists have explored various ways in which the properties of the surrounding world might have been reflected at these sites. The possibilities include the shape of a ring reflecting the surrounding topography, the shapes of stones in stone circles reflecting the shapes of hills behind them, and alignments (e.g., of entrances) toward sources of water. Unfortunately there are so many possibilities that it is difficult not to be entirely subjective.

Nonetheless, it is by this route that the alignment studies undertaken by archaeoastronomers for many years have begun to dovetail within the agenda of archaeologists interested in wider issues of cognition and cosmology. For astronomers, it is stone circles that have attracted most attention, since they leave readily surveyable remains above the ground and (subject to vegetation cover) alignments that can still be directly viewed. Nonetheless, some important astronomical features of timber circles have been noted, such as the orientation of Woodhenge, which, in common with Stonehenge itself and another henge in the general vicinity, Coneybury (which has now been obliterated), faces northeastwards toward midsummer sunrise.

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