M E g A L i T h i A

Introduction to megalithic sites in the UK and Eire

The British Isles have an ancient and venerable tradition of stonecraft, and many of the sites were already old before the Romans came to settle in England and parts of Wales and written history arrived. Ten thousand years stretch across the ages between the early experiments in wood and observation at Stonehenge and the unique construction that we see today, and stone has stood there on Salisbury Plain to witness half of that time. Elsewhere in the British Isles almost a thousand stone circles are the quiet evidence of Man's activities, hopes and aspirations.

As we sit here behind our computer screens we can hardly imagine what life was like for our Neolithic forebears - the elements and the changing seasons were part of their daily lives, and they struggled with essentials that we take for granted now. Yet they found time to collect in what seem to be ceremonial sites and celebrated the passage of the seasons. Thinly spread out across the landscape, quite large groups came together to construct megalithic sites, from the solitary standing stones on windswept height that were the work of a family group to the enormous megalithic cathedrals of Avebury, Stonehenge and Callanish.

A glance at the distribution of megalithic sites shows that they are found all over the British Isles, except for the south-east of the country from a line joining Bridlington in the north to Poole in the south. England features some of the largest circles and circle-henges in the British Isles. The stone circles in England are strangely devoid of burials, and the dearth of standing stones in East Anglia is striking. The latter is partly due to the lack of suitable raw materials due to the geology of the region, and partly because the the area is low-lying and may well have been impenetrable swampland in Neolithic times. Why English megalithic architects tended to keep their rings free of burials or artifacts is not known. In 1998 the shifting sands of the Wash revealed 'Seahenge', a wooden construction of timbers in a circle surrounding an upturned tree trunk. Stone Age man had left his mark in wood even in East Anglia, and the flint mines of Grimes Graves in Norfolk also point to activity where no megalithic sites remain.

Neolithic Man was still not far off from the hunter-gatherer of old and farming was highly unsustainable. Wild, impenetrable forest covered much of the British Isles and Stone-Age agriculture had much slash-and-burn in it - fire would be used to clear an area which would then be farmed for a while. Without a detailed awareness of crop rotation and other techniques the thin soils would be swiftly exhausted and the farmers would clear another area and move on. The weather was warmer then, but some archaeologists suggest some of the large-scale stonecraft of later times (1500BC to 1BC) may have been an increasingly desperate attempt to propitiate the deities against the cooling climate.

Explore some of these sites with the active map, linking you to closer views of these wonderful remains from ancient times. Though silent, and without any written record of whence they came and why they are here their very presence and fabulous variety speak for the talent and resourcefulness of the early inhabitants of these islands.