Two things are staggering about the Neolithic sites that pepper the British Isles: the first is that there are quite so many in such a small area—approximately 1,300 stone circles across the British Isles and Ireland, and that’s before you count the other constructions: from hill-forts to longbarrows, fogus to dolmens. And the second is that so many of them are still where they were left by the people that built them. Granted, most of the survivors are in rural areas that are not about to be carved up for skyscrapers, like Wales, Cornwall and the Scottish highlands and islands, but Great Britain is not that big a place that some extra rock wouldn’t come in handy from time to time.
That there are quite as many surviving sites as there are can be put down to a combination of factors: curiosity, fondness, respect and a need to let superstitious sleeping dogs lie that lasted well into the Victorian age (and, to be truthful, hasn’t entirely dispersed even now).
Here are just six examples of impressive prehistoric architecture that will still be standing long after we have all dropped:
St. Lythans Burial Chamber
Or, to give it its Welsh title siambr gladdu Lythian Sant. St. Lythans is a single stone dolmen in the Vale of Glamorgan, Wales. It was erected around 4,000BC and forms part of a chambered long barrow. As with a lot of Neolithic sites, the field in which it stands is often used for cattle.
The dolmen (or cromlech) is the most common form of megalithic structure in Europe, and is assumed to have been a kind of tomb or ceremonial place to leave human remains until only the skeletons remained. St. Lythans has three upright stones (known as orthostats) with a huge capstone resting on top.
In local legend, each Midsummer’s Eve, the capstone is said to rotate three times, and all of the stones then go to the nearby river for a dip.
Broch of Mousa
It’s stunning to think that this building has lasted longer than any of the countries that make up the United Kingdom, or any of the ruined castles, palaces and monasteries in the British landscape. Broch means round tower, and Mousa is just one of nearly 600 in Scotland. It is thought to have been built in 100BC, and while it’s the best preserved of any broch, that’s probably because it’s diameter is one of the smallest, while boasting one of the thickest wall bases.
It is also made entirely from dry stone. There’s no cement or mortar holding it together, which makes its survival all the more remarkable, especially when you consider there are internal steps that take visitors up to an open walkway at the top.
During the years of Viking invasions the lintels above the entrance were taken out so the top of the doorway could be raised in height, suggesting either a floor covered in impassible debris or some really tall Vikings.
Another dolmen, but one that has changed significantly since it was originally built. As you can see from this picture, there are currently three upright stones and a capstone held about five feet off the ground, making it look like an over-tall picnic table. However, before it collapsed in a storm in 1815, Lanyon Quoit—situated near Morvah in Cornwall–had four upright stones, and was tall enough to allow a man on a horse to ride under the capstone. During the renovations, which took place nine years after the original collapse, the capstone was rotated 90 degrees from its original position, so if it was aligned with prominent local geographical landmarks, as often happens, it isn’t any more.
Sadly, the fourth stone was badly damaged in the collapse, although it is still there, hidden in the foliage. Lanyon Quoit is at the north end of a longbarrow (a long, ceremonially dug mound of earth), also largely hidden by vegetation.
Not only is the Rudston Monolith, situated in the village of Rudston, Yorkshire, the tallest megalith in the United Kingdom—an impressive 25 feet, without the point it probably had to start with—it is also carved from stone that contains dinosaur footprints up one side. In what was to become a churchyard. Even the name Rudston (from the Old English Rood-stane or cross-stone) suggests that the Monolith became a focal point of life after the Norman invasion of 1066 once it was co-opted into the early Christian church.
Mind you, had there been better archeology at the time, they may have thought twice. An 18th Century excavation around the stone unearthed a lot of human skulls, which may suggest some form of ritual sacrifice. Or a graveyard.
This dolmen is the biggest and best preserved in all of Wales, and was the first to be given protected status during the Victorian fad for antiquarianism, which helped to save a great many sites both from being demolished and from overenthusiastic restoration. Pentre Ifan has seven stones. Six are upright, with two acting as an entrance, a third leaning across that entrance, and three holding up the huge (16ft. long) capstone at a height of just over 8 feet.
Pentre Ifan is around six thousand years old, and as with a lot of dolmens would probably have originally been part of a larger earth mound that has since been washed or dug away. No bones have been found on the site, which is another reason why experts believe these constructions were a place to lay the dead before burial.
Boscawen-Un is a Bronze age stone circle near St. Buryan in Cornwall, with 18 upright granite stones and one quartz that form an ellipse that is around 60-70 feet across. There is also a leaning stone, resembling a javelin or the leaning needle of a sundial.
The circle is situated within sight not only of the sea, but another stone circle called The Merry Maidens (see pic above), and two standing stones called the Two Pipers.
Oh, and some people believe the javelin stone represents male sexual energy and the quartz stone, set in the ring, represents female sexual energy. Which brings a very, very old meaning to the phrase “get your rocks off.”Read More