Romancing the Stones

Who built the great megaliths and stone circles of Great Britain, and why? Researchers continue to puzzle and marvel over these age-old questions

One of the most striking arrays of Neolithic monuments in Britain, the Ring of Brodgar is on the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. Dating from about 2500 B.C., the ring's stones form a perfect circle 340 feet in diameter. (The tallest of the surviving stones is 14 feet high.) A ditch surrounding the ring, dug out of bedrock, is 33 feet wide and 11 feet deep. Archaeologist Colin Renfrew, who partially excavated the site in 1973, estimates the ditch would have required 80,000 man-hours to dig. (Macduff Everton)

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Were Avebury and Stonehenge temples of some kind? Did the ring of stones and the banked ditch define a sacred interior space or a place of initiation? Or did they create a space to exclude the nonbelievers? Were "henges"—the term has come to mean a circular earthwork with a ditch inside— buildings, or did they loom instead as roofless pillared assemblages? Another question is why the Salisbury Plain was such an important place. The questions await answers.

Beyond Avebury and Stonehenge the region abounds in prehistoric monuments. In WiltshireCounty alone there are 2,300 barrows—linear tombs covered with earthen mounds. West Kennett long barrow lies a mile from the Avebury ring. Archaeologists dug into it as early as 1859, and again in the 1950s. What they unearthed was an exquisitely constructed tomb in the shape of a long passage giving onto small side chambers. Great sarsen stones planted upright defined the grave space, with equally heavy stones set in place as roofing. Within the chambers lay not just simple skeletons but curious, sorted assemblages of human bones.

An even more remarkable monument near Avebury is Silbury Hill, at 130 feet high the largest man-made mound in Europe and long assumed to hide treasure. So far, excavations into the hill have failed to find a single human bone, much less any treasure. Instead, the diggers' shafts and tunnels have revealed a complex set of nested, reinforced walls of chalk rubble and boulders. Is Silbury Hill a tombless pyramid, meant to elevate worshipers toward a godhead in the sky? Whatever its purpose, there is no ignoring the labor its construction required: by one estimate, four million man-hours, or the toil of 300 to 400 men over five years— far more than it took to build Stonehenge and Avebury combined.

From Wiltshire I headed to the single most striking arrays of Neolithic monuments in Britain, in the remote, sandstone-rich Orkney Islands off the Scottish coast. On a narrow isthmus of land between two sizable lakes, smack in the center of the main island, called Mainland, lurk the remains of two great stone circles, the rings of Brodgar and Stenness. However ruined they may be (only four of Stenness' monoliths—large single stones—still stand), I found these two monuments the most haunting of all—thanks in part to their setting, in a sheltered bowl in the heart of the wind lashed archipelago surrounded by rippling lakes, and in part to the soaring thinness of the tallest stones. Neither ring has been fully excavated, but both antedate the stones of Stonehenge.

Half a mile east of Stenness, a smooth grassy mound rises up from the level pasture around it. Weeds and buttercups cover Maes Howe, the finest chambered tomb in Britain. I crawled on hands and knees 30 feet through the gently inclined tunnel, lined with massive slabs exquisitely dressed and fitted, that leads to the tomb itself. Then I stood up in an inner sanctum roomy enough, at 15 feet square by 15 feet high, to house a small town meeting. The walls are built of indigenous flagstone, masoned by a master hand. It was through the roof in a.d. 1153, according to legend, that a band of Vikings seeking refuge in a bad storm broke in to Maes Howe. As they idled in the dank chamber, the Norsemen carved on the walls. These well-preserved graffiti amount to the single largest collection of Norse runes ever found.

Magnificent though it is, Maes Howe is far from unique. In fact, 86 chambered tombs, mostly unexcavated, have been identified at Orkney. From those that have been excavated, a puzzling scenario emerges: picture a tableau in which shortly after death a body is deliberately defleshed—either by exposure to predators (as in Tibetan sky burial) or perhaps by priests using knives to carve the flesh from the bones. The skeleton is then disarticulated—broken into its separate bones. These are mingled with the bones of other dead, sorted according to some lost formula, and laid in arcane arrangements inside a chambered tomb, where priests might have performed ritual ceremonies. On the ground within a side chamber of the tomb of Knowe of Yarso on the Isle of Rousay, the first diggers found 17 skulls, their mandibles removed, arranged to face the chamber's center.

I asked David Miles, chief archaeologist of English Heritage, the government agency charged with protecting England's archaeological sites, what purpose such a procedure might have served. "Ancestor worship," he speculated. "The single individual was not so important. The idea of a collective ancestry was. The dead are excarnated—perhaps flesh itself was regarded as dangerous or evil. Then carefully selected collections of bones are used in ceremonies."

Orkney also boasts the single-bestpreserved Neolithic village ever found in Britain, Skara Brae, which was first uncovered by a violent storm in 1850. Today the visitor can wander pathways without invading the "houses" themselves, which lie open to the sky. The most surprising aspect of these domiciles is that even the furniture stands in place—stone dressers, hearths, bed platforms, and stools, all arranged in a uniform pattern within each house. At first the houses feel cozy. Then I noticed crawlways between them, a secret chamber in House 1 that could be reached only by crawling under a dresser, bar holes beside doorways to lock houses against intruders and peepholes to spy on outsiders. A tension of distrust seems built into Skara Brae's very architecture. What's more, as experts point out, the houses of the Neolithic denizens strikingly mirror their tombs.

At the same time that archaeologists remain baffled by some of the most basic questions about Neolithic culture— from the language its people spoke to the engine that drove the economy— they have wrung a surprisingly rich understanding of daily life from the tombs of Orkney. We know that the adults of that period were not much shorter than today, men averaging 5 feet 7 inches, women 5 feet 3 1/2 inches. They were muscular but prone to broken bones; their teeth were surprisingly free of decay but ground down from grit in their food. The life expectancy was about 35 years. Perhaps one in three babies died in childbirth.

Was Neolithic life, then, nasty, brutish and short? In many ways, certainly; but the scarcity of fortifications and weapons found in the archaeological record suggests that the epoch was relatively peaceful. It's even possible that the act of building massive monuments to ancestors was the glue that held society together.


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