“In their lifetimes the people revered their ancestors, went to the circles where the powerful bones lay. Now they too are dead and it is we, descended from them, who visit the rings, seeking our own ancestors. We shall never see them, the painted bodies in the sunlight, darker figures against the moon, the dancers, the images of death. Yet the symbols are constant through the centuries. The knowledge is the same.” – Audrey Burl, Rings of Stone
The ruins of ancient peoples and forgotten cultures have always had a mysterious power over the imagination. The human mind seems to be designed to seek out the meaning behind everything it encounters and tends to grow restless when faced with the limitations of its own understanding. For this reason the ruins of lost civilizations tease us so profoundly. We can sense the residue of the powerful meaning they once held, but we can no longer understand what that meaning was. This is no more evident than in the case of the megalithic circles of the British Isles.
Since the 17th century, when John Aubrey pioneered the study of megalithic sites, the circles have had a lasting hold on the imagination of anyone who’s chanced to come across them. In fact, folk tales suggest that the rings of stone have been regarded with superstitious fear and veneration for centuries before science first recorded them. And with good reason. Stone circles offer so little intelligible evidence of their original purpose as to be a complete mystery. At the same time, they provide us with just enough uncanny findings (the charred bones of children for example) to tease our desire to decipher them. Unsurprisingly, wild theories have been concocted to account for the circles’ existence.
Folk legends explain the rings as the petrified bodies of dancing girls. Some archaeoastronomers (scientists who study ancient peoples’ relationship to the sky) go into incredible lengths to prove that the rings were originally computational devices for ancient astronomer-priests. Others claim that the rings form nodes on a vast energetic network that stretches over the whole world; a network connected by invisible “ley lines” which used to navigate the travels of our ancestors. Still others believe that Stonehenge was commissioned by King Arthur himself and his wizard Merlin oversaw its construction as the king’s final resting place.
Other hypotheses are less radical. Some go only as far as to argue whether the rings have been used for burials, sacrifices or social assemblies. In any case, the consistent discoveries of human bones at these megalithic sites support the idea that the rings have originally had some symbolic relationship to death. Indeed, the notion of sinister ancient rituals might be as old as the circles themselves, as this thousand-year-old poem suggests:
“Their god was he — That Cromm, all misty, withered, wan — Those whom he ruled so frightfully, Are dead — and wither have they gone?
To him — oh, shame! Their children, piteous babes, they slew, Their blood they poured out in his name, With wailing cries, and tears, and rue.”
But if one wants to separate wheat from chaff and fact from fancy, what do archeologists know with any reasonable certainty about the rings?
First of all, the rings must have been sacred, non-domestic structures. Excavations at the megalithic sites consistently find three kinds of things buried underground: charred and broken human bones, pieces of quartz, and broken pottery. There is never any rubbish, nor any other remains of a prehistoric domestic nature at these sites.
Second, stone circles seem to have required human bones for their magical properties to be activated. Eminent archaeologist Dr. Aubrey Burl believes that the bones of ancestors were buried within the rings at the time of the rings’ erection in order to enhance the magical potency of the sites. There is little evidence that any bones were added after the rings were finished. Notably, the bones and the earth excavated at these rings are usually both marked by what must have been the extreme heat of an immense fire. Dr. Burl suggests that the rings could have been used for ancestor worship. The powerful bones of ancestors could have been burned and buried there as a fertility ritual.
The bones and pottery that archaeologists find beneath the megalithic circles always seem to have been deliberately broken. Perhaps by breaking them, the ancient priests believed that they were transmigrating them from the world of the living to the Other World. They would burn the bones too, perhaps using the magical power of fire for the same purpose. Bones and pottery were also intermingled with pearly shards of quartz. In addition to its distinctive visual appearance, quartz can produce electricity when under mechanical stress. The builders of the stone circles must have considered the mineral to possess magical properties that would assist them in carrying out their rituals successfully.
Archaeologists have little doubt about the significance of the megalithic circles for the people who built them. The rings were built with deliberate care and their builders went to great lengths to erect them in the way they now stand. For example, the recumbent stone of the Old Keig stone circle weighs 50 tonnes and was brought in from six miles away. Dr. Burl estimates that it must have taken at least 200 people to transport it, which would entail the cooperation of different bands or families of prehistoric settlers. Only a profoundly meaningful undertaking could have brought about such large-scale cooperation by separate groups.
The design of the circles was also no trivial matter. Their builders laid them out as precisely as the techniques of the time allowed, some in perfect circles, some in ovals, some in egg-shapes. The number of stones was also deliberate, though it varies locally. The builders were undertaking extensive site works whenever the site needed to be leveled or cleared. For example, sites such as the rings of Castle Frazer or Loanhead of Daviot were thoroughly transformed in preparation for their megaliths. It seems that the circles’ original builders did not choose their sites based on ease of work, but based on some other, more crucial, quality.
Finally, the stones do have an astronomical dimension, yet one much simpler than the extravagant theories about them suggest. They are oriented according to the sun and the moon. For example, the majority of the recumbents of the Scottish recumbent stone circles frame the moon: its rising, zenith, and setting. In another example – the Beaker burials at Yorkshire – the buried men lay with their heads facing east (towards the sunrise) and their bodies facing south (towards the sun’s zenith). The women’s bodies also were also facing south, but their heads were turned towards the sunset. This relationship between the sun, the moon, and death appears in many of the ancient cultures. The dead were positioned in a way that the life-giving magic of the Sun would grace them every day of their eternal rest. (Read more about Egyptian tombs and their relationship to the sun here.)
So, what story can we piece together about our prehistoric ancestors with the help of the fragmentary clues that their great rings of stone have left us? What do we make of the Druid’s Circle where the cremated bones of three young children, skulls cracked open, have been found, the burials clearly ceremonial in nature? Our ancestors used to live in constant danger, most of them suffered from excruciating conditions, none of them lived much longer than 35 years. Still, something drove these vulnerable people to transport tonnes of stone over miles of trackless land. Something drove them to level hills and arrange their mandalic structures atop them; to gather the bones of ancestors and young children and burn them in great fires as they watched the moon gleam above their megaliths. What do we make of this?
Did our ancestors in turn build the rings to worship and absorb the power of their own powerful forefathers? Did they make offerings to the spirits of the Other World, who must have seemed rampant in the uncertain and dangerous world of their time? Did they make offerings to gods or to devils? Are the folk tales of nocturnal dancers that surround the rings dim memories of wild ceremonial orgies?
Clear answers would be very welcome here… or perhaps not. The very allure of mystery is that it is veiled from our understanding. The stones must have had great mystical significance to our ancestors and the volumes that have been written about them by scientists and crackpot theorists alike prove that they still retain their power to enchant us nowadays. Today, their magic is the magic of mystery; is it too far-fetched to suggest that perhaps this has always been their magic? In the end, might the very notion that our ancestors understood the stones better than we do… be false? Of course, they built their circles with a profound sense of purpose, but perhaps that very purpose was to express something they did not understand.
Is it not true that in anything that has the power to move the human spirit there is the seed of the ineffable? The great psychonaut Terence McKenna once said that “a secret is not something untold; it’s something that can’t be told.” Perhaps the rings have always been monuments to the Secret at the centre of Being. Monuments to the human condition of having just enough understanding to know how much we will never understand. Today we look at the rings in perplexity and wonder what they were built for. Perhaps this is exactly what they were built for.