Castlerigg Stone circle, Cumbria.

Encircled space: the experience of stone circles and henges

Between 1996 and 2000 my doctoral research considered the landscape settings of stone circles and henges in the Neolithic and Bronze Age. It followed an undergraduate project I had undertaken in the Lake District that suggested that the views from large stone circles were often framed by a raised horizon of hills. At the time, Colin Richards and Richard Bradley were also suggesting that similar patterns might extend more widely across Britain. For example, the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney is situated upon a narrow isthmus of land that is surrounded by wetlands and a raised horizon of low hills, creating a relationship between the circularity of the monument and the landscape.

I went on to explore over fifty of these monuments, concluding that the places chosen for their location was indeed influenced by the wider landscape, and that this might reveal ideas that guided the choice of location and also their format.

Stone circles and henges were often placed in locations where their architecture chrystallises a sense of circularity that exists in the wider topography. While they were built on very different scales, this is illustrated by sites such as Castlerigg and Avebury. Both were built upon raised ground at the centre of large natural basins defined by raised ground. Effectively, an audience within these sites is contained by the monument in much the same way as the monuments themselves are contained by the landscape. That these guiding principles appear to have been observed at sites from the north of Scotland to the west of Cornwall, perhaps circularity lay at the heart of Neolithic ideas or beliefs. Each of these monuments was effectively built at the centre of the world.

Further reading

Watson, A. 2005. Monuments that made the world: performing the henge. In R. Cleal and J. Pollard (eds) Monuments and material culture: papers in honour of an Avebury archaeologist: Isobel Smith. East Knoyle: Hobnob Press.

Watson, A. 2001. Composing Avebury. World Archaeology 33(2), 296-314.