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English Neolithic stone circle

Larger than Avebury and as complex as Stonehenge, this stone circle in the tiny Somerset village of Stanton Drew has attracted much interest from historians. Visiting it is something of a surprise, as there are no crowds of tourists thronging the site, because it lies away from the hurly-burly and the main roads of England. Because of this, it a fascinating and wonderful place to visit, firing the imagination and enabling one to relax and feel the history of the stones.

The name "circle" is not strictly accurate. The main complex consists of three circles and two stone avenues dating from about 2500 BCE, and is thus from about the same period as Avebury. The two main circles are close together, with a third circle to the southwest, and there is another group "The Cove", about 200 yards away near the village church (an outlying group of three stones also stands in the garden of the local pub, "The Druid Inn").

The "Great Circle", is some 268 feet (112 metres) in diameter and comprises 27 stones, and the "Northeast Ring" is 97 feet (29 metres) in diameter and has eight huge stones (the biggest in the whole complex). To the east of this is an avenue of stones which leads to a ditch, and is likely to have been a processional entrance to the site. A second avenue runs from the Great Circle to the ditch, to merge with the first. The Southeast Ring is not accessible to the public, being on private land, and is in any case, badly ruined – most of its stones have fallen.

The stones themselves are all conglomerates, the processional stones being dolomitic breccia, whilst the stones forming the circles are pustular breccia and oolitic limestone. These stones would have been brought from the local vicinity, possibly dragged on sledges before being tipped into deep pits. Finally, there is an outlying sandstone boulder some 600 yards north-east of the circles, in a direct line with the centres of the Great Ring and the Southwest Ring.

History and Legend

Legend has it that the stones are the remains of a wedding party. The revellers (according to the tale) were dancing throughout the whole of a Saturday evening, and when the musicians ceased at midnight, it being forbidden to play music on the Sunday, the bridegroom vowed that he would have music, even if he had to bring a fiddler from Hell to play for them. At this word, a dark-skinned fellow appeared with a violin, and played until the morning. By this time, the whole assembly were turned to stone, and the Devil had their souls. There are folk songs about this, notably The Dancers Of Stanton Drew, recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Eileen McGann.

As with many other stone circles, it is also said that it was impossible to count the stones. I cannot verify this, as my own visit was on a chilly day, with a bitter wind sucking the heat from my marrow. Suffice to say that I was too distracted to count anyway.

The fact is, no-one can be entirely sure of the truth behind the site, as is the case with so many neolithic remains. Little excavation has been done since the Stanton Drew circles first being brought to public attention by the antiquarian John Aubrey in 1664. They were mapped out in 1776 by William Stukeley, but until recent years, little more research was done, and even now no-one is entirely sure of the purpose of the site.

Alexander Thom considered that there was a link "to the major southern moonset, from the centre of the North-East Ring through the South-West one". As Aubrey Burl wrote "Midsummer processions and ceremonies may be imagined, rituals by moonlight celebrated by hundreds of people from the countryside, assembling for reasons long forgotten but preserved silently in the stones themselves." 1

Whatever the truth, there is, as with many neolithic sites, a feeling that these ancient circles did play a major role in the culture of the time – whether religious or social, it is impossible to state. Their relative isolation, and the quietness makes them stand out as different from our modern world, and casts us back into the world of Stone Age mysticism.

Recent Research

The circles have recently been the subject of a magnetometer survey, commissioned by English Heritage, who protect the site. This non-invasive method has enabled them to delve beneath the soil surface, to uncover some of the deeper physical, if not practical, mysteries.

Within the Great Circle, they have discovered nine concentric rings of pits, with diameters ranging from 75 to 311 feet (23 to 95 metres). They now believe that these pits contained upright timber posts (a wood henge). A further three stones were discovered, buried beneath a few inches of soil. In addition, they discovered a ditch surrounding the whole site. Speculation is free, and there is consequently a lot of it – one of the best-held theories has the Great Circle and the main avenue covered with a canopy, providing shelter for whatever went on within the boundaries of the stones themselves.

Whether these were religious rites or social events we may never know, but we still stand in awe of our primitive forebears, who designed and erected this magnificent edifice, which has the power to entrance and mystify us nearly five thousand years on.

N51:22:05 W2:34:28

Encyclopædia Britannica
51:22:02N, 2:34:33W A Place for Everything (and everything in its place)

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