5. Megaliths

‘Megaliths’ refers to the ‘great stones’ erected by prehistoric peoples; a realisation of modern archaeology is that our ancient ancestors, who erected the Great Stone Monuments, were smarter, more sophisticated and more mobile than previously appreciated

Man: modern hominids of the genus Homo have probably been present on the British Isles for 750,000 years or more; the only species within this genus to survive into the present is our very own, Homo sapiens; this is the most up-to-date model of human, with all advanced features, including the ability to compile encyclopedias; Homo sapiens arose in Africa 150,000-200,000 years ago; a small group left there 50,000-60,000 years ago and fanned out across the world; modern humans have been in Britain for about 30,000 years, though the island was vacated at times during the Ice Ages, of which there have been eight or so over the past quarter of a million years; perhaps 100 billion Homo sapiens have ever been born around the globe, during the course of 7,500 or so generations; a proportion of those in the most recent 200 generations, over 5,000 years, have experienced ‘civilisation’; of all the Homo sapiens who have ever existed, less than 1% have lived out their lives on the island of Great Britain, an island representing a northwestern expression of Eurasia, moderately sized yet with an immoderate destiny; the Ancient Britons got going a serious culture – called the Megalithic Culture – before the Sumerians in Mesopotamia or the Ancient Egyptians beside the Nile, and even seem to have influenced the latter [see below, Henges, Stonehenge]

Ice Age & after: 8,000 years an island, ‘Britain is a world by itself’ (William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Act III, Scene i); prior to that proto-Britain was a north-pointing peninuslar at the western end of the Eurasian continent, a geographical 'thumbs up'; during the last Ice Age the land was covered in ice as far south as Wales and the current course of the River Thames, with southern England a polar desert; temperatures averaged -8ºC; the people fled to refuges in southern Europe; with rising temperatures the ice caps started to melt 10,000 years ago (i.e. 8000 BC) and the southern edge of the ice retreated north; vegetation recovered and animals and then people gradually returned to the British Isles; the water released by the melting ice cap had produced the Irish Sea by 7500 BC, establishing the island of Ireland; the island of Great Britain had come into separate being by 6000 BC, with the submersion of a landbridge called ‘Doggerland’ between Britain and mainland Europe at the southern end of the North Sea and the establishment of a connection between the North Sea and an extended and broadened English Channel; the hypothetical Doggerland will have supported human habitation, particularly around a central lakeland depression; Doggerland is named for the Dogger Bank, the still-existing sandbank and well-known hazard to shipping off the east coast of England; Dogger Bank is believed to have remained an island itself until at least 5000 BC; two catastrophes will have impacted on the earliest Britons; the first was a tsunami in 6100 BC; this was triggered by a stupendous submarine subsidence off the west coast of Norway, as part of the continental shelf there collapsed; this sent a lethal tsunami hammering into the east coast of Britain, according to archaeologists; then, in the second and even bigger catastrophe around 6000 BC, an ice dam broke on the east coast of North America releasing a vast volume of cold water into the Atlantic, disrupting the Gulf Stream and sending yet another tidal wave towards Britain, this time from the west; this inundation precipitated island formation, as Doggerland disappeared under a frigid sea, together with a centuries-long return to Ice Age conditions, as ocean circulation stalled; it is reckoned that the warm period we are still in, known as the Holocene, has stayed free of further Ice Ages because of man’s use of fire; the recent acceleration in global warming and a growing human impact in other ways has prompted the period we are currently in to be given the post-Holocene branding of 'Anthropocene'

People: an Ice Age depopulation of the British Isles was reversed in the period to 7500 BC by a left hook and a right jab: up the Atlantic coast, by land and by sea, came Ice Age survivors from a refuge in the Pyrenees; that was the geographical left hook; meanwhile, by way of the right jab, other peoples migrated northwestwards from the Moldavian Refuge and the Ukrainian Refuge, which were to the west and north of the Black Sea, respectively; the Atlanticists settled in Cornwall, peninsular Wales, Ireland and Scotland, while the people from the southeast settled England and central Wales; the impact of these founder populations is felt to this day; 68% of ethnic Britons in England (excluding Cornwall) can trace their genes to these ancestors who had arrived even before farming started around 4500 BC; this is according to Stephen Oppenheimer, author of The Origins of the British (2007); the corresponding figure for Scotland is 70%, Cornwall 79% and Wales 81%; this emphasizes continuity of population as being more important than invasions; for example, the Dark Age Anglo-Saxons of the period after AD 450 contributed just 5% to the English gene pool; important invasions and influxes there have been, but according to Stephen Oppenheimer ‘no individual event contributed even a tenth of our modern genetic mix.’

Megalithic Culture: this Neolithic (New Stone Age) phenomenon lasted from c3800 BC to c1500 BC and ostensibly provides one of the most powerful examples of mankind’s predilection, given the chance, for engaging in activities unrelated to immediate survival; the megalithic people erected tens of thousands of monuments made out of ‘great stones’ [see next item] from Scandinavia and the Baltic to Brittany and on down to northern Spain, with their activities centering on the western British Isles; the Megalithic Culture surged around 3500 BC, when the climate in Britain was wetter and warmer than now and the growing season longer; this was after the arrival of agriculture (and new migrants) into Britain, between 5000 and 4500 BC, though some date it to a few centuries later; forests were cleared for crops and domesticated animals; an agricultural surplus allowed specialists to emerge (e.g. potters, weavers) and the construction of megalithic structures; agriculture is reckoned by some to have arisen in Anatolia (Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey), among other places around the world, about 10,000 years ago (i.e. 8000 BC; from there it spread via migrants and cultural influence to Greece, the Balkans and westward, with cereal cultivation and animal husbandry gradually replacing hunting and gathering as the basis of society; an Indo-European root language may have moved west with the migrant farmers at the same time; the idea of east-west diffusion has however been refined to a degree by the recognition of the antiquity of the Megalithic Culture, which arose in northwest Europe and pre-dated the ancient cultures of Sumer in Mesopotamia (which dates from about 3250 BC) and Ancient Egypt by the River Nile (from around 3000 BC), and the slightly later one in the Indus Valley (i.e. the Harappa culture, from about 2800 BC); this also puts the Megalithic Culture well before the early cultures of the Mediterranean (e.g. the Minoans, from about 2000 BC) and elsewhere (e.g. China); ‘Ancient’ Greece and 'Ancient' Rome were much later of course, flourishing in the first millenium BC and, in the case of Rome, thereafter

'…the ‘Radiocarbon Revolution’ – the redating of later prehistoric Europe in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age… showed that the megalithic monuments of North Western Europe, instead of being derived from such Mediterranean achievements as the Pyramids, were in fact centuries, even millenia, earlier than these.' (Colin Renfrew, foreword to Peter James et al, Centuries of Darkness, 1991:

The antiquity of Near Eastern cultures tends to be overstated; the volcanic eruption of the Mediterranean island of Thera, which extinguished the Minoans, is now thought by physicists to have occurred later than was formerly reckoned; this shortens the keystone Egyptian chronology, within which is recorded the resultant tsunami which hit the Egyptian coast; although iron from meteorites was used in jewelry early in Egyptian culture, the presence of presumably non-meteoritic iron in the construction of the Great Pyramid should influence the dating of that extraordinary structure more than it appears to; the over-extension of the Egyptian timeline was noted by Isaac Newton, after exhaustive study [see Isaac Newton]; then, too, there is a tendency among Britain’s archaeologists and historians towards national abnegation; while lauding and contributing enormously to the historical understanding of other peoples and places [see Scholarship], they often seem to view their own nation’s history through the wrong end of a smeary lensed telescope; Britain’s recorded history does not begin with the Romans and Briton’s were not barbarous before the arrival of Romans on their shores [see Rulers BC]; there is ancient cultural material that should provoke enquiry but is largely unconsidered [see Legends, Religion]; the British Isles in fact boast a vaster antiquity than the 'ancient world' to the east

'Professor W. J. Perry [The Growth of Civilization, 1937] has gone so far as to say: “There are no signs of Palaeolithic man in the parts of Mesopotamia where civilization can be first detected, the region being generally young.” ' (William Comyns Beaumont, The Riddle of Prehistoric Britain, 1946)

Yet there are stone structures of even greater antiquity than those of northwest Europe, notably at the southeastern end of Asia Minor (i.e. modern-day Turkey) and in Africa [see below, Stone structures worldwide]; the Megalithic Culture of northwest Europe emerged during the period of stone tool use called the Neolithic or New Stone Age (5000–2500 BC in Britain), which is defined by a transition from Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) hunter-gathering, with seasonal movements, to settled farming; although metal was not yet in use, technology flourished to a degree in the Neolithic, with the manufacture of pottery vessels, stone sickles and grinding stones to turn grain into flour; hard items such as these, and others such as deer antlers functioning as picks and cattle shoulder blades as shovels, have come down to us, together with evidence of timber dwellings with stone bases and presumably turf roofs; but clothing, basketware, wooden objects and other perishable items have been lost in the sodden conditions of northwest Europe; there is no known written record, meaning that this is ‘prehistory’, and this was a culture without the wheel; the people have tended to be categorized according to their pottery, notably Grooved Ware, which arose in the Orkneys (warmer then) some time after 3000 BC and was disseminated across the British Isles; Unstan Ware is even earlier and again seems to have come from the Orkneys, whereas the later Beaker Ware (2400-1800 BC) came across from the Continent; after the Neolithic period there occurred the first era of metal tools and weapons, the Bronze Age, starting around 2500 BC, which gave way around 750 BC in Britain to the Iron Age

Megalithic structures: the word comes from Greek and means ‘great stones’; the megalithic monuments of the Megalithic Culture include isolated standing stones (menhirs), stone circles, burial chambers, avenues of aligned stones and stacked-stone statuary [see below, Statuary]; there may be as many as 40,000 megalithic sites in the British Isles; the stone structures are very robust, having survived 5,000 years; they lack mortar or cement; some of the stones weigh many tons and must have presented formidable production, shipment and erection challenges; though the stones were mostly not worked to a high degree, they are so hard that for a pre-metal society to work them at all will have been difficult; all this betokens engineering and organisational skills of an impressive order and a society with surplus labour and resources to boot, plus abundant motivation; megalithic burial chamber such as dolmens and passage tombs tend to be found on the Atlantic side of the British Isles, emphasizing the different cultural influences on the west and the east of Britain; dolmens are seen as portals to the other world, with two large stones representing the gate and a smaller stone at the back, with these three holding up a flat slab as a roof; we see them today shorn of their earth covering; Britain’s dolmens seem to date from about 3800 BC and their production was favoured for about six hundred years; passage (extended) tombs for communal burials are also in evidence during this period in the British Isles and they continued to be established and used for longer; for the standing stone monuments solar, lunar and stellar alignments have been identified, notably by Norman Lockyer, the early 1900s father of archaeoastronomy [see Norman Lockyer]; it is also believed by some that the megalithic monuments of Britain were laid out using a uniform system of measurements that might have endured for 2,000 years; the rediscovery of this system in the modern era was due to Alexander Thom (1894-1985), who worked for 50 years surveying megalithic monuments from the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney to Stonehenge in Wiltshire and the standing-stone avenues of Brittany, the most famous of which is at Carnac; in 1955 on the basis of a survey of 46 stone circles and using statistical analysis, Thom concluded that they had all been laid out as multiples of a standard unit of measurement that had been used throughout Britain; Thom went on to call this the Megalithic Yard and give its measurement as 2.722 feet +/- 0.002 ft (0.82966 metres +/-0.061 m); he determined that there were 40 Megalithic Inches to the Megalithic Yard [Source: Alexander Thom, Megalithic Sites in Britain, 1968]

'...when the Royal Society under the auspices of Professor Kendal was asked to check his work in order to find the error, it responded by stating that there was one chance in a hundred that Thom’s Megalithic Yard had not been employed on the sites surveyed.' (Christopher Knight & Alan Butler, Civilization One, 2004):

Thom himself wrote:

'It is remarkable that 1000 years before the earliest mathematicians of classical Greece, people in these islands not only had a practical knowledge of geometry and were capable of setting out elaborate geometrical designs but could also set out ellipses based on Pythagorean triangles.' (Alexander Thom, Megalithic Sites in Britain, 1968)

The Neolithic Britons seemed to be aware of pi, the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference, and also phi, the golden ratio; Thom showed that many standing stones pointed at mountain notches and peaks on the horizon where the Sun or Moon rose or set at significant times; according to later researchers Knight and Butler (as previously cited) the Megalithic People seem to have employed a 366-degree circle and 366 seems to have been their key value; this is the number of revolutions of the Earth in a year, in fact, taking a star as the fixed point, the solar year being slightly shorter than the so-called sidereal (star) year because of the motion of the Earth around the Sun; units were probably established using the passage of Venus across the sky, between two marker posts a standard distance apart; in this method a pendulum is regulated in length until it swings 366 times, which would represent a length of half a Megalithic Yard; just as the megalithic people realised that a sidereal year was 366 days they divided the horizon up into 366 degrees of arc; they then divided each degree into 60 minutes of arc and each minute into 6 seconds of arc; each Megalithic Second of arc measured exactly 366 Megalithic Yards on the ground; the Megalithic Yard relates to the polar circumference of the Earth and is thus said to be geodetic; every 10,000 days the Moon turns 366 times in relation to the stars; in size terms, if the Moon is given the value 100 then the Earth is 366; one Megalithic Second of arc on the Moon measures 100 Megalithic Yards and on the Sun measures 40,000 Megalithic Yards; the Earth turns on its axis one Megalithic Second of arc in one modern second of time; this is not true of the 360º system of geometry we use today; a cube with sides of one-tenth of a Megalithic Yard (i.e. four Megalithic Inches) holds an imperial pint of water and one imperial pound of barley or wheat grain; doubling the length of the side produces a capacity of one imperial gallon and doubling again produces a grain weight of one dry bushel; the Megalithic Pound had a value of 99.96% of the modern British pound (lb), which latter can thus also be regarded as a geodetic unit (i.e. it relates to the physical dimensions of the Earth); if the Earth were segmented like an orange, a segment corresponding to a single Megalithic Second of arc would have a mass of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 Megalithic Pounds (i.e. 1 x 1020); if the freezing point of water is taken as 0º and the boiling point 366º, then absolute zero is -1000º; more on the improbable properties of the megalithic measuring system is to be found elsewhere in this section and in Before the Pyramids (2009) by Christopher Knight & Alan Butler; overall the Megalithic People seem to have been astronomers, geometricians and engineers, yet they were members of a pre-urban pre-literate wheel-less low-tech society which therefore falls below most people’s definition of a civilisation; steady contemplation of this discontinuity is apt to invite cognitive dissonance [see Units of measurement]

Stone structures worldwide: the world’s first stone temple, dating from around 9,000 BC, is reckoned to be that of Gobleki Tepi, in southeastern Turkey, the ‘Asia Minor’ of 0ld, near the city of Urfa; under an earth mound 50 feet high and spread over 22 acres have been found at different levels multiple stone-walled circles, each studded with T-shaped pillars of limestone; within each ring are a couple of mighty limestone monoliths, up to 16 feet high and weighing 7-10 tons; the sides of some of the peripheral and central monoliths are decorated with the carvings of inedible beasts (foxes, lions, scorpions and vultures, fully realised) and occasional humans (only partially realised, with ‘Easter Island’ hands); stone was obtained from a nearby quarry, using flint tools; the religious beliefs of the builders is unknown, but man seems to be raising himself out of nature and above the animals; Gobleki Tepi may in fact have been started much earlier than the currently suggested 9,000 BC; the circles were filled in with soil and new circles erected on top, suggesting a burial function; hunter-gatherers in settlements are believed to have raised this mortuary temple complex, not farmers; arable farming probably arose in the same area within five hundred years of Gobleki Tepi’s foundation and pastoral farming, involving sheep, cattle and pigs, may have developed within a millenium; the impulse to found this religious site may driven settlement formation and agriculture, reversing what has hitherto been supposed to be the likely order of events in the evolution of civilisation; Gobleki Tepi (‘belly hill’ in Turkish) is some 300 miles to the east of what might be the world’s first full-scale town, the Neolithic settlement of Catulhoyuk (discovered in 1958 by James Mellaart, 1925-2012); Catulhoyuk was occupied from 7500 BC; as yet no astronomical properties have been ascribed to Gobleki Tepi, unlike the later megalithic structures or northwest Europe, which appeared thousands of years later and whose stones were ‘undressed’ and undecorated; what is 
reckoned to be the world’s oldest astronomical observatory is in northeast Africa five hundred miles south of Cairo, on the Tropic of Cancer; Nabta Playa is a smaller and less elaborate version of Stonehenge and vastly pre-dates that structure; it is believed in fact to date between 6400 BC and 4900 BC, though parts of it might be far older still; megalithic structures are also found in the Mediterranean in North Africa, Sardinia, Malta and Israel, among other places; there are ancient temples on Malta made of huge limestone blocks; some of these date from before 3500 BC; dolmen burial chambers are found scattered around the world, notably on the Korean peninsular, oddly enough; the presence of megalithic chamber tombs on Corsica and Sardinia and in Iberia, Brittany and Normandy, as well as on the western side of the British Isles is regarded as supporting a cultural spread in a northerly direction up the Atlantic coast of Europe; the later Minoans of ancient Crete are regarded as Europe’s first super-civilisation; they flourished from 2000 BC to 1500 BC; the Minoans used what we would regard as more normal-sized building blocks than the megalithic people, yet like them they used a 366º circle and their shorter measurement unit, the Minoan Foot, comes into the megalithic story; it is the case that 1000 Minoan Feet equal 366 Megalithic Yards, according to Knight and Butler [see previous item] which itself is one Megalithic Second of arc of the polar circumference of the Earth; this means that the Megalithic Yard and the Minoan Foot, apart from being related to one another for whatever reason, are both geodetic – that is, they refer to a physical dimension of the Earth; the Minoan Foot was 30.36 cm in length; the British (and American) statute foot is 30.48 cm; the difference between these two is therefore a fraction over 1 mm, with the Minoan Foot being 99.6% of a British foot; this means that the statute foot can be regarded as a geodetic unit as well; the Minoans were a metalworking and seafaring culture and with high probability will have sought tin for bronze from Cornwall; maybe they took the Megalithic Yard and decimalised it, bringing this useful unit to Britain; the much later Roman foot is less likely to have given rise to the British foot, as the former is a full centimetre shorter than the latter, at 29.62 cm, with the Roman foot representing 97.2% of a British foot; the Roman foot cannot be regarded as geodetic; the Romans may well though have contributed the concept of a twelfth part of a foot, the inch (Latin uncia, a twelfth part of anything); to culminate these reflections on metrology (the study of measurement), consider the speed of light; this is c in the famous equation linking energy and matter, E = mc2; it is the case that to within a couple of percent c is 1 Minoan or statute foot per nanosecond

Henges: astronomical temple platforms; henges are flat circular grassy areas, like vast golf greens, enclosed by a ditch and an outer embankment; they date from over 5,000 years ago; because the ditch is on the inside, a non-defensive purpose is assumed, almost certainly involving astronomical observations, probably with religious ritual; within the enclosure there may be standing stones or standing timbers; the biggest henge is Durrington Walls (‘Woodhenge’, where the timber was cedar), near Stonehenge, with a diameter of nearly one-third of a mile; henges may have developed from causewayed enclosures; henges are a native tradition of the British Isles and there may once have been hundreds, given losses through erosion, ploughing and development; ring-ditched areas of an even earlier apparent date are common in Croatia, Austria and Germany (e.g. at Goseck, which was used for solar observations and dates from around 4900 BC); these lack the encircling embankment of the British henges, which is believed to be a key feature as offering an artificial horizon for heavenly observations; instead, the central European ring-ditches appear to have had wooden palisades; the Central European ring-ditches may be precursors of the British henges, given a relative dearth of henges in Ireland and Scotland and granted an enduring pattern of European Atlantic coastal influence on the western side of the British Isles and of mainland European influence on the eastern side of the British Isles; a true henge is to be found at Goloring in Germany, but this is not Neolithic as are the British examples, but dates from around 1200-800 BC, in the Bronze Age; the ditch in British henges may have been filled with water to facilitate reflections of observed objects; among other things henge observers might well have determined the Sun’s positions as marking the seasons (solstices, equinoxes), tracked the hard-to-fathom Moon (whose movements in a monthly sense mirror those of the Sun in its yearly behaviour), predicted eclipses (Sun, Moon), followed the rising and setting of stars (e.g. Sirius, the brightest star in sky, to which the Orion’s Belt trio of stars points), plotted the position of planets (notably Venus), watched for comets, made time measurements, developed navigational thinking and, on a multigeneration timescale, determined the precession of the equinox (due to wobble of the Earth’s axis); a trio of super-henges connected by an avenue at Thornborough in North Yorkshire have been dated to around 3500 BC and are thus significantly older than any known stone circle except Nabta Playa in Africa [see Stone structures worldwide]; they are positioned at a point that is 1/10th of the Earth’s polar circumference from the North Pole; in the view of archaeologists the Stone Age astronomers of Britain laid out these henges like the three stars of Orion’s Belt; this was done to a painstaking degree of accuracy according to Christopher Knight & Alan Butler (Before the Pyramids, 2009); in 2500 BC, i.e. a thousand years later, the Great Pyramid and its two associated pyramids on the Giza Plateau in Egypt were also built in a pattern believed by many to represent Orion’s Belt; the angle Orion’s Belt rises in the sky changes with latitude and the pyramid layout matches Thornborough in 2500 BC rather than Giza at that time; as Knight & Butler put it

'...we remain utterly convinced that the three major pyramids on the Giza Plateau were built upon a footprint that was not created first on the desert sand by the side of the Nile, but in the green and pleasant land of North Yorkshire.' (Christopher Knight & Alan Butler, Before the Pyramids, 2009)

These researchers reckon the Egyptians came to Britain to get their astronomical information, presumably bringing with them warm clothing

Stone circles: astronomical temples; over 900 open rings of standing stones still exist in Britain, in various states of preservation; they were erected between 3500 BC and 1500 BC, as part of the Megalithic Culture; the ‘circles’ appear in five main shapes – true circle, flattened circle, ellipse, ovoid (i.e. egg-shape) and ‘complex’; there are typically one or more gaps in the circumference

'The building of stone circles evolved out of existing megalithic culture, whereby the barrow mound was frequently surrounded by a kerb of upright stones, and were carefully sited in the landscape to have a definite relationships with underground streams and geological fault lines, hills and rocky outcrops, as well as with significant events in the sky… They probably had a multitude of functions including religious, social and economic use – places where tribal assemblies could be held, where justice could be dispensed and leaders chosen; the unity of the heavens and earth confirmed, enhanced and used to benefit the people.' (Ian McNeil Cooke, Journey to the Stones, 1996)

Stonehenge: astronomical temple; Stonehenge is a wonder of the world and the most celebrated prehistoric monument anywhere; it is the premier location among Britain’s 630,000 archaeological sites; Stonehenge is not an isolated manifestation but part of a local megalithic landscape; a burial mound near the stone circle, one of 10,000 round barrows in Britain (often marked on the map as ‘tumuli’) is dated to 3500 BC; Stonehenge seems to have been developed in various phases from around 3100 BC to 1500 BC; the stone façade of nearby West Kennet Long Barrow is reckoned to have been erected four centuries before the first stones were put up at Stonehenge around 2600 BC; before it was ‘Stonehenge’, Stonehenge was ‘Stonelesshenge’, being an unadorned henge (flat circular area) with a circumference of 366 Megalithic Yards; large Sarson stones of up to 40 tons were moved 18 miles; smaller Bluestones of up to 5 tons were shifted a remarkable 130 miles from Pembrokeshire in West Wales to Wiltshire; Stonehenge was partially dismantled by the Romans, presumably to discourage the Druids who used it and other megalithic sites as lunar temples, as well as meeting places, to look much as it does today

'As early as 1740 the antiquarian William Stukeley’s Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids had argued that far from being the bloodthirsty barbarians described by Caesar, the Druids had actually been the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, transplanted to Britain to create a new Promised Land, and had survived as the priestly guardians of an ancient and sophisticated culture. Their Celtic tongue was not just the original British language but the fountainhead of all non-Latin European languages.' (Simon Schama, A History of Britain 3: 1776-2000 the Fate of Empire, 2002)

Stukeley, the father of antiquarianism, mused that, confusingly for archaeologists, the moon-orientated Druids had taken over what the sun-orientated Phoenicians had built - yet the Phoenicians were far too late to have had a hand in the construction of Britain’s stone circles; the Bluestones of Stonehenge were originally ranged around the circumference, inside a bank, a ditch and another bank; they were later moved to central positions; the larger Sarsen stones, making trilithons (the word comes from Greek and means ‘three stones’; these stones are arranged like the Greek letter pi, π), frame solstices; Gerald Hawkins used a computer to show that the stones and other features formed a pattern of alignments with a dozen major lunar and solar events; Hawkins argued that Stonehenge had allowed its users to predict eclipses of the Moon as well as the positions of the Moon and Sun at the summer and winter solstices; Hawkins published a paper in Nature in 1963 called Stonehenge Decoded, publishing a book of the same title two years later; cremation burial remains have been found, almost all male, radiocarbon dated from 3000 BC to later than 2500 BC; the structure is believed to have become a monument to the revered dead, as well as seemingly acting as an observatory; nearby is Woodhenge, at Durrington Walls, the remains of a timber (cedar) circle of similar size and vintage to Stonehenge; henges, avenues, barrows and other features near Stonehenge are part of landscape of life and death, it has been conjectured; Woodhenge was celebratory, Stonehenge commemorative; cremated hoi-polloi are believed to have been cast respectfully into the nearby Avon, the River of the Afterlife, from a group of four standing stones on a platform at the other end of the avenue from Stonehenge; the remains of about 1,000 Neolithic dwellings have been found nearby, perhaps betokening a construction camp, making this the largest habitation in northern Europe during the period; the area inside the Sarsen Ring of trilithons is a neat 100 square Megalithic Yards; mysteriously this happens to be a quarter of a setat, which was a unit of area used in Ancient Egypt; a circle of circumference one Megalithic Yard has a diameter of one royal cubit, another ancient Egyptian unit, this time of length; a further unit of length is the Egyptian remen; if a square is drawn around a circle whose circumference is one Megalithic Yard, then the diagonal of the square is one remen in length; the area of the great Neolithic henge complexes of Stonehenge, Marden, Durrington Walls, Knowlton, Mount Pleasant and Avebury later became the site of a thriving elite Bronze Age culture, 2000-1400 BC; this covered central and southern Britain; it featured lavish individual burials; it is called the ‘Wessex Culture’ but should not be confused with the later Saxon kingdom of Wessex at the same location; it is a curiosity of British history that the centre of the Megalithic Culture became the centre of Bronze Age culture became the kingdom of Wessex became England became the United Kingdom became the British Empire became modern Britain

'From Quintus to MT Cicero

The temples of the Britons are raised and constructed in a circular form, with obelisks of stone, over which are imposts, all of huge dimensions untouched by the chisel; a peace offering to Geranius, or Apollo, the sun. The huge stones of which they are composed, lay scattered by the hand of nature on the plain: these, with myriads of labourers, the high priest caused to be rolled up on the inclined planes of solid earth, which had been formed by the excavation of trenches, until they had attained a height equal to their own altitude; these pits being dug, they were launched from the terrace and sunk so as to stand perpendicular, at due and equal distances in the circle, and over these were placed others horizontally. After having completed one circle, they formed another that is concentric at some distance, and towards the extremity of the area of the inner circle, they placed a huge stone for the purpose of religious rites. When the sun enters into Cancer, is the greatest festival of the god; and on all high mountains and eminences of the country, they light fires at the approach of that day, and make their wives, their children, and their cattle, to pass through the fire, or to present themselves before the fire in honour of the deity. Deep and profound is the silence of the multitude during this ceremony, the appearance of the sun above the horizon, when, with loud and continued exclamations, and songs of joy, they hail the utmost of that luminary, as the supreme triumph of the symbol of the god of their adoration.' (The Religious Magazine, Vol II, July-Dec 1828, 'Religion of the Ancient Britons', pp 498-9)

Note in connection with the foregoing that Quintus was a Roman of the first century BC, who presumably journeyed to Britain with Julius Caesar on Caesar's second incursion into the island in 55 BC; the above is a letter to his renowned brother Cicero (106-43 BC)[for more on Apollo see Hyperborea]


Silbury Hill & Avebury Stone Circle: at 130 (some say 120) feet high and five and a half acres in base area, the Neolithic mound that is Silbury Hill in Wiltshire is the largest manmade structure in Europe and one of the largest in the world; Silbury Hill conceals a rough step pyramid; it seems to have been completed by several generations of enigmatic toilers in the period 2400-2300 BC; it has been described as a ‘prehistoric cathedral by accretion’ rather than the product of an overarching vision; its use as a mortuary mound has also been suggested and it has even been argued that this and other mounds in Britain were parliamentary meeting places, for summit meetings no less, and that they were also seats of justice [Source: E O Gordon]

'...a mile below the temple [Avebury Stone Circle] stands the mysterious Silbury Hill, which contained according to Bowles, a statue or idol of Hermes.' (William Comyns Beaumont, The Riddle of Prehistoric Britain, 1946, citing W L Bowles, Hermes Britannicus, 1828)

If such a Druidic statue was ever present, it has been long since disappeared; using antler pics and other tools of the day, Silbury Hill is estimated to have taken ~7,000 man-years to construct; it was made of chalk and soil from a moat (itself inside an embankment enclosing 28 acres) around the nearby Avebury Stone Circle; this stone circle is the largest such in the world, with the mightiest stone, of around 100 in all, weighing in at over 40 tons; there were four entrances to the stone circle, one of which had two parallel lines of standing stones leading to it; two separate small circles of stones are surrounded by a greater circle of stones; the moat around the greater stone circle is in fact a monster trench; it was originally 60 feet deep and 110 feet wide and remains a mile long; imagine digging that with the cast-off antlers of deer and reel in amazement; then reel afresh at the thought of carting that material a mile or so to build – over 6 million man-hours – an artificial hill comparable in scale to some of the smaller pyramids on the Giza Plateau of Ancient Egypt

Statuary: examples of stacked-stone megalithic statuary are curiously ignored

    'The Cheesewring, near Liskeard, gives a good idea of these derelict divinities. It has a capstone of immense size balanced on six great blocks of granite...

    Dartmoor gives us Bowerman’s Nose, the “Giant of the Moor”, 40 ft. in height, a vast and grotesque figure. It’s torso is also formed of seven layers of granite blocks massed one above the other... Bearing a resemblance to the head and torso of a monstrous human figure, its head crowned with a wide hat... The hat...proclaims it an idol of the god Hermes.

    The famous Cornish antiquarian [William] Borlase declares that the people who set up these granite idols were worshippers of Cronus-Saturn and Hermes. The name Tresadarn...signified “the house (or temple) of Saturn”, and that of Nan-Sadarn meant “Valley of Saturn”. Their antiquity far transcends anything Egypt, Assyria, or America can offer...

    These ancients of Cornwall also elevated enormous weights, as in the case of the tolmen  or Hole Stone of Men, parish of Constantine. This huge granite mass, nearly 100 ft. in circumference, and estimated to weigh 750 tons, was somehow levitated from the ground and suspended on the points of two rocks, leaving a hole or passageway under which one can pass.' (William Comyns Beaumont, The Riddle of Prehistoric Britain, 1946; see Giants,  Religion)

Cursuses: prior to henges, which date from 3500 BC, there were the so-called cursuses, seemingly from about 4000 BC; these are long wide tracks, usually but not always straight, completely enclosed by embankments, sometimes with external ditchs; they are thus rather like a gigantic elongated snooker table without the pockets; there are dozens of curcuses still recognized in Britain, with one a mile long at Stonehenge in Wiltshire and another at the Thornborough triple henge in North Yorkshire; there must originally have been many more; they range in length from as small as 75 paces to more than 6 miles, with the gap between the parallel earthworks being up to 150 paces; the purpose of cursuses is unknown, though having closed ends they could hardly be roads; it has been speculated that they may have been ceremonial tournament grounds for young men to prove themselves; presumably certain sections of the the banks could have provided artificial horizons for astronomical observations, before the henges were built

The Big Picture: the archaeological sequence seems to have been cursuses, unadorned henges and then henges adorned with timbers and standing stones; the unadorned henges were astronomical observatories and presumably ceremonial spaces, while the adorned henges retained their astronomical and religious associations yet seem also to have become monuments to the revered dead; the adorned henges were taken over later as temples and meeting places by the moon-orientated Druids [see Druidism]

Stars: historians of astronomy reckon that the signs of zodiac and the calendar (i.e. year length, months), which depend on recognition of the solar ecliptic, establishment of the ‘constellations’ and knowledge of the true movement of Earth, must have been worked out above 40º or 45º of latitude, which is north of Sumer, Ancient Egypt, Arabia, India and early Mediterranean cultures such as that of the Minoans; Stonehenge is 51ºN

Europe’s oldest known ship: the remains of this were found in the Humber estuary, dating from around 2030 BC; it was a heavy-duty seagoing vessel, powered by paddles and constructed, in the shape of a melon slice the size of a modern articulated lorry, out of oak planks sewn together with twisted yew withies; the remains of two other ships were found with it, dating from between 1680 BC and 1940 BC; these vessels speak of seaborne trade from the earliest times and continuity over time

Skara Brae: a storm in AD 1850 in Orkney uncovered the remains of an extensive stone-built Neolithic settlement, of people who use Grooved Ware pottery, which is unique to Britain and which is regarded as originating in the Orkneys themselves; Skara Brae comprises ten clustered houses, with each dwelling boasting a toilet; it was occupied in the period 3200-2500 BC; researchers think it a simple village, Europe’s most complete Neolithic example, of hardy resourceful village folk, but there has also been speculation that it was a prehistoric academy for astronomer-priests, one of the world’s earliest universities

After the megaliths: the Megalithic Culture came to an end around 1500 BC, with abandonment of their associated settlements and no more stone circles erected; the climate of Britain was changing to become more like today, colder, windier and wetter; this caused marginal land to be taken out of cultivation and decreased agricultural productivity all round, at a time of continuing population increase; defending territory became crucial

'The position of war leader was increasingly important and it may be that the old partnership of priest(ess) and warrior lost equilibrium as the inability of established religion, centred around great stone monuments, was unable to avert catastrophe.' (Ian McNeil Cooke, Journey to the Stones, 1996)

Organisation was increasingly around Hillforts and presumably also brochs and crannogs

Hill forts: there are 2,000 of these fortified hilltop settlements, dating from hundreds of years BC; the most stupendous Iron Age hill fort is Maiden Castle near Dorchester in Dorset, such that it came to enclose an area the size of 50 football pitches; the hillforts in England have been described as the first undoubted military fortifications in the island; a variant of hill forts were cliff castles



Brochs: these Iron Age structures are huge windowless towers; they are the tallest prehistoric buildings in Britain and look like the cooling towers of modern power stations; they are peculiar to Scotland, where at least seven hundred once existed; they appear to have been defensive dwelling-places but they are decidedly enigmatic; they represent the pinnacle of dry-stone wall building; collectively, the brochs represent one of the finest construction achievements of Iron Age Europe; it has been asserted that they were erected by the Atecotti, encountered by the later Romans [Source: David Hughes, The British Chronicles, 2008]

Crannogs: these were defended settlements on islands in lakes in the wetter parts of Iron Age British Isles


Hadrian’s Wall: started in AD 122, this runs between Solway and Tyne estuaries; two centuries of relative peace ensued; the northernmost limit of Roman Empire thus stopped short of Scotland, though the Antonine Wall was completed further north by AD 142, to be abandoned 20 years later

Offa’s Dyke: this runs 80 miles along the English-Welsh border and was completed in the AD 700s by Offa, King of Mercia; the Mercians do not seem to have been Anglo-Saxons, as is usually claimed, but were more likely derived from the Vandals of North Africa; these infamous people had mounted a fleet migration to Ireland in the AD 500s, before crossing over to Wales, there to be chased westwards into the Midlands by local forces; Offa obviously wanted to keep the Welsh and the Mercians apart; perhaps he also wanted to put to rest a negative folk memory from two centuries before; apart from his Dyke, Offa’s other claim to fame is to have introduced the penny, of which there are 100 to the pound sterling (GBP)

Ley lines: landscape alignments of natural and man-made features; in 1870 William Black wrote, ‘Monuments exist marking grand geometrical lines which cover the whole of Western Europe’; the seminal work was Alfred Watkins’s The Old Straight Track, 1925

[See also Legends & Religion]

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