This project examines the Neolithic Great Stone Circles of NW Britain in terms of their physical construction and social constitution. In the past archaeological discussions have revolved around what a stone circle ‘was built for’ and ‘how it was used’. Generally, this purpose or role has been seen as that of establishing a ceremonial or ritual centre. However, once a dominant interpretation is established it produces a conceptual framework which determines how other attributes are understood. For instance, the size and scale of a stone circle may be suggested to be determined by the numbers of a ‘congregation’ assumed to gather within its confines. Similarly, the paucity of material evidence recovered from stone circles appears anomalous and puzzling and attempts to rationalize its absence result in the attribution of practices which leave little material trace such as singing, dancing, etc. In short, we have already ‘interpreted’ stone circles before any examination or analysis actually begins.
The Great Stone Circles Project takes an alternative view: specifically that the significance of construction as a social and material process has been overlooked. Within the project, attention is given to locating the quarries from which the massive monoliths were derived and the social processes of quarrying, moving and erecting the stones. Equally, the material composition of the circles has been re-examined as the source of stones is seen as being significant in terms of ‘landscapes of construction’.
The initial phase of research was restricted to the two great stone circles of Orkney. This resulted in different types of stone being recognized at the Ring of Brodgar (differences had already been recognized at the Stone of Stenness in 1976). But from where were the massive stones derived – a single place with different strata present or different places across Orkney?
A ‘megalithic’ quarry at Vestra Fiold, west Mainland, Orkney, was located and found to have supplied stones for the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar. This amazing site was excavated over two seasons (2002-3) and evidence recovered for the quarrying and moving of massive stones. Also, a megalithic tomb at the quarry was examined.
In 2003 investigations moved to the famous Callanish stone circle complex, Lewis, Outer Hebrides, The Callanish complex of stone circles in the Outer Hebrides is often cited as the ‘Stonehenge of the North’. In fact, it is nothing like Stonehenge instead consisting of at least eight stone circles of variable size and composition within a small area to the east of loch Roag. Recent fieldwork and excavation at Callanish has provided insight into a range of complexities and subtleties employed in the construction and positioning of the different circles. For instance, the location of several quarry sites adjacent to individual stone circles has been recognised and a circle and quarry at Na Dromannan has been excavated (2003-6).
A return to Orkney in July 2008 marks the final phase of the project. Here excavation and geophysical survey will focus on the Ring of Brodgar stone circle. Two trenches will be opened across the huge ditch which measure c. 10m wide x 4m deep, in order to secure dating material and unravel the sequence of construction. The northern trench will examine a section of the ditch that is waterlogged in the hope of recovering preserved organic material including artefactual and environmental remains.
Internal and external fine-grained geophysical survey will attempt to identify the exact position of stone-holes where the standing stones no longer remain. This will enable a more accurate picture of the form of the stone circle to be constructed. Wider landscape survey will be employed to provide an interpretation of why the stone circle was built in this location.
Published as Colin Richards (Editor) (2013) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North, Oxbow Books. Oxford.