The Stone Circles of Northeast Scotland in the Light of Excavation

By Bradley, Richard; Ball, Chris et al. | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Stone Circles of Northeast Scotland in the Light of Excavation


Bradley, Richard, Ball, Chris, Croft, Sharon, Phillips, Tim, Antiquity


The stone circles of northeast Scotland (FIGURE 1) take a most distinctive form. On one level, they are made up of structural elements that are widely distributed in Britain: they are built from raw materials that had been selected for their colour and texture; the monoliths are graded in height towards the southwest and may have been aligned on the moon (Burl 2000). On another level, they have a character all of their own. They are known as `recumbent' stone circles because their most massive component is a large flat block which is bracketed by two tall pillars or `flankers' (Burl 2000: 215-33).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Recumbent stone circles are generally associated with `ring cairns': unbroken circular enclosures, open at the centre and defined by a rubble wall. Again, this relationship recalls elements with a wider distribution, for it is not uncommon for cairns of different types to be found within these enclosures, although it is not clear whether these were a later development. Indeed, it even seems possible that what had originally been open arenas were appropriated for the burial of the dead.

Recumbent stone circles are found in the more fertile areas of northeast Scotland. They are usually located on low hilltops or on sloping ground commanding a view towards the south or southwest. The builders seem to have been concerned to construct a level foundation for these monuments. Seen from the interior, the recumbent stone often obscures the immediate foreground so that the two flankers frame a more distant area of high land and a section of the sky. From the centre of the monument there would have been a view of the summer moon as it passed across this feature (Ruggles 1999: chapter 5).

Early excavators describe a number of elements. Cremated bone was often found inside these monuments and there was abundant evidence of burning, which had sometimes affected the bases of the stones (Burl 1970). There have been seven more modern excavations at monuments of this kind, two of which (Berrybrae and Strichen) remain largely unpublished. The first extensive projects took place in the 1930s: Childe's excavation at Old Keig and Kilbride Jones' work at Loanhead of Daviot (Childe 1933; 1934; Kilbride Jones 1935). Between 1999 and 2001, the writers investigated the damaged site at Tomnaverie before its redisplay to the public and sampled two other monuments (Aikey Brae and Cothiemuir Wood) to establish whether the stratigraphic sequence established there might be of wider application. During the same period many of the surviving monuments were surveyed by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

All the excavations raise similar questions. Were these unitary monuments? Were the ring cairns secondary additions to what had originally been open enclosures? And are recumbent stone circles to be regarded as cemeteries, or is the evidence of widespread burning more consistent with their use as pyres? These question had not been resolved during earlier excavations, but by the 1990s one assumption seemed to be widely shared: that the cairns inside them were secondary features.

The opportunity to investigate these problems arose when Historic Scotland decided to improve the display of a monument at Tomnaverie, which had been taken into state care in the early 20th century. By that stage the site had already suffered badly and a number of the stones had been moved. In 1999, the entire monument was stripped and planned and in the following year small-scale excavation took place with the following aims: to establish the original positions of the fallen monoliths; to investigate the remains of an internal cairn; and to determine its stratigraphic relationship to the stone circle (FIGURE 2). The damage to the site had been so well documented that at the end of the second season of fieldwork some of the kerbstones were re-erected and the fallen monoliths were replaced in their original positions (FIGURE 3). …

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