The Neolithic period spanned 1500 years on the British Isles (ca 4000-2500 BCE). While we do not know a great deal about the people who lived and farmed the land — not even the name of their culture — their monumental architecture has influenced the beliefs, mythology, and legends of all the people who followed them. Hundreds of these monuments survive in the landscape, with many more known to have been destroyed in later centuries. While we do not know exactly how or why they were built, we do know that they would have taken time, dedication, and community organization to be constructed. Here is a selection of some of the most impressive circles, henges, and tombs worth your time and attention.
1. Stonehenge, England
It is impossible to discuss the Neolithic monuments of the British Isles without the most famous of them all: Stonehenge.
Located in Wiltshire, the site is famous for the atmospheric remains of its henge monument, consisting of an outer stone circle that surrounds two stone horseshoes. The outer ring consists of 13-foot-tall standing stones, known as the Sarsen Stones, with 10-foot-long lintels laid across the top to connect them. Originally there were 30 Sarsen stones in place, each weighing around 25 tons a piece. The lintels — of which only six are still in place — would have formed a complete, connected circle almost 100 feet wide.
Within the Sarsen-stone ring is a horse-shoe arrangement of 43 smaller stones, known as the bluestones, that are believed to have been moved to Wiltshire from a quarry in Wales, almost 150 miles away. Inside the bluestone structure is a second horseshoe of five trilithons — each made up of two Sarsen stones topped with a lintel. Three of these are standing, although one that collapsed in 1797 was only reconstructed in 1958 — and two have collapsed completely. At the absolute heart of Stonehenge is the altar stone, or stone 80, which lies buried inside of the trilithons and is mostly obscured from view by fallen sarsen stones.
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But there is much more to Stonehenge than most people realize. While the stone circle is the most visually dramatic part of the monument, it is only a small part of a ritual landscape that evolved over a period of centuries. It is now thought that Stonehenge was constantly being added to and adapted over a minimum of 400 years from 2500 BCE onward. Originally it was a simple, circular bank-and-ditch earthwork, with timber posts added within this enclosure a century or so later. Later came the Bluestones, transported over 150 miles from Wales and arranged in a double ring at the center of the earthworks. At some point, the bluestones were removed and replaced with the dramatic Sarsen stone ring and the trilithons, although the bluestones seem to have been brought back and rearranged on several occasions.
Stonehenge also sits in a much larger ceremonial landscape that originally included Woodhenge, a processional avenue, and barrow mounds, among other features. Archaeologists and historians continue to find more sites associated with the Stonehenge landscape as technological advances allow them to locate previously hidden features in the landscape. We may never know the full meaning of Stonehenge, but with each discovery, we gain new insights into the world of the Neolithic Britons.
2. Pentre Ifan, Wales
Located in the dramatic Welsh landscape of Pembrokeshire, Pentre Ifan occupies an important place in the culture and folklore of Wales. Some claim that fairies have long been known to dance around the site, while other legends claim that King Arthur himself built the monument. While archaeologists might not know much about the fair folk, they can at least prove that Pentre Ifan predates the legends of King Arthur by several millennia, as it was constructed over 5,000 years ago by the Neolithic inhabitants of the area.
Pentre Ifan is classified as a dolmen, a type of single-chambered tomb constructed with a series of large, vertical stones supporting a large, horizontal capstone. When first constructed, it would have been covered with stones (a cairn) to create a type of artificial cave, possibly intended to be a communal burial place for the people living in the area, although there are no records of bones being excavated at the site. The cairn would originally have been over 100 feet long and 50 feet wide and constructed on a north-south axis (the Welsh government has made an amazing CGI reconstruction that you can view here). Needless to say, it would have been an impressive landmark.
The cairn has long since vanished, but the giant structural stones remain. The three remaining vertical stones protrude over 8 feet high from the ground, while the capstone, which would have acted as the chamber ceiling, is over 16 feet long and is estimated to weigh 15 tons or more. Interestingly enough, Pentre Ifan is constructed from the same bluestone rock that makes up the inner circle at Stonehenge, lending support to the belief that this particular type of stone held significance for Neolithic people.
Although one of the best-preserved megalithic sites in the British Isles, Pentre Ifan has been slow to give up its secrets, and perhaps we will never fully understand its significance. Despite being only a skeleton of its original form, Pentre Ifan remains an intriguing and memorable site.
3. Sí an Bhrú, Newgrange, Ireland
Located in County Meath, Ireland, Newgrange is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered one of the best-preserved examples of a neolithic monument anywhere in Europe. First constructed around 3200 BCE, Newgrange is part of a larger ritual landscape that includes nearby sites, such as Knowth and Dowth, known as the prehistoric site of Brú na Bóinne.
Newgrange is a giant mound about 279 feet in diameter and over 40 feet high. It is ringed by 97 kerbstones, many of which were engraved by Neolithic peoples with elaborate patterns of swirls and shapes. A 60-foot-long passage formed from giant upright stones (orthostats) cuts into the mound, leading to a central chamber that contains a type of stone-carved basin. A further three chambers that originally contained cremated human remains branch off from this central point. While a wall of concrete and white quartz now rings the mound, this is known to have been an addition made by archaeologists in the early 1970s in a misguided attempt to restore Newgrange to how they thought it originally appeared. Earlier drawings and descriptions of the site, dating back to the 1600s, suggest it looked very different, and the debate about the addition of the wall rages on to this day.
The construction of Newgrange would have been a massive undertaking dwarfing that of the later Stonehenge. It is estimated that construction would have taken 30 years using a workforce of about 300 men, but we have no way of knowing for sure how long it took to build or how many people were involved. As the mound is estimated to contain over 200,000 tons of material, including the giant stones that form the structure’s skeleton, we can only assume that it involved a large team of well-organized individuals.
The architecture of Newgrange also demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of construction techniques. Despite using a dry-wall construction technique that does not use mortar, the internal structure of the tomb remains intact. Archaeologists have shown that stones were deliberately laid and shaped to redirect water away from the passage and chambers, and 5000 years later, the interior remains waterproof and weather-resistant.
Originally described as a passage tomb, Newgrange is thought to have served both as a burial place and a ceremonial center, potentially associated with ancestor worship. For this reason, it might be better described as a temple as well as a place of burial. Lending support to this theory is one of Newgrange’s most intriguing features: the alignment of the central passage. On the winter solstice morning, a narrow beam of sunlight enters through the “roof box” opening above the entrance, which lights up the passage and central chamber. While archaeologists can only speculate on the meaning of this feature, we do know the original architects deliberately designed it this way.
Newgrange is also famed for the complex carvings on many of the stones within and surrounding the mound. These carvings include spirals, lozenges, zigzags, and other abstract designs. The purpose and meaning of these symbols are still a subject of speculation and debate among archaeologists. Some suggest the geometric designs had religious or ritual significance, but there is no real evidence either way. One of the most famous is the tri-spiral, or triskelion, a symbol that has come to represent the Celtic heritage of Ireland. However, the tri-spiral at Newgrange was carved at least two millennia before the Celts arrived in the British Isles, suggesting they adopted it from the ancient Neolithic people who predated them.
4. Callanish/Calanais Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis, Scotland
Tucked away on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, is a neolithic stone monument that predates the construction of Stonehenge. Likely built between 2900 and 2600 BCE, the Callanish Stones (Calanais is Scots Gaelic) are thought to have been an ancient ritual or religious site, with the prevailing theory that it was some kind of astronomical observatory.
A stone circle of thirteen stones forms the heart of the monument, with a lone megalith at the very center. To the north, two parallel rows of stones stretch out to form a type of avenue. To the south, west, and east of the circle, shorter single rows of stones stretch out from the central circle. A few hundred years after the stones were erected, a cairn burial was added inside the circle. Also, there are a number of other standing stones, circles, and other Neolithic monuments across the landscape, strongly suggesting that, like Stonehenge, the Callanish stones were part of a much larger ritual complex.
Like Stonehenge, archaeologists are still determining how the monument was constructed. While the stones themselves were sourced from the Isle of Lewis itself, their sheer scale is impressive as many stand more than ten feet high, while the central megalith is over 16 feet tall.
As with most neolithic monuments on the British Isles, the Callanish stones were eventually abandoned and effectively ignored by later cultures. Over the centuries, they were weathered and eroded, while peat and vegetation built up around their bases, obscuring their true scale and majesty well into the 1800s. It was not until almost six feet of peat was removed from the stones by Sir James Matheson that the grandeur of the Callanish Stones was recovered, and attempts to understand them began in earnest.
As with all neolithic sites, it may prove impossible for us to truly understand the significance of the Callanish Stones to the people who built them, but the sheer work they invested in the construction of the monument — and the many other monuments that make up the neolithic landscape of the Isle of Lewis — tell of an organized, sophisticated culture whose constructions have withstood the elements for almost five thousand years.