Understanding Britain's prehistoric monuments

Written by james holloway Google
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Share
  • Pin
  • Email
Understanding Britain's prehistoric monuments
(Ablestock.com/AbleStock.com/Getty Images)

"Human beings like you and me slow down and fizzle out after, at most, a century, but a place or an idea -- and Stonehenge is both those things -- can go on for ever."

— Christopher Chippindale, "Stonehenge Complete".

Britain's heritage is a source of national pride, a symbol of the nation and a major contributor to the economy. When most people, whether Britons or visitors, think of this heritage, they think of historical monuments like castles, churches and stately homes. In fact, however, Britain's prehistoric inhabitants created equally impressive structures; many are still standing today, while the evidence of others can be seen.

Standing stones

Understanding Britain's prehistoric monuments
(Andy Sotiriou/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Standing stones are Britain's best-known type of prehistoric monument, largely because of Stonehenge, the most famous such site in the UK -- and perhaps the world. However, Stonehenge is merely the most spectacular of a numerous category of ancient sites.

It's no coincidence that Stonehenge is an internationally famous symbol of British antiquity. The site is a massive achievement, constructed in several phases over the space of more than a thousand years during a period beginning around 3000 BC. Its massive sarsen stones were brought to the site from as far away as 25 miles, while archaeologists have theorised that the bluestones of the outer ring come from up to 150 miles away. While much about the building of Stonehenge is uncertain, the fact that it was built at all is a powerful testament to the capabilities of Neolithic society.

Despite its prominence, Stonehenge is only one of around 1300 known stone circles in the United Kingdom. Not all stone monuments are circles, either; some are long lines of stones, sometimes called 'avenues', while others are individual stones or clumps of stones. The huge slabs of stone that make up the dolmen at Trethevy Quoit, Cornwall (pictured) are all the more striking for their proximity to modern homes.

Like many things about the cultures of prehistoric Britain, little is known of the purpose of these monuments. A variety of theories exist, most suggesting that these sites were used for some form of religious or spiritual ritual, possibly including the worship of ancestors. Burials found at some sites may be connected to this cult of ancestors. Stable-isotope analysis of remains found at Stonehenge has discovered that some of the individuals buried there were born as far away as the Mediterranean and the Alps, suggesting that these sites were part of a larger cultural network.


While the functions of standing stone monuments may be obscure, the earth mounds known as barrows have a more obvious function; these sites served as a resting place for some of the dead of early societies. There are a wide range of different types of barrow, ranging from the long barrows of the Neolithic period to round barrows of the Bronze Age. There are even barrows from the Roman period and later.

There are many types of barrow, but probably the most famous are the long barrows of the Neolithic period. These mounds were sometimes simply made of earth, but some enclosed burial chambers made of massive stone slabs. The famous long barrow of Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire contained the burials of other a dozen individuals, but only one complete skeleton. The other individuals buried in the barrow had had the flesh removed from their bones before burial; their remains were scattered and mingled together. Some archaeologists have suggested that practices like this are a way of uniting the dead in a single community, remembering them as collective ancestors rather than specific individuals.

The name "Wayland's Smith" is an interesting pointer to another fact about these monuments. Although the barrow itself dates to the fourth millennium BC, the name comes from the legendary smith, Wayland, a figure in the mythology of the Anglo-Saxon people, who came to Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. This culture gave the barrows, already ancient, new names that fit into their own body of legends and folklore.

Other monuments

Standing circles and barrows are far from the only types of prehistoric sites still to be found in the British landscape. Rock art sites, defensive works and even whole settlements exist, serving as a constant reminder of the thousands of years of human cultures that preceded the beginning of recorded history in Britain -- cultures whose remains are still with us today.

When most people think of rock art, they think of images of animals or hunting scenes painted in caves or in rock shelters. In fact, these kinds of images are very rare in Britain. Most rock art takes the form of patterns of carved circles and deep holes in rock surfaces, known as "cup and ring" marks.

Some ancient monuments, rather than being burial or spiritual sites, represent domestic or military structures. The ancient settlement of Skara Brae in Orkney, abandoned around 2500 BC, consists of ten stone houses. Some interior furnishings of the houses, also made of stone, survive, displaying features that would not be out of place in a modern home, such as recessed shelves.

Other preserved residential sites are less comfortably domestic. Hill forts, found throughout Britain and Ireland, attest to the threats faced by prehistoric communities. Some, such as Maiden Castle in Dorset, were going concerns during the Iron Age, while others, such as the ring-fort at Ballymena in County Antrim, date back to the Neolithic. These forts often occupy prominent hills or ridges and may have been intended not only to provide a strategic place of defense but also to enhance the prestige of a local ruler or community.

Don't Miss

  • All types
  • Articles
  • Slideshows
  • Videos
  • Most relevant
  • Most popular
  • Most recent

No articles available

No slideshows available

No videos available

By using the eHow.co.uk site, you consent to the use of cookies. For more information, please see our Cookie policy.