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Ring Cairns, Henges and Stone Circles


Many ceremonial monuments were constructed during the later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Varied in scale and character, these places held an equally varied significance for the people who participated in acts of construction and observance. Once again, the evidence is regionally diverse. Although barrows are widely distributed, there is a strong contrast between the limestone and the eastern gritstone uplands.

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Arbor Low henge and stone circle

On the limestone, our evidence takes the form of two massive henge monuments; Arbor Low near Monyash and the Bull Ring at Dove Holes. Both were probably founded during the Later Neolithic as places for communal ceremonies, rites of passage and exchange, and it is likely that they continued to be important during the Early Bronze Age. Whether these massive sites reflect the emergence of social hierarchies in the area remains the subject of debate. The simple act of coming together and participating in the building and rebuilding of a henge may have stressed the common links between people drawn from different kin groups. However, as arenas associated with important calendrical and celestial events, as well as with other forms of ritual, henges may well have been powerful instruments for the creation of authority. Control over the rites and other events that were conducted within henges may have sometimes been an object of competition and an important medium through which some might come to exert a measure of influence over others.

{short description of image} Barbrook embanked stone circle, Big Moor

The situation is rather different on the gritstones of the eastern uplands. Here there are no immediate equivalents for the henges and it is more common to find smaller stone circles and ring cairns like the example to the south of Gardom's Edge (D). The patterned relationship of these smaller monuments to cairnfield systems throughout the eastern moors suggests that they were built and used by specific communities, probably in the centuries around 2000BC. Although details vary from one site to another, nearly all comprise a ring of small upright stones set on the inner edge of a roughly circular bank.

nine ladies stone circle

Nine Ladies stone circle, Stanton Moor

How were these places understood and how were they used? Where excavated, many have produced evidence of cremations, but like barrows, it may be unhelpful to think of ring cairns and circles as no more than resting places for the dead. Having said that, it is difficult to determine the range of activities that these places witnessed, or the significance that they held for people at the time. The scale of individual monuments suggests a local importance, and the chances are that many circles were times and places where a range of concerns in people's lives were brought into sharp relief. Dealings with the dead and seasonal celebrations, appeals to ancestors and various forms of initiation. The crossing of the threshold defined by these circles may have served a rich variety of purposes that were crucial for the continuity of social and economic life.

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