Great Stone circles of Northwest Britain Project & current excavations at Na Dromannan stone circle, Calanais, Lewis.
by Dr Colin Richards
Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at University of Manchester
The late Neolithic stone circles of northwest Britain date to around 3000 BC and represent some of the most spectacular prehistoric monuments standing today. They are also the most visited prehistoric monument in Britain. But what do we actually know about their role and purpose? In order to try and examine these monuments in a different way a new archaeological project, based at the University of Manchester began in 2002. It is focussed on four areas of northwest Britain, Orkney, Lewis, Arran and the English Lake District. In each of these areas lie some of the finest stone circles, the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness, Orkney; Calanais, Lewis; Macrie Moor, Arran; Long Meg, Swineside and Castlerigg, Cumbria. Rather than taking the traditional view of the circles as ceremonial centres, heavenly observatories, etc., we are more concerned with their construction. In particular, what geological types of stones are present within each circle, were they quarried or glacial erratics and if the former from where were they derived. We are also examining the layout of the circles to see whether they were ever 'completed' or lie as abandoned projects. The underlying assumption of this research is that it may have been the construction of the huge circles that was of particular importance as opposed to the finished entity, particularly, the quarrying and dragging of the massive monoliths. It should not be forgotten that in constructing these circles people in late Neolithic Britain were quarrying and transporting the largest stones that had ever been moved before. Here the geographical location of the quarries is important as are questions of whether the stones themselves and the places they came from were 'sacred' in some way.
From late July - September this year excavation centred on the supposed stone circle. Within a few days of removing the peat it became clear that this was indeed a stone circle. The stones had all fallen down in antiquity and had been covered by peat which began forming over 3000 years ago. The reason they had all collapsed was particularly interesting. The circle had been positioned on the rolling bedrock at the southern end of the ridge. Because of the toughness of the bedrock it had been impossible to dig pits or sockets in which to stand the bases of the stones. In order to support the standing stones a ring of substantial boulders had been packed around their bases, unfortunately, while this was adequate to hold them in a vertical position for a while it was less successful in the long term. At present it is difficult to know how long they stood, in all probability they remained upright for several hundred years and then fell gradually as the boulders became displaced. The reason for this could be as simple as high winds forcing movement of the standing stones or something more drastic such as an earth tremor. With the possible exception of one stone, they had all fallen by the late Bronze Age (c. 1200BC).
The question arises as to why the circle was built on the bedrock, a position which clearly presented severe problems for the erection and stability. One answer may lie in the visibility of the circle. When viewed from the main Calanais site, Na Dromannan stone circle appears on the skyline and given a number of stones measure between 3 - 4 metres in height, it would have been an amazingly spectacular monument when viewed from below (especially, when the bright white sheen of the recently quarried Lewissian Kneiss is considered). Indeed, one stone was actually faced with a complete quartz layer. A further point to consider is that there is clear indication of adjacent quarrying of large monoliths. Could the circle have been actually positioned on the very rock that was being exploited for parts of the other circles? This seems likely and shows that the actual rock and place from where it came was special or 'sacred' in some way.
So far we have only examined part of the collapsed circle, but next year it is planned to examine the quarry areas in order to examine how the stones were being quarried and moved and, if possible, to determine how many of the stones comprising the other four stone circles at Calanais were obtained from Na Dromannan. The site is currently marked by a peat stack and can be seen clearly to the east of the main Calanais circle or be visited by walking across the moor.
For the Lewis component of this project, the Calanais complex of circles was selected for examination. Geologically, the stones comprising the circles tend to be of Lewissian Gneiss. However, closer examination revealed the stones to have been quarried, with one face being rounded and abraded by glacial movement and the other face showing signs of breakage where it had been prised from the outcrop. The next stage was to attempt to locate possible quarry sites. One such site, actually identified in 1928 as a possible quarry, was Na Dromannan which lies up on moorland approximately 1.5km east of the main Calanais circle. There was also a probable 'destroyed stone circle' identified adjacent to the supposed quarry. Brief archaeological survey in September 2002 of the Na Dromannan ridge showed that there may be several places acting as quarries, indeed, at one location a quarried monolith was found to be propped up on its side in the process of transportation. The destroyed stone circle was represented by the ends of the stones projecting through the peat. There seemed no certainty that it actually was a circle and could just as easily be interpreted as a series of quarried monoliths propped up awaiting removal. It was decided to investigate further in 2003.
CALANAIS EXCAVATIONS - NA DROMANNAN
Looking towards Garynahine
View towards Carloway
Broken stone showing amount previously visible above peat (darker area)
Stone and socket