Distribution and Characterisation

Hurston Ridge, Dartmoor

Stone alignments are a relatively rare form of prehistoric monument. This rarity means that a significant number are scheduled as Ancient Monuments despite the fact that very few have been positively dated and they remain amongst the most enigmatic and little understood of prehistoric sites.

They are often difficult to interpret and there appears to be a widespread misunderstanding of their character. This was recently brought to the fore following the discovery of the stone alignment at Bancbryn in Wales when various ill-informed reasons were cited to doubt its prehistoric credentials. These events highlighted widespread ignorance within the archaeological community and emphasised the need for a broad characterisation exercise to illustrate the true nature of the resource.

There is a considerable body of information available although its quality and availability varies considerably. For the purposes of the exercise the fruit of fieldwork, online data and some printed sources have been used and whilst the search has been extensive some material will have inevitably been overlooked or is not readily accessible. The information collected from a myriad of sources is sufficient for a basic characterisation of the resource and whilst further work will inevitably enhance the results it is unlikely that most of the broad findings will change significantly.

This work has revealed that the stone alignments are an extremely varied group of monuments. Looking at just four separate features namely: type; number of stones; length of rows and size of stones it was possible to identify considerable variation. Four different types of alignment are composed of between three and 922 stones, whilst the lengths vary between 3m and 3386m and the stones vary in height between 0.01m and 4.2m. No two alignments are identical and whilst some share similar characteristics the differences are much more obvious. Those who have visited large numbers of alignments in different parts of the country will be aware of these differences, but the true character can only be appreciated by studying, comparing, quantifying and contrasting the sites.

Positive identification of prehistoric stone alignments is not an easy task and for the purposes of this exercise the existing records have been used to inform decisions on whether a particular alignment is more or less likely to have had prehistoric origins. Generally where there is a consensus of some sort the alignment has been included in the analysis, but inevitably some decisions have been made on inadequate evidence and some sites may have therefore been inadvertently included or excluded. This is an inevitable result of a desk-based exercise using information from a variety of sources but the resulting data-set is robust enough for this broad-brush assessment. In all 307 stone alignments have been identified and when examined together they provide an informative insight into the character of this interesting and thought provoking class of monument.

There are many ways of looking at this data but pie charts provide a clear overview of the characteristic being looked at. Each of the pie charts are self-explanatory but a commentary is provided.

Figure 1 Distribution of prehistoric stone alignments in England, Wales and Scotland.

The distribution of stone alignments is clustered with large areas having no known examples whilst many are found close together often in upland areas. This distribution probably reflects geology and later land-use and it is almost certain that stone alignments were once more widespread.

Alignment Type

Figure 2 Pie chart showing the proportions of the different types of stone row

The greatest number of stone alignments is of the single row variety whilst a quarter consist of two parallel lines of stones (double rows). The remaining types are comparatively rare although it is perhaps worth noting that 10% of the class are of the multiple row type which are found mainly in the counties of Caithness and Sutherland in Northern Scotland. Combination rows are those which are a different form along part of their length.  Usually they are mainly single rows, but with a double element.

Further information on the different types of stone row can be found by following the links below.

Single Rows

Double Rows

Triple Rows

Multiple Rows

Numbers of stones

Figure 3 Pie chart showing the proportions of stone numbers.

Around 40% of the alignments consist of six or less stones. These rows are likely to have served a very different purpose to those with fifty or more stones. Further information on the numbers of stones found at stone rows can be found here.

Alignment lengths

Figure 4 Pie chart showing the proportions of row lengths.

Very short and very long alignments account for nearly half of all stone rows. The considerable variation in length is a very obvious characteristic and supports the idea that the short and long rows are likely to have been built for very different reasons. Further information on stone row lengths is available here.

Size of stones

Figure 5 Pie chart showing the proportions of row stone sizes.

Stone size varies considerably with most alignments consisting of either a mixture of small and medium sized stones or large stones only. A significant proportion of the alignments consist only of small stones. Many rows are far from megalithic in form. Further information on the size of stones found at stone rows is available here.

Figure 6 Single rows such as this one at North Ings, North Yorkshire Moors are the most common form of stone alignment.

FIRST PUBLISHED: 12th January 2016

LAST UPDATED: 21st October 2019

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