Cosdon triple stone row on Dartmoor
Eleven triple stone rows are currently known in Great Britain. They all include three separate, roughly parallel lines of stones. Compared with other types of row the amount of variety in form is much less although this may in part be explained by the relatively small number of examples. This said, however it is probably significant that all of the rows include small and medium sized stones, all are greater than 20m long and nine have no cairn at their upper or lower ends. The typical triple row is therefore more than 20m long, includes no or few large stones and has no direct funerary associations. Their distribution is very much focussed on SW Britain with isolated examples in Sutherland and Shetland.
As work proceeds the information used in this analysis will inevitably be enhanced. This article therefore should be considered as a draft to encourage discussion and the development of ideas and will be updated in the future as research and fieldwork inevitably alters the dataset upon which it is based.
Distribution of triple rows.
The reason why a third line of stones was added is not clear. We cannot be sure if these rows started off as single rows that were initially “upgraded” to double before finally being “enhanced” with a third row or whether they were designed and built with three rows from the outset. A third row has the effect of providing two separate way-marked routes. It is tempting to see one of the routes being established for movement up the alignment and the other for travel downward, however there is absolutely no evidence to support this contention beyond the fact that this is how we do things today. Most of our roads are single carriageway but there are also many lengths of dual carriageway. Both types of road carry out the same basic function and therefore there are no logical grounds for doubting that single, double and triple rows were any different. The different forms would have reflected the needs of their builders and the considerably variety in form is likely to reflect this.
Long Triple Rows with no terminal cairns
Looking north along the Challacombe Down triple stone row.
Distribution of long triple row with no terminal cairns.
Most of the triple rows are of this type with the “classic” examples being found in SW Britain. The two Scottish examples at Giant’s Stones (Shetland) and Learable Hill 1 (Sutherland) are both problematic to some extent. The Giant’s Stones are described as probably including three rows, although the only available plan shows the site as a stone ring with a single row leading from it. A field visit will be required to establish to most likely interpretation. The Learable Hill 1 row is a mixture of double and triple in character and it is possible therefore that this example is actually a double row with an adjacent single row leading along part of its length. If these two rows are eventually moved from this category the distribution will be wholly SW Britain in character. The single example in Wales at Craig-Y-Fan Ddu looks genuine and has been the subject of an inclusive excavation. Survey however identified a pair of small standing stones beyond the rows which might suggest that this site was once a multiple stone row rather than a triple. The remaining triple rows with no terminal are all in SW England with four on Exmoor (Chains Valley, Cheriton Ridge, North, Furzehill Common 5 and Wilmersham Common, South) and two on Dartmoor (Challacombe Down and Holne Moor). Further work here may also result is revisions and perhaps lead to the conclusion that triple rows are very rare indeed.
Long Triple Rows with cairn at the upper end
Distribution of long triple rows with cairn at the upper end.
Both long triple rows with a cairn at the upper end are to be found on Dartmoor. The impressive alignment at Cosdon has blocking stones at its upper end as well as a kerbed cairn containing two cists, whilst the rather mutilated example at Yar Tor has a very fine kerbed cairn known as the Money Pit containing the more usual single cist.
Triple rows are extremely rare and further work may reveal that they are incredibly rare. They do however serve as a reminder that the form of stone rows is very varied and that their paramount characteristic is individuality. No two rows are the same, they share characteristics, but the diversity in form and character is immense. Triple rows may just be another example of this and illustrate a flexible society where freedom of expression and interpretation were to some extent celebrated rather than condemned. The rows formed a focus for ritual activity and their variable form may hint at subtle differences in the way that they were used. The absence of short rows and any rows composed only of large stones within this type is almost certainly of significance and indicates that none of them are likely to have had an astronomical function.