Ballymeanoch in Argyll and Isles
Stone rows may have been erected for more 2000 years through the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. Sometimes they are directly or indirectly associated with funerary cairns and stone circles. They vary considerably in form and size with some being the work of a few hours whilst others represented substantial effort. Many make no architectural statement whatsoever, whilst others would have been impressive or even spectacular. The variability in date, size and form means that it is unlikely that they all shared the same function. Over the years a variety of possible interpretations have been offered. Amongst those mentioned by Aubrey Burl are: boundary markers; trackway markers; gymnasia; landscaped sacred serpents; the handiwork of the Devil or giants; Roman trophies of war or cenotaphs; memorials to battles; processional ways; the work of druids; calendars; astronomical devices; representations of armies; race courses; shelters whose roofs had decayed; open-air duplicates of megalithic tomb passages (Burl, A., 1993, 10-17 and 70 -74) To this list can be added the idea that they were mapped representations of routes. Burl is very sceptical of any astronomical function and prefers to see them as being derived from avenues leading from stone circles and to have been built to connect different elements of a ritual complex. He points out the link between funerary monuments and avenues and the idea that the later rows are a form of debasement or perhaps evolution of this original idea. Needless to say there is no evidence to either refute or support this idea, but the idea of the stones denoting a “special path” between two or more places of immense significance is an attractive one when applied to the longer rows. Clearly it has no resonance with the short rows and introduces the need to acknowledge that the rows could not have served a single purpose. When you add the multiple rows into this melting pot it is obvious that we must be searching not for a single answer but rather than a number of perhaps connected but certainly different functions. When the substantial chronological depth, geographical differences, variable form, identification challenges, different associations and survival are added to our metaphorical melting pot the true scale of this gordian knot becomes evident. At a simplistic level prehistoric ritual of some sort is very likely to be the most plausible explanation for their purpose.
Map showing the distribution of stone rows with terminal cairns or stone circles (red) and stone rows with no terminal cairns or stone circles (green). The different layers can be turned on and off.
41% of all the rows have terminal features including cairns, stone circles or henges. This figure provides evidence that the rows were frequently directly linked to funerary or other ritual structures. Furthermore 55% of all the rows are situated in the immediate vicinity of cairns or barrows emphasising the link with funerary activity. It is clear however that a significant proportion of rows have no obvious association with funerary remains and whilst it needs to be acknowledged that the evidence may simply not be visible in some cases it is likely that many rows were built and used without a funerary purpose. Looking at terminal features on a regional basis it is clear that there are substantial differences between different areas, and this may imply that stone rows in different regions served different purposes. In Argyll and Isles none of the rows has a terminal feature, whilst in Central Scotland there is only one (Balnaguard). Any ritual activity at these sites is therefore likely not to have directly involved rituals associated with death. On Exmoor, Mid Wales and Bodmin Moor a significant proportion of the rows have no terminal feature whilst on Dartmoor most, but by no means all of the rows do have terminal cairns. Any explanation relying exclusively on rituals associated with death cannot be accepted – too many rows have no evidence to support this. Funerary rituals certainly played a part at many sites but was this their primary purpose or something secondary? A pertinent analogy would be with the parish church where thousands of burials are found both within and surrounding the building, but we of course know that the ritual practised at these sites is primarily for the living. Furthermore, there are those churches where there are associated burials and the cemeteries with no church. Why is it that some rows have terminal cairns and others do not? Were the rows added to cairns and if so, why do most cairns not have a row or were the cairns added to the rows in which case why do not all the rows have cairns? The answers to these questions are likely to remain elusive but we can safely conclude that funerary activity was never an essential element of what was happening at the rows. In no region do all the rows have terminal cairns and we can therefore be confident that funerary activity was not their primary “raison d’ être”. The absence of cairns or stone circles from the ends of so many rows and the absence of rows from most cairns illustrates that they were not an essential element and therefore it is extremely likely that they should not really be viewed as funerary monuments. It is most likely that the cairns were added to rows at a later date and there is some evidence to support this contention At Lakehead Hill, East the row appears to continue into the kerb of the terminal cairn whilst at Merrivale 3 the cairn appears to have incorporated the final stone in the row. It may therefore be that cairns were added a long time after the rows were built and were perhaps added only to those rows that were still being actively used when some sort of change or development in ritual practices occurred and they were then incorporated into that funerary tradition. This explanation would certainly fit the evidence and in turn precipitate a search for an explanation for their original purpose.
At Lakehead Hill, East the stone row extends into the space denoted by the kerb surrounding the cist.
It may be pertinent that the rows in Argyll and Isles where there is no tradition of terminal cairns are likely to belong to the Middle Bronze Age rather than the Early Bronze Age. They would therefore be the product of a different society and erected for very different purposes to those elsewhere in the country. A short row of large relatively closely spaced stones would logically have a very different purpose to long lines of tiny stones. The answer to the single question “what was the purpose of stone rows?” is therefore seemingly impossible to answer. The failure over the years for consensus on a solution to this apparently straightforward question is because there are several different possible answers. The rows were built to serve different purposes at different times by different people with different motives and expectations. Apart from the fact that all stone rows consist of at least three stones arranged in a line there is no other criteria that they all share. Searching for answers meaning unpicking the complex, contradictory, incomplete and often circumstantial evidence to reach not an answer or even answers, but a series of ideas which are compatible with the evidence.
Those who offer a definitive answer on the purpose of stone rows are delusional. Certain solutions work very well for large numbers of sites but cannot be rolled out with certainty across the entire resource. Inevitably, any theories, ideas and interpretations will be open to challenge and refinement and by this process progress will occur. What follows are inevitably personal opinions, hopefully backed up by logic, sometimes acceptable evidence and extensive fieldwork together with the research and ideas of some of the others who have become tangled up in this subject over the years. I propose to approach the task in a somewhat unconventional manner. Rather than looking at the different forms of row separately and trying to establish their most likely purpose it might be more useful to start with the various hypothesis and see which rows fit the idea best. Hopefully this approach will provide new insights and perhaps offer some progress or even acceptable solutions.
Measuring a stone at Furzehill Common 3.
Amongst the most popular ideas regarding function is the idea that the rows were built to link special places providing a clearly defined route for journeys. Inevitably the route itself would also have become significant. At its most obvious the avenue leading from Avebury to The Sanctuary perfectly fit this idea. Short rows clearly could not have been built for this purpose but there are a number of rows where this interpretation works very well. Amongst these are all the avenues although it is interesting to note that not all have obvious special terminals. At Piles Hill, Lacra SW, Minions and The Nine Stones there are no obvious features at either end and therefore the idea of the avenues being built to link significant places would seem to be less than commonplace and must throw doubts on this idea. Indeed only the Beckhampton Avenue, Broomend of Crichie, North and West Kennet Avenues appear to have linked sites as most simply lead to either a stone circle or cairn although Broomend of Crichie, South and Cerrig Duon lead from flowing water to stone circles. It is of course possible that the second place of significance has in some instances been destroyed but it seems unlikely that this could have happened at every avenue. We must conclude that the idea that the avenues were only rarely built to provide a formal processional route between significant places.
Of course, this does not mean that the other rows were not used for processions and at Askham Fell, Callanish, North, Commondale Moor, Lacra NE, Shap, Stanton Drew N, Stanton Drew S and Threestoneburn House the idea that the stones denoted a processional is tempting. Indeed, there are probably no better explanations.
West Kennet Avenue leads between Avebury Henge and The Sanctuary.
Links with astronomy are claimed for many of the rows. The present author does not have the necessary expertise to properly access their validity. Worth and Emmet on Dartmoor have dismissed any astronomical links, but despite this, claims have been made in recent years for solar alignments at Merrivale. Two further rows which are believed to have been solar alignments are Brainport Bay in Argyll and Isles and Hawk’s Tor, South on Bodmin Moor. Both interestingly incorporate adjacent natural rock notches in their design and the case for their use in astronomy is very strong. Work by Ruggles on some of the rows in Argyll and Isles has also identified some potential links and the idea that some rows were built for astronomical purposes cannot be universally dismissed. However, the considerable variation in stone row orientation would suggest that astronomy played only a small part at best, but I would prefer to leave those with the necessary expertise to make or disprove astronomical claims for the rows.
It has been suggested that the rows could have been boundary markers perhaps denoting the extent of territories. Certainly, the Butterdon Hill row was adopted into a boundary separating Harford and Ugborough Moors. However, this explanation really only works for the longer rows and collapses entirely when considering clusters of rows at such places as Merrivale, Shovel Down, Drizzlecombe and Learable Hill. The rows themselves may have occasionally been built towards the edge of a particular territory, but it is unlikely that they actually formed the boundary unless they were shared by different groups.
Stone at Butterdon Hill stone row added to denote the boundary between Harford and Ugborough Moors.
This explanation really does not work at all. The only site that might be considered a route marker is Fonllech where most writers prefer to see the stones at this site as markers for a prehistoric track rather than as a row. However, this explanation does not take account of the northern terminal cairn and a second cairn close to the southern end. Taking these features into account the site is more likely to be a stone row, although this obviously does not preclude the idea that there was a prehistoric trackway leading along beside it. Other stone rows that could be thought of as perhaps marking a route are the Upper Erme Valley and Butterdon Hill, but in both instances the stones are so close together that it is difficult to see the justification for this overkill and there are more satisfactory explanations. It is therefore very unlikely that rows were ever built as route markers. Route markers are likely to have been well spaced and probably erected only at significant junctions.
Upper Erme Valley stone row on Dartmoor. The stones are too closely together to be considered as route markers.
There is an idea the stones could represent the headstones of graves. It is not hard to see how this idea could have developed. At a cemetery adjacent to Teampull Eoin at Bragar on the Isles of Lewis small stones marking the burials in the cemetery are visually very reminiscent of the multiple stone rows of Northern Scotland. In Northern Scotland at Druim na Ceud it is said that there were once 100 small gravestones on this hillside, purportedly raised after the 15th century battle of Ruaig Haunsaid. Similar ideas may have been responsible for the name of the stone rows next to the Loch of Yarrows at Battle Moss. Some individual stones at rows have been found to be associated with burials (e.g. Balnaguard and West Kennet) but most do not and in any case it is more likely that the burials were added some time afterwards. There is no evidence to support the idea that any of the rows were lines of grave markers.
Headstones adjacent to Teampull Eoin at Bragar on the Isles of Lewis.
Most rows do not make an architectural statement. There are however exceptions and many of the short rows in Argyll and Isles and Central Scotland are impressive. Many of the avenues would also have been dramatic and undoubtedly this would have been part of the reason that they were built in this manner. A processional way would not in itself have needed substantial stones. This we know for certain as the avenue at Cerrig Duon with its tiny stones makes no architectural statement whatsoever. The large stones at avenues therefore may well be making an architectural statement since they were presumably superfluous to function. By contrast the short stone rows composed of large orthostats whilst clearly making an architectural statement are probably this size for a functional reason, although we cannot be certain, the absence of any short rows composed of small stones in these regions implies that the size was related to function rather than for making a grand statement. The same is likely to be the case with the rows composed of small stones, they certainly do not make an architectural statement and their size is therefore likely to be purely functional.
Callanish, West on the Isle of Lewis. All the rows at Callanish are visually impressive.
The idea that the rows were a meeting place only works with the shorter rows of large stones. Henges, stone circles causewayed camps are commonly thought to have served as prehistoric meeting places and the linear form of the rows makes this an extremely unlikely explanation. This is not to say that meetings were never held at them, just that this is unlikely to have been the purpose for their erection.
Maol Mor on the Isle of Mull.
This idea is rather similar to the idea of an architectural statement but allows for some of the rows composed of smaller stones to be considered. The idea that the rows were works of prehistoric art cannot be dismissed out of hand as there is plenty of evidence for artistic interest at this time. It is however difficult to see them as purely works of art particularly as only a relatively few are at all photogenic. This said there may have been an element of artistic expression in their construction, but this is very unlikely to be the reason they were built in the first place.
Searle’s Down on Bodmin Moor. It is difficult to conceive that sites such as this were artistic creations.
Work of the Devil or Giants
This says rather more about the people who offered this explanation than the rows themselves and can therefore be comfortably dismissed.
Devil’s Arrows at Borroughbridge in Yorkshire.
It has been suggested by Roger Hutchins that the Dartmoor rows were a condensed representation of way marked routes (Hutchins, R.B., 205). He believes that stone rows are the earliest attempts to measure and record geographical information and provides some examples to support his ideas. He considers that the Hurston Ridge row is a 1:500 representation of a route to Minehead and the Upper Erme Valley of a route at a scale of 1:300 to the coast at Caithness. The idea of the rows being representations of routes is thought provoking and should not be dismissed entirely out of hand. We know that stones were sometimes placed along real routes and therefore the idea of these being depicted in what amount to scale models is certainly innovative. The contorted mathematics involved in the calculation of scale combined with the obvious problem of why prehistoric people would want to make a map of an overland route to Northern Scotland when it would have been much easier to travel by sea are only two of the obvious problems with the idea as presented. The general idea of the rows representing routes or perhaps journeys is however attractive.
Hurston Ridge on Dartmoor.
The idea that the stones were erected for memorial purposes is one that was explored at Black Tor (Stanlake) by the author in the 1990’s (Gerrard, S., 1997). Recently this idea has also been suggested by Ken Brophy at Battle Moss (Loch of Yarrows). Despite the inevitable lack of evidence to support this explanation it is possible that a memorial element formed part of the complex rituals and beliefs of the people who built and used rows.
Black Tor (Stanlake) on Dartmoor.
Some ideas are more attractive than others, but the idea that the rows were built for competitive events is one that is difficult to justify. The events presumably would have involved racing along-side the stones, but one can’t help but think that the stones themselves would be superfluous unless weaving in and out between them was part of the challenge. Given the obvious funerary character of many rows it is unlikely that they hosted athletic events.
Drizzlecombe 1 on Dartmoor.
Land and seascape links
Most stone rows appear to have built to provide discernible links to landscape and seascape. The evidence for these links is presented elsewhere. The rows appear to have been carefully sited to provide specific and often visually impressive links to significant features and places in the landscape. The choice of location usually maximises visual links to special landscape features and where available seascape. Sometimes, however rows also seem to have been positioned on the very edge of inter-visibility to distant places. Clearly it is not possible for us to be certain which places were of particular significance to the row builders but the consistent appearance of distant distinctive landmarks and features at the limit of visibility when viewed from different parts of the rows strongly implies that the builders positioned their rows taking care to incorporate as many special places as possible into them. Appreciation of the tangible links between rows and their landscape may provide a clue into their function. They were built to form a focus and central place for their spiritual world. The same careful locational considerations were applied to the broadly contemporary cairns and stone circles and it is clear that a special sense of place and the inter-connectivity was important to these people and this is expressed in their ritual. To a large extent this explains why the stone rows were built where they are but does not directly progress the idea of what their purpose was. The fact that the rows were carefully positioned implies that it was incorporated into whatever rituals were being carried out. Speculation on exactly what form these rituals would have taken is likely to be speculative beyond noting that movement and the subsequent changes in the distant land or seascape features are likely to have been considerations and could have been embodied into events. It is possible that the rows were built to simulate journeys and what we are seeing is the ritualisation of long-distance travel which in the Bronze Age would have been preserve of an elite. Over time these ritualistic journeys would have changed and at some rows death was introduced into the ritual. What started as journeys through the landscape logically developed to incorporate death as the final destination. The rows still in use became a focus for both life and death before finally being abandoned and replaced by new religions less focused on distant places.
Of course, in common with all the other explanations there are rows that do not fit comfortably or indeed at all into this narrative. In Great Britain 22 rows have no discernible landscape or seascape links whilst another 56 only have one. These figures are likely to be over-stated as sometimes the fieldwork was carried out in far from ideal conditions, but nevertheless it is clear that whilst at most sites the rows were carefully positioned to incorporate visual links this was not always the case and therefore this cannot be the only answer.
At Conies Down stone row Little Mis Tor is visible only from the very top of the row.
Ritualisation of Travel
Following on from the idea that many rows were placed carefully within the landscape to provide definable visual links to special places it is possible to speculate a little further. The longer rows in particular may represent journeys. In the Early Bronze Age the track network was probably ill-defined and the skills required to navigate over long distances would have created an elite who in turn may have used their influence to create a cult focused on travel. The rows represent such ritual journeys and it is possible that in the early days they created “sacred ways” linked to distant significant places at the limit of visibility. Places that they knew, but which other participants did not. The journeys along these sacred ways would have incorporated rituals about which can only guess but almost certainly incorporated places in the landscape. During the early days of these rituals the route may not even have been marked but over time stones were erected to denote its precise position, perhaps allowing it to be used even when visibility was poor. The nature of the journey along the stones must remain a mystery but perhaps each stone or groups of stones had a story associated with it or them and together they formed a narrative of profound significance to the community. This explanation would certainly explain why the stone rows appear to have formed a focus for so many communities over a long period of time. Whilst we can never fully understand the detail of the ritual associated with the rows we can be fairly certain that were important to the people who built and used them and their undoubted longevity means that they must have entered into the very fabric of society.
Hingston Hill on Dartmoor.
Stone rows, or at least some of them, perhaps served as an emblem for different groups, in much the same way as today we use a crest or logo. This could certainly explain why there is such variability or why sometimes similar forms of row are found relatively close together. The location, arrangement and form of the stones may have been designed to reinforce the unique cultural identity of the groups who raised them. Logically, such stones would have become vital to the groups’ since they served to represent and indeed embody the whole existence of each one. The addition of cairns may have emphasised their ancestry and affiliation with a specific geographic space in both temporal and physical senses. This is an appealing idea as it potentially explains why: the rows were often built to incorporate specific distant views; the stone rows vary so much from place to place and region by region; cairns were added to some rows and not others; some rows were enhanced and changed; and most importantly of all, it allows many of the other ideas to be incorporated into an overall explanation centred on the fluidity of ever-diversifying humanity. This hypothesis lends purpose to the stones, whilst at the same time providing us with an insight into the past. Whilst it will never be possible to decipher all the subtleties represented by the stones, the appreciation that each row was built to denote, identify and celebrate the uniqueness of discrete and otherwise forgotten communities is something worth cherishing.
Hill O’ Many Stanes, Clyth in Caithness.
The idea of the rows representing tribal or group totems is an attractive one if one also accepts that the rows themselves were also built to incorporate links to their world, may have included a memorial element and been a focus for ritual activity. This explanation comfortably fits the available evidence from most of the rows and helps to explain their considerable variation. Inevitably a small number of the rows probably owe their origins to other functions and amongst these are likely to be the avenues and solar alignments. The clusters of rows do not necessarily compromise this solution as they may represent the coming together of different groups who celebrated the union by adding new totems.
FIRST PUBLISHED: 18th December 2019
LAST UPDATED: 18th December 2019