Megalithic Rows

Megalithic rows for the purposes of this article consist exclusively of large stones standing greater than 0.8m high. The many rows including one or more tall stones, but composed mainly of small or medium sized slabs are excluded.  Utilising existing records, a total of 97 megalithic rows (29%) have been identified, although this number is likely to be revised as work continues.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows (Base map: Google Maps).

Megalithic rows are found in most parts of Great Britain although there are none in Northern Scotland (Caithness and Sutherland) and Exmoor. Relatively few are found on Dartmoor where only 3.45% of the rows are megalithic. By contrast in Central Scotland over 91% of the rows are of megalithic form, whilst in Argyll and Isles the figure is nearly 85% and in the Western Isles over 70% of the rows are megalithic. The only other regions where more than half of the recorded rows are megalithic are Rest of England (55.5%) and Rest of Scotland (54%). In the remaining regions megalithic rows are outnumbered by examples containing small and medium sized stones.

Megalithic Row Types

Only two types of megalithic row are recorded. Eighty-two are single rows (84.5%) whilst the remainder are of the double variety.

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Distribution of megalithic single stone rows. Red symbol denotes single rows and grey symbol other rows (Base map: Google Maps).

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Distribution of megalithic double stone rows. Red symbol denotes double rows and grey symbol other rows (Base map: Google Maps).

There are no megalithic double rows in Argyll and Isles, Central Scotland or Wales. This is a relatively rare form of row, but includes some of the best known examples such as Callanish, North, Broomend of Crichie, South, Shap, West Kennet Avenue, Beckhampton Avenue, Stanton Drew, North, Stanton Drew, South and the anomaly at Piles Hill on Dartmoor. It is perhaps significant that the distance between the rows is considerably greater than that found at double rows composed of smaller stones.   For this reason they are often referred to as avenues.

Megalithic Row Lengths

The length of megalithic rows varies considerably. The distribution maps presented below illustrate this variety and highlight a number of details of interest.

Megalithic stone rows measuring less than 10m long

Baliscate WP1060636

The Baliscate stone row on the Isles of Mull forms part of a discrete cluster of very short megalithic rows. It consists of three closely spaced orthostats and measures 8.4m long.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring less than 10m long (Base map: Google Maps).

The shortest megalithic rows are all found in Scotland. Extremely short rows composed entirely of large stones are relatively common in Argyll and Isles and Central Scotland. Their absence from the rest of Great Britain must be considered significant and may indicate a relatively localised tradition which was not adopted elsewhere.

Megalithic stone rows measuring between 10m and 20m long

Ballymeanoch P1000445

The impressive Ballymeanoch row in Argyll measures 14.5m long.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring between 10m and 20m long (Base map: Google Maps).

The absence of any megalithic rows less than 20m long in the whole of the south west of England is likely to be significant. Rows of this type do not appear to have constructed in this area. The four examples in Wales each have doubts regarding their identification as stone rows. Carreg Cadno is a line of boulders rather than upright slabs, Saith Maen NW has various doubts regarding its interpretation, Court 1 may include two natural boulders and Harolds Stones could be part of a chambered tomb rather than a row. If the Welsh rows are eventually discounted the distribution is again focussed entirely on the northern half of Great Britain (Figure below). Whilst most definitely a circular argument, this discovery adds further credence to the idea that the Welsh sites should not be considered as rows.

megalithic-less-than-20m-longDistribution of megalithic stone rows measuring less than 20m long. This map illustrates the situation if the Welsh rows are discounted.  (Base map: Google Maps).

Megalithic stone rows measuring between 20m and 30m long

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The East Cult stone row in Central Scotland measures 25.5m long.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring between 20m and 30m long (Base map: Google Maps).

There are very few megalithic rows between 20m and 30m long. Both the southern examples are less than certain identifications with the Avebury Z feature and Cae Carreg each having interpretative issues. If discounted this would mean that all of the megalithic rows less than 30m long are found in the northern half of Great Britain. This would be significant and indicates that short megalithic rows have a clear northern bias and provide further evidence to doubt the Avebury and Cae Carreg identifications. Even if the southern rows are eventually fully accepted a clear northern bias would still exist. The likelihood of this being a coincidence or the result of differential survival seems improbable and is much more likely to reflect a real and significant difference. Perhaps the northern short rows served a different function – they may even have been built at a different time.

Megalithic stone rows measuring between30m and 50m long

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Stanton Drew, North in the south of England measures 31.6m long.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring between30m and 50m long (Base map: Google Maps).

Only four megalithic rows are between 30m and 50m long. All four are associated with stone circles and three are of the double row type.  The southernmost example at Emblance Down on Bodmin Moor is of less certain authenticity than the others and remains to be visited.

Megalithic stone rows measuring between50m and 100m long

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Callanish, North measures 84m long.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring between50m and 100m long (Base map: Google Maps).

Longer megalithic rows between 50m and 100m in length are entirely absent from Wales and are widely distributed with no obvious clustering.

Megalithic stone rows measuring greater than 100m long

West Kennett WPP1070859

The West Kennet Avenue meanders through the Wiltshire countryside for 2500m.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring greater than 100m long (Base map: Google Maps).

Most of the very long megalithic rows consist of a small number of widely spaced stones although some include or are likely to have included large numbers of stones. Piles Hill, Shap, West Kennet, Beckhampton Avenue and Broomend of Crichie include large number of stones, whilst the others consist of small numbers of stones placed some considerable distance apart.  Clearly some stones may have been removed, but it is likely that at least some rows consisted of relatively few stones spaced a considerable distance apart. It is hard to believe that such rows would have been designed to function in the same way as those where the stones were placed close to each other. This again confirms that stone rows should not really be seen as a single type of monument built for the same reasons and that instead the monument class that we describe as stone row or alignment is in fact probably a number of different types of site which were built for various reasons, probably over a long period of time.

Megalithic Rows – number of stones

Megalithic stone rows consisting of three stones

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The Doune (Glenhead) row includes three large orthostats.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows consisting of three stones. Red symbol denotes row with three stones and grey symbol other rows (Base map: Google Maps).

There is a clear clustering of megalithic of stone rows consisting of three stones in Argyll and Isles. Indeed nearly half of all the megalithic rows with three stones are found in this region. Furthermore, it is clear that the great majority are found in Scotland with only a smattering in Wales and South West England. The absence of examples from most of England confirms the truly clustered character of this distribution. If one digs a little deeper into the examples in England and Wales a case could be made for suggesting that the original distribution of three stone megalithic rows may originally have been limited to Scotland.  The rows at Trillech in the Brecon Beacons and Longstone Farm in Cornwall no longer survive and may have originally included more than three stones.  The row at East Butterdon is not yet fully understood, whilst Harolds Stones maybe the remains of a chambered tomb, Meini Gwyn in Carmarthenshire consists of boulders rather than slabs, Buwch A’r Llo would almost certainly have consisted of many more stones and finally Llidiardau Mawr as well as being destroyed may have originally been a stone circle. Compared with the three stone megalithic rows in Scotland all of those in England and Wales have doubts hanging over them and therefore it is possible that rows of this type were originally confined to Argyll and Isles and central Scotland. This form of row therefore probably had a limited distribution and this in turns implies that the particular cultural or perhaps scientific purposes in turn were not adopted in most of Great Britain. Whilst not conclusive it may be possible to utilise this discovery to help with a re-interpretation of some rows and in the future this may help us refine our understanding.

Megalithic stone rows consisting of four to six stones

Maol Mor WP1060739

Maol Mor stone row includes four orthostats.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows consisting of four to six stones. Red symbol denotes row with four to six stones and grey symbol other rows (Base map: Google Maps).

Megalithic rows consisting of between four and six stones also have a clear northern bias and as before some of the southern examples are amongst the more uncertain examples.  The two in Cornwall certainly have doubts hanging over their identification, Stanton Drew, South almost certainly originally consisted of many more stones, as would have Pont Ddu in Wales. Borth Wen is only known from a photograph and may simply be a line of cleared boulders whilst Court 1 may eventually be proven to consist mainly of natural stone outcrops. It is therefore possible that short rows consisting of six or less stones were only ever built in the northern half of Great Britain with the focus of the activity associated with them being Argyll and Isles and Central Scotland.

Megalithic stone rows consisting of seven to 19 stones

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Saith Maen NW stone row consists of seven stones.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows consisting of seven to 19 stones. Red symbol denotes row with seven to 19 stones and grey symbol other rows (Base map: Google Maps).

A marked contrast exists between megalithic rows with six or fewer stones and those with seven to 19. Only one row of this kind survives in the whole of Scotland, at Callanish, North and the remainder are in the southern half of Great Britain. This remarkable difference strongly suggests that this is very likely to be a contemporary reason for this and is unlikely to be a result of later activity. It is probable that the rows in the southern half of Great Britain were built differently because they had a different purpose. That purpose may have been similar, but was different enough to affect the form of the monuments being erected. The presence of more stones in the southern examples may indicate that movement formed a greater part of their purpose than those in the north where the rituals may have been more static.

Megalithic stone rows consisting of 20 or more stones

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Piles Hill stone row includes at least 120 fallen orthostats.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows consisting of 20 or more stones. Red symbol denotes row with 20 or more stones and grey symbol other rows (Base map: Google Maps).

A relatively small number of megalithic rows consisted of more than 20 stones. The original number of rows with large numbers of stones may have been more, with some sites having been severely truncated in historic times. Nevertheless we can probably be fairly confident that they would have been comparatively rare. The surviving four examples form part of large-scale ritual complexes. In Scotland Broomend of Crichie, South was associated with a henge and two stone circles, whilst Shap in the Lake District forms part of a ritual landscape. Further south the Beckhampton and West Kennet Avenues are intimately connected with Avebury henge and Piles Hill sits next to several stone rows.  These rows are likely therefore to denote places of particular significance

Megalithic stone rows with no visible feature at upper end

p1050719a Dyke Row

Dyke Row in southern Scotland in common with many other megalithic rows has no feature at its upper end.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows with no visible feature at upper end. Red symbol denotes row with no feature and grey symbol other rows (Base map: Google Maps).

Most megalithic rows do not have a visible feature at their upper end. In most instances they were clearly built as standalone structures. Indeed it is possible that all rows were originally built with no associated upper terminal feature, but in some instances a cairn, stone circle or henge may have been added later.

Megalithic stone rows with cairn at upper end

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Callanish, West has a stone circle and cairn at its upper end.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows with cairn at upper end. Red symbol denotes row with cairn at upper end and grey symbol other rows (Base map: Google Maps).

Only 11 megalithic rows have a cairn at their upper end. The presence of a cairn might reflect an adaptation of the original row or perhaps the reason why the row was built at a particular spot. It is clear however that megalithic rows only very occasionally lead to cairns. This was not the case with rows including smaller stones where many terminate in a cairn.

Megalithic stone rows with stone circle at upper end

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At Broomend of Crichie, South there is a stone circle and henge at the upper end of the row.

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Distribution of megalithic stone rows with stone circle at upper end. Red symbol denotes row with stone circle at upper end and grey symbol other rows (Base map: Google Maps).

Fourteen megalithic rows lead towards a stone circle. None of the rows in Wales or South West England have a stone circle at their upper end. The reasons why some rows are connected to stone circles is unclear, but it is very likely that the rows and circles were not erected at the same time. Despite extensive excavations at Callanish the relative dates of the stone circle and various rows could not be established, although Aubrey Burl has suggested that the rows are likely to be more recent.  At most sites no datable evidence exists.

Conclusion

Analysis of the megalithic rows has highlighted a number of important and probably significant details. In particular there is a clear difference in the character and form of the rows with examples in the north being generally shorter and consisting of fewer orthostats. This work has provided information to challenge the identification of some rows and these will be examined in further detail in the coming months. The difference between northern and southern rows is so marked as to suggest that they may have had separate functions or purposes. They may have shared certain functions, but it is very likely that the activities carried out were fundamentally different. Over time some places were probably adapted to reflect fresh developments or ideas whilst at others they simply fell out of use, being perhaps initially respected, then neglected and sometimes desecrated but certainly the ideas and beliefs that they embodied were forgotten.

 

 

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