Stone rows are found mainly in a few parts of Great Britain. Large swathes of the country have no rows whilst a few areas contain marked concentrations. In particular, there are seven locations where large numbers of rows are found close together. As well as the rows each of these locations contain a variable number of broadly contemporary other types of site including standing stones, settlements and cairns. This article presents maps showing the disposition of the rows and their possible context together with some commentary. Six of the clusters are in South West England and the remaining one in Caithness in the the far north of Scotland.
Map showing the location of the row clusters.
This cluster of stone rows includes 10 rows situated within close proximity to each other. Most of the rows are of the multiple type, although there are two single rows. As well as the rows there are a number of chambered tombs, settlements and individual standing stones.
Map showing the position of the stone rows and other sites around Watenan (Source: Canmore).
Furzehill Common Cluster
This cluster includes 13 stone rows. There is a mixture of row types with the different sorts being scattered throughout the area. This might imply that the rows belong to different periods with one form being replaced by another. Only one row has a terminal cairn and unusually this is at the lower end. It is clear that most of the rows were positioned separately from the funerary areas.
Map showing the position of the stone rows and other sites around Furzehill Common (Source: Exmoor National Park HER ).
There are also 13 stone rows in this cluster. Two of the rows appear to be within a funerary context but the others are not. Although there are a large number of rows within this area they seem to be fairly evenly dispersed suggesting that each one belonged to a separate family sized group. The two rows with cairns are most similar in appearance to those found on Dartmoor. We may be witnessing two separate traditions. One building the grid type rows and settings and another building rows. They may be contemporary but it is more likely that they were not. It is also almost certain that they served different purposes.
Map showing the position of the stone rows and other sites around Pinford (Source: Exmoor National Park HER).
Chagford Common Cluster
Seven of the stone rows in this cluster are of the double and the remaining one at Challacombe Downs is triple. There are no single rows in this area and this is likely to be significant as is the fact that all of the rows with exception of Challacombe Downs have a terminal cairn. Why are there no single rows in this area? The row builders on this part of Dartmoor did not erect single rows. Whatever the reason it does imply a difference in the mindset of the people who lived here compared to other parts of Dartmoor and provides powerful evidence to support the idea that different communities expressed their beliefs in separate ways. On this part of the moor stone rows always included at least two lines of stones and there must have been a reason for this.
Map showing the position of the stone rows and other sites around Chagford Common.
Lee Moor Cluster
By contrast the nine stone rows in this cluster are mainly single rows. There may have once been many more in this area prior to china clay quarrying. The rows in this area appear to respect the Middle Bronze Age boundary reaves. Two lie parallel to a reave and a third stops just before a reave. Only one row has no terminal cairn and most of the cairns are not directly associated with the rows. The predominance of single rows in this area confirms the conclusion that the type of row erected must reflect differences in the ways that different communities responded to the ideas associated with the rows.
Map showing the position of the stone rows and other sites around Lee Moor.
There are eight stone rows in the vicinity of Sharpitor on Dartmoor. Every single row has a terminal cairn whilst there are four single rows and four double ones. The rows at Hart Tor and Sharpitor NW both include a single and double row situated next to each other. The similarities between the rows suggests that they are broadly contemporary and were raised by a community with shared beliefs and customs. It is perhaps significant that the even number of single and double rows are found in an area between Chagford Common and Lee Moor suggesting that the influences from the north and south created a stone row ritual than encompassed ideas from both the other areas.
Map showing the position of the stone rows and other sites around Sharpitor.
Butterdon Hill Cluster
There are 15 stone rows forming a tight cluster on the southern edge of Dartmoor. In plan view it looks as if the Butterbrook, Glasscombe, Corringdon Ball, Brent Fore Hill and probably Treeland Brake rows were perhaps built to a single design and the row builders may have intended to join them together. Alternatively, they are all built along a single line which was of particular significance to them. Several of the rows in this area are particularly long and most have a terminal cairn. Most of the cairns in the area are not directly associated with the rows, but there are clusters around Piles Hill and Brent Fore Hill. Of course we can not be certain of the chronological order although the fact that most cairn clusters do not have rows could imply that they are not precisely contemporary or that cairns were only sometimes built close to rows. The proximity of settlements to the rows suggests that they were contemporary but of course conclusive evidence is lacking.
Map showing the position of the stone rows and other sites around Butterdon Hill.
In addition to the seven areas where stone row clusters can be observed there are several sites where three or more rows are found next to each other. These can best be thought of as stone row complexes and they are often associated with broadly contemporary cairns, stone circles or standing stones.
Four stone rows, a stone circle and cairn at Callanish.
Four stone rows and a large number of cairns together with prehistoric houses (not shown) form the Drizzlecombe stone row complex.
Three rows, several cairns and a stone circle form the Fernworthy complex.
Learable Hill Complex
Four stone rows, large numbers of cairns and a nearby stone circle (not shown) form the Learable Hill stone row complex.
Six stone rows, a stone circle and several cairns at the Merrivale stone row complex.
Six stone rows, a number of cairns and a stone circle form the Shoveldown stone row complex. Five of the rows are of the double type and only one is of the single variety. Shoveldown stands on the periphery of the Chagford Common double row zone and therefore the prominence of double rows is understandable.
Looking at the clusters and complexes of stone rows permits some important observations to be made. It is clear that even in areas with large numbers of rows that different types were built in specific areas, whilst in others there is a mixture of types. This provides further evidence that separate communities built their rows to their own specification and implies differences in how they were used. Clearly we can never know what these differences were and why some areas never embraced the alternatives whilst others were much more flexible and were happy to build and use both single, double, triple and multiple rows. It is clearly possible that we are looking at chronological differences, but on balance it seems more likely that what we are witnessing is tangible evidence for the partial dissemination of complex related ideas which were received, accepted or rejected, embellished, shared and finally abandoned. So very human.
Most of the clusters and complexes share one characteristic and this is that they are associated with funerary activity. Sometimes this is more obvious, but all these rows have a definable spatial relationship with cairns. We can therefore be certain that these stone rows were connected at least in part with funerary activities. Whether this was their main purpose we cannot be certain but where rows were drawn close together they almost invariably stand within a funerary landscape. Clearly it is not possible to be certain which came first and more importantly it is difficult to explain why so many groupings of cairns are not spatially associated with rows. Why are some cairns directly associated with rows but the majority are not? Rows could not have been an integral part of funerary activity and yet sometimes they were. Clearly we are hampered by a lack of dating and perhaps the cairns which seem to pay no regard to the rows were either earlier or later in date. Do the single and other rows belong to different times? Again there is no way of answering this but on balance it seems more probable that they are contemporary and reflect subtle differences in the ways stone row rituals were practised. Complexes with more than one type may suggest that both rituals were practised alongside each other and indeed probably by the same people. The rituals associated with the rows would have been constantly evolving and it is therefore no surprise that the rows themselves vary considerable in character, form and disposition.
Why are some rows clustered together whilst others are dispersed? Does this reflect differential survival or the original distribution? Without a doubt large numbers of stone rows will have been destroyed and the surviving population is certainly influenced by later activity. Unfortunately it is not possible to quantify what has been lost although it is perhaps significant that more than half of the rows are in National Parks and a substantial proportion of the remainder stand in areas that have not seen much change. We can therefore be confident that the present distribution has been influenced by activity during the past 3,000 years. The clusters and complexes may therefore give an insight into what large swathes of the British countryside once looked like. Stone rows were probably once fairly common in areas where the geology was sympathetic and elsewhere lines of timber posts may have been deployed instead. At least some of the pit alignments known in the lowlands may have served the same purpose.
FIRST PUBLISHED: 23rd June 2020