|Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Islands, Scotland|
Nearly the only artifacts bequeathed to the present by the builders of Stonehenge and the thousands of other megalithic monuments dotting the British countryside were stones. The culture that built these profound testaments to perseverance had no written language, left no pictorial records, did not pass down oral histories through the generations. Lost in the mists of prehistory are most of the clues that might have explained what beliefs or practical concerns drove these people to stand 80-ton boulders on end and painstakingly arrange them into circles with little more than ropes and their bare hands.
Through intensive forensic examinations of soil, bones, clay urns, and primitive tools discovered near megalithic sites, archaeologists have ascertained that the earliest landmarks to have survived to the present were built by a late Stone Age, or Neolithic, people. Emigrating to the fertile chalk uplands of south-central England from the Continental northwest around 4000 BCE, these hardy settlers were the first to bring agriculture to the British Isles.
They also are the likely builders of the many long barrows - stone tombs buried under sometimes massive mounds of earth - found in England, Wales, and Scotland, as well as the broad, banked trench rings known as henges, which later became the sites of many of the stone circles still found today. The largest megalithic monuments, such as Stonehenge, came later and are thought to have been erected around 2300 BCE by an early Bronze Age people known as the Beaker folk.
Theories purporting to explain the function of Britain's prehistoric stone circles abound, despite the dearth of real evidence. Some studies claim that they serve as maps of the Zodiac. Others argue that they form complex solar or lunar calendars and were the centers of ritual ceremonies on solstice days or during eclipses. One of the most popularly held misconceptions about the circles perpetrated by 18th-century scholars is that they were built by the Druids, the nature-worshiping priestly class of the Celtic people. Revered by New Agers today, the Celts did not inhabit Britain until 800 BCE, more than 1000 years after most of the monuments came to be.
Stonehenge is impressive if you've never seen it in person, but because it's so completely overrun by the tourist hoards, not to mention wholly fenced off, the mystique is utterly ruined (no pun intended). Leave the buses and the gift shop snow globes behind and head for the more remote corners of the British countryside, where you'll find megalithic monuments in settings less spoiled by commercial sprawl. From the scenic hinterlands of Scotland's Orkney and Hebrides Islands to the foggy moors of Cornwall to the barren crags of the Lake District, even the most joyless cynic will want to believe in faeries after sucking up the ambience at these sites. So get out your Gandalf staff and go beyond Stonehenge with GORP's guide to Great Britain's other great prehistoric landmarks.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication