I often get asked about standing stones. They are a tricky beasts, archaeologically speaking, and this week’s blog is going to try and tell you what we might, and might not, know.
A large number of standing stones litter the Manx landscape. Some standing stones are part of wider monuments, such as those at Meayll Hill or Cashtal yn Ard. Others are isolated. In Britain, perhaps the most famous set of standing stones are those of Stonehenge. Henges are a class of monument dating to the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Archaeologically speaking a henge does not need to have any standing stones at all as we simply define a henge as ant roughly circular bank with an internal circular ditch. There are far more henges that have no standing stones on them than those that do, but in the public imagination Stonehenge provides the model for what a henge looks like. As far as we know there are no true henges on the Isle of Man – no ditch and bank enclosure. The excavations at Billown by Bournemough University identified a small ditch and bank which they term a mini-henge but it measures only 1.6m across.
Today there are not really any sites that we would understand as stone circles on the Isle of Man – but the antiquarian accounts of Manx archaeology contain multiple references to stone circles. Many of these antiquarian accounts date to the 1930s and 40s and some are even older dating back to the 1800s for example. Today the majority of us have seen multiple images of Stonehenge on the television, associated with the solstice or perhaps some circling overhead footage from a drone or helicopter from a documentary – this would not have been the case in the 1940s (and earlier) and whilst some of the antiquarians might have visited Stonehenge many may only have read about the elusive stone circle. So what are these stone circles Manx antiquarians report on – in the main we think that what they are writing about are the kerbs that surround some burial mounds. Some Bronze Age burial mounds have a kind of kerb constructed around the edge of the mound. In many cases this kerb marks the edge of the mound and acts to retain some of the mound material. If you imagine building a large earthen mound one might expect a fair amount of slumpage and we think that kerbs, at least in part, address this. There is a nice clear kerb at Arragon Mooar B, pictured below. If you think about a mound with a kerb being eroded away over time sometimes we end up with the stones left in place, the top (or even all) of the mound eroded away and a circle of stones remaining.
What about lone standings stones then? The kind we see in field across the island. Some of these stones may perhaps have marked prehistoric burial sites. The area surrounding Bishopscourt has a number of prehistoric burials in it – including Cottier’s Field – a site I’ve blogged about before. There are mounds in this area but also burials that we think were never covered with a mound. Archaeologists refer to these mound-less burials as flat-graves. In the same area there is also a standing stone and it is quite possible that the stone marked the location of a flat burial.
Does this mean that all the standing stones we see mark the location of prehistoric burials? Are all the standing stones ancient? Not at all. A number of standing stones have been erected by farmers over the years – often as rubbing posts for their animals. In the 1990s Bournemouth University carried out a geophysical survey, excavated around, and re-raised a fallen standing stone near Billown. The excavation of the stone revealed a sherd of post-medieval pottery underneath the stone in the base of the socket. It is possible this sherd entered the socket when the standing stone fell, however, the excavators felt it was more likely that this standing stone, and perhaps the others in the field, were erected as rubbing stones for animals or by the first owner of the quarry who exploited it for black limestone. Had that sherd of pottery not fallen into the pocket beneath the stone we would have had no way of dating (albeit not that confidently!) the stone.