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The Neolithic Builder of the Aberdeenshire Recumbent Stone Circles

The Neolithic Builder of the Aberdeenshire Recumbent Stone Circles

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In my recently published book, I write “It is astonishing that so much attention is given to the prehistoric monuments of both Stonehenge and Avebury henge when the remains of a far greater Stone Age architectural achievement still exists across the Aberdeenshire countryside.” I am, of course, referring to the recumbent stone circles (RSCs) of northeast  Scotland, a distinctive class of stone circle dating to around 2500 BC.

These recumbent stone circles all contained an outlandishly large stone that was deliberately laid flat in the southern quadrant of the stone ring – hence their name. Amazingly 71 of these stone rings still survive amongst the Scottish landscape and the most impressive feature of these circles is, of course, their massive recumbent stones. 

The general location of the recumbent stone circles of Aberdeenshire. (Author provided)

The 53-ton (48-tonne) recumbent at Old Keig RSC is colossal, to give but one example. Interestingly it took more than a 1,000 people to drag it six miles overland from its source in the landscape to the final destination where the circle was built. This was an exercise in human logistics that would have rivalled the transportation of the heaviest  sarsen stones  from the Marlborough Downs to  Stonehenge.

The distinctive recumbent stone lodged between its two flanker stones at the Old Keig RSC. Over 1,000 people would have had to drag this stone 6 miles (9.65 km) overland! (Author provided)

So, how can it be claimed that the construction of these 71 RSCs represented a far greater achievement than the building of Wilshire’s two famous monuments? Let’s start out by setting aside the fact that the  Aberdeenshire Neolithic communities were moving far more stone (in terms of volume and weight) to build their  stone circles , when compared to the combined number of sarsen stones moved by their contemporary counterparts at  Avebury and Stonehenge. 

There is one extraordinary aspect that these RSCs have in common. All of them show the handiwork of one single individual who I refer to as the “specialist builder”. Now, this does not mean that this person built all the Scottish circles single-handedly. Rather it was this gifted specialist who supervised the local Neolithic communities to build them in such a way that the circles are consistent in both design and architecture. 

In my book  The Recumbent Stone Circles of Aberdeenshire , I employ experimental archaeology to demonstrate how this so-called specialist went about building all these RSCs with measured ropes. I show that the specialist also, and most impressively, managed to orientate all of them so that they were all astronomically aligned towards each other, forming a vast array of inter-aligned stone circles covering the entire Aberdeenshire landscape. 

Just one selection of the handiwork of the “specialist builder” who managed to create an array of astronomically-aligned stone circles covering the entire Aberdeenshire landscape. The array would enable the communities to meet at certain locations in the landscape at specific times of the solar / lunar year. (Author provided)

Who was the Specialist Builder?

Certainly, the consistency of design across all 71 extant stones circles is remarkable. But who was this specialist builder who used ropes to construct these recumbent stone circles in such a way that they were also astronomically aligned towards each other? The answer to this question is difficult, more so because of the absence of substantial archaeological evidence. For instance, it is difficult to pinpoint precisely where everybody lived (let alone an individual), as the totality of Late Neolithic settlement patterns across Aberdeenshire is still not fully understood. Thus, identifying who exactly this specialist builder was is impossible.

Undoubtedly, this individual must have possessed hierarchical rank and authority to supervise the “common” people when building their  stone circles , especially when taking into account that over 1,000 persons were needed to move gigantic recumbent stones such as the one at Old Keig. And no doubt the builder’s vast network of inter-aligned stone circles facilitated trade and exchange, coordinating the days for markets and thereby increasing the overall wealth of both the general population and the upper echelons of society who the builder served. 

Perhaps, the specialist builder was part noble, part priest, and could therefore also control and schedule the ritual ceremonies of the people. However, around 2500 BC, when all of these circles were being built, it was also an unsettling era in prehistoric Aberdeenshire (and elsewhere across Britain). It was marked by the first waves of the incoming Beaker people from mainland Europe who were beginning to make their appearance. Perhaps, this immigration was a threat which demanded, amongst other responses, an architectural solution. 

How the initial incomers (circa 2500 to 2250 BC) settled alongside the indigenous Late Neolithic communities of Aberdeenshire is conjectural. Maybe building the RSCs was a way of physically making a statement on the part of the indigenous Neolithic communities. Could the stone circles have implied that “this is our land”? What we do know from the latest genetic research concerning the movement of people in the past, is that by 2200 BC the genetic impact of the spread of peoples from Western, Central and Eastern Europe into Britain appears to confirm that after colonization by these incoming Beaker people, they had  replaced 90% of the indigenous British genetic pool .

According to geneticist David Reich, in his book  Who We Are And How We Got Here,  this was population replacement by the  Beaker people . Notably, the Beaker people were unknowingly bringing with them, and spreading, life-threatening diseases from Europe for which the British indigenous people had no immunity. Thus, between 2200 and 1900 BC, the Late Neolithic Stone Age farmers of Aberdeenshire faced their own “Covid-like” pandemic resulting in over 90% of them being replaced by the incoming metal-working Beaker people.

The Ratio of Measurement at the Recumbent Stone Circles

Significantly, my research has highlighted new discoveries that have not been either discussed or noticed before. For instance, I explain how the measurements for the lengths of each respective recumbent stone determined the dimensions of its corresponding stone circle. I note that it all revolved around the principle of ratio. For example, the diameter of the Balquhain RSC is 66.4 feet (20.2 m) and the length of its recumbent stone is 13.28 feet (4.04 m). The ratio is that the length of the recumbent is one fifth of its diameter (66.4 divided by 13.28 equals 5). 

Similarly, the diameter of the Sunhoney RSC is 85.3125 feet (26 m) and the length of its recumbent stone is 17.06 feet (5.2 m). Again, the ratio between the recumbent and diameter is one fifth (85.3125 divided by 17.06 equal 5). And Old Keig has a diameter of 89 feet (27.1 m), the length of its recumbent is 17.8 feet (5.43 m), and its ratio is again one fifth. Of course, the mathematical relationship between a circle’s diameter and its respective recumbent is not always equal to one fifth; the diameter of the North Stone RSC is 60 feet (18.2 m) and its recumbent stone is 5 feet long (1.5 m), thus the ratio is equal to one twelfth (60 divided by 5 equals 12). 

Even more intriguing is that the lengths of these recumbent stones were also proportional to the dimensions of the individual respective circle stones that stood in the corresponding stone circle! Everything that related to the building of a stone circle revolved around the “ratio of measurement” and it was all accomplished by folding lengths of rope. Here is an extended example of what I mean.

Figures A and B. The Ratio of Measurement at the Easter Aquhorthies RSC (part 1) A = layout a length of rope across the 65.625-ft-diameter of the circle; B = fold that rope three times and one length will determine the average spacing of 21.875 ft (or 65.625 ft divided by 3) between the circle stones.  (Author provided)

The diameter of the Easter Aquhorthies RSC is 65.625 feet (20 m). Let us imagine laying out a length of rope across this diameter (Fig A). If we were to fold this length of rope three times, each fold would be equal 21.875 feet (6.6 m), and one fold just happens to be the measurement for the average distancing between the circle stones (Fig. B). But let us now imagine folding this rope five times and then cutting off one fifth (i.e. 65.625 ft divided by 5 equals 13.125 ft or 4 m). This residual 13.125-foot-long rope now equates to the length of the circle’s recumbent stone or one fifth of the circle’s diameter (Fig C). 

Fig C and D. The Ratio of Measurement at the Easter Aquhorthies RSC (part 2). C = the 13.125 ft measurement for the length of the recumbent stone is one fifth of the circle’s diameter; D = Fold that 13.125-ft rope seven times and we have one fold equal to the 22 ½ inches long which matches the baseline width of stone no 8 (or 13.125 ft divided by 7 equals 22 ½ inches). (Author provided)

Hence, the ratio between the length of a circle’s recumbent stone and its corresponding diameter. Now, imagine folding that residual 13.125-foot-long rope seven times and cutting off one fold. This new shorter rope will be equal to 1.875 feet (or 22 ½ inches) which just happens to match the baseline-width of circle stone number 8 (Fig D). This similar principle of proportions or ratio works for all the other circle stones also. It is just a case of knowing which way to fold the ropes. 

Incidentally, when we add up the combined total for the widths of all of the stones standing in this circle, we obtain a measurement of 472 ½ inches or 39.375 feet (12 m). Should we divide this total by three, then we end up with a measurement equal to 13.125 feet, which just happens to be equal to the length of the Easter Aquhorthies’ recumbent stone (39.375 divided by 3 equals 13.125). 

The mathematics being displayed here is amazing for a preliterate culture that could not write down its calculations. However, I am confident that all of the calculations discussed in this article could have been originally performed and expressed using a “rudimentary” form of finger reckoning which I will demonstrate at my forthcoming guided tours at three RSCs this August (discussed below). 

Indeed, I believe that there was probably a very sophisticated form of finger reckoning mathematics being utilized by certain “gifted” individuals living amongst the Neolithic communities and, no doubt, this mathematics was also being applied to the more practical issues of trade, exchange and profit.

The Megalithic Symbolism of the Recumbent Stone Circles

Obviously, there was a group of intellectual people capable of designing complex  megalithic structures. But did the common people need to know of such mathematics. Apparently not. I propose that the “common” people (including the children) could work out for themselves what the stone circles meant without the need for them to understand the complex geometry and astronomy involved with design. They knew what to look for simply by recognizing the symbolism associated with the shapes and positions of the circle stones. 

Obviously, somebody knowledgeable (i.e. the specialist builder) had initially designed the circles, but then the knowledge associated with the meaning of the circle stones would have been relatively easy to verbally pass on because their shapes were familiar to the people, and those shapes stated their purpose. After all, here was a culture that relied upon a stone-based technology; these people were constantly polishing and shaping their stone axes and knapping flint tools to specific designs that were both fit for purpose and shaped for identity. 

Perhaps certain shapes of the circle stones projected specific symbolic information about the quickest and safest routes to take when crossing the landscape. Maybe, there were other shapes, that stood in similar positions in their respective circles, that the people could interpret for themselves which would tell them when and where important market days would be held. Other shapes might have dictated what rituals (e.g. funerary, marriage, etc.) could have taken place. 

Ultimately, the shapes of the stones standing in a circle projected visual symbolism to the eyes of the beholder. Amazingly, the commonalities of these shapes have not been fully recognized. So much so I can now classify not only a number of common shapes but also identify where they would generally stand in their corresponding circles (see image below).

Classification of regular shapes (A) and their corresponding positions (B). (Author provided)

Here are five examples of just one symbolic shape I have identified. I refer to this shape as a “Zigzag” or “Winter Moon Stone” (see below). 

Examples of zigzag stones. A = Loanhead of Daviot RSC; B = Easter Aquhorthies RSC; C = Sunhoney RSC; D = Tomnaverie RSC; E = Strichen House RSC. Could this shape symbolically represent the waxing and waning phases of the winter moon? (Author provided)

It is not only their distinctive, repeatable zigzag like appearance that is common, but also their persistent positioning in the northern quadrant of their respective stone circle setting. Furthermore, these zigzag stones were highly worked, continuously rubbed down and polished with hand-held stone tools, thereby giving them their distinctive shape. 

Perhaps, the specialist builder was trying to sculpture them to imitate the crescent-shape of the waxing and waning phases of the moon especially as these orthostats are always aligned towards the direction of the setting of the mid-winter full moon. Possibly, when the moon appeared to set in alignment behind these zigzag stones, then it signified an important lunar date in the Neolithic calendar.

Such reasoning of symbolism does, indeed, help to reduce the “scientific” complexity of associating both the astronomy and geometry of RSC architecture within the intellectual capabilities of the general Late Neolithic communities; in other words, the common people did not need to be “scientists” in order to understand what they were looking at when visiting their stone circles.

Experimental Archaeology to Understand the Recumbent Stone Circles

Undoubtedly, the most interesting fact about this research is that the handiwork of this specialist builder can still be seen and examined today at every RSC. One only has to perform some simple experimental archaeology by measuring with lengths of rope or even pacing by foot. Knowing that there is a ratio factor between the length of a recumbent stone and the diameter of its corresponding circle one can enjoy calculating what the proportional relationship is between these two features.

Additionally, one can look at the shapes of the orthostats at one stone circle and look for similar shapes (standing in the same position) at another stone circle. Certainly, conducting such experiments offers a fantastic, educational opportunity for both researchers and students of all ages to appreciate the cognitive abilities used by the Late Neolithic communities of Aberdeenshire when they originally built their RSCs. Moreover, here is a way to both investigate and appreciate the types of prehistoric mathematics and astronomy involved with the design - without causing any damage to these sacred circles! 

To help any interested schools, colleges and universities, I have prepared free educational packs to enable such groups to perform their own experiments at the RSCs. Furthermore, I am visiting Aberdeenshire this August and will gladly present free, guided tours to any interested parties at the Loanhead of Daviot RSC on Tuesday 3 rd August; at Tomnaverie RSC on Saturday 7 th August and at the  Easter Aquhorthies RSC  on Saturday 10 th August. Each event will commence from 13.00 onwards and will involve demonstrations of experimental archaeology with measured ropes. All, of course, subject to Covid restrictions being lifted by then. 

You can make contact and find out more information about these events via his Facebook Group page –  Friends of the Recumbent Stone Circles of Aberdeenshire

Dr. Hill’s book  The Recumbent Stone Circles of Aberdeenshire: Archaeology, Design, Astronomy and Methods  is available at:  https://www.cambridgescholars.com/product/978-1-5275-6585-2

Top image: The  Easter Aquhorthies stone circle is a recumbent stone circle in Aberdeenshire,  Scotland.    Source: Stu smith /  CC BY-SA 2.0

By Dr. John Hill

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