Castlerigg Stone Circle

History of Castlerigg Stone Circle

There are few stone circles in Britain in such a dramatic setting as that of Castlerigg, which overlooks the Thirlmere Valley with the mountains of High Seat and Helvellyn as a backdrop.

View of the stone circle with the mountains beyond
View of the stone circle with the mountains beyond

It is not just its location that makes this one of the most important British stone circles. Thought to have been constructed about 3000 BC, it is potentially one of the earliest in the country. Taken into guardianship in 1883, it was also one of the first monuments in the country to be recommended for preservation by the state.

Although there are more than 300 stone circles in Britain, the great majority of them are Bronze Age burial monuments (dating from about 2000–800 BC) containing cremations in central pits or beneath small central cairns. By contrast, their Neolithic forebears, such as Castlerigg, Swinside in the southern part of the Lake District, and Long Meg and her Daughters in the Eden Valley, do not contain formal burials.

View of part of the stone circle with the mountains beyond
View of the stone circle with the mountains beyond

The Neolithic stone circles also differ from those of the later Bronze Age in their generally larger size and often flattened circular shape – as is found at Castlerigg – comprising an open circle of many large stones. Castlerigg is about 97½ ft (30 metres) in diameter, and formerly comprised 42 stones. There are now only 38 stones, which vary in height from 3¼ ft (1 metre) to 7½ ft (2.3 metres).

Neolithic stone circles typically have an entrance and at least one outlying stone. The entrance at Castlerigg, on the north side of the circle, is flanked by two massive upright stones, and the outlier is presently to the west-south-west of the stone circle, on the west side of the field adjacent to a stile; this stone has been moved from its original position. It has been suggested that such outlying stones had astronomical significance – alignments with planets or stars – although examination of those in early stone circles elsewhere in Britain has shown that there are no consistent orientations for them.

One of the stones flanking the entrance to the stone circle
One of the stones flanking the entrance to the stone circle

One of the more unusual features of Castlerigg is a rectangle of standing stones within the circle; there is only one other comparable example, at the Cockpit, an open stone circle at Askham Fell, near Ullswater.

Castlerigg has not been extensively excavated, and it is therefore not known exactly what might be preserved beneath the surface. Three Neolithic stone axes originating from nearby Great Langdale were recovered from the site in the 19th century, and similar finds have been made at other Neolithic stone circles.

The precise function of these early circles is not known, but their importance possibly centred on their large internal areas with their formalised entrances. Sites such as Castlerigg were undoubtedly important meeting places for the scattered Neolithic communities, but whether as trading places or as religious centres, or even both, is not known.

Further Reading

Clare, T, ‘Archaeological Sites of the Lake District’, Archaeological Journal, 155 (1998), 368–9

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