Great Stone Circles Aubrey Burl
Hardcover - 216 pages (March 1999) Yale University Press 1999
This weighty book takes an original approach. Dr Burl has picked half a dozen of the biggest, best known and most studied stone circles in Britain and written what must be a definitive account of every significant fact and fable that has been documented about them. Ten sites: Stanton Drew, Swinside, the Rollrights, Long Meg, the Land's End cluster, Stonehenge and, as Burl points out, the sparsest site that we have learnt most from: Woodhenge. His discussion of the Heel stone is a good example of how he sieves the references and homes in on answers. Presumably Avebury is absent as he literally wrote the book on that in 1979. New discoveries there call for an update, but they would have been too late for this book. I'm sure this will come in time, indeed many of us hope Dr Burl will get round to an update of his 1976 Stone Circles of the British Isles.
Burl's style is direct and can be poetic. If you can get inside his pithy humour it is inspiring to follow him as he targets and eliminates one misconception after another. From antiquarians to excavators, with a nod to the dowsers and ley hunters, the book documents all the attempts to penetrate the silence of the stones. He has little time for idle speculators, but he does at least give their ideas a quick airing rather than shying away like so many of his archaeological peers. Alas though, even drawing all this together can only go so far to answer many of the questions posed.
Burl starts the Stonehenge section with a passionate argument as to how the Bluestones got there. I agree with him that the journey from Wales seems far-fetched, but I'm not convinced by the case for glacial erratics picked up from Salisbury Plain either! Burl's other heretical idea, the suggestion that the Bretons had a hand in building Stonehenge is convincing. Indeed his descriptions of anthropomorphic rock art at Stonehenge unwittingly lay the foundations for Terence Meaden to step in with his carved head ideas.
There are inevitable comparisons with Burl's Prehistoric Avebury. One interesting section in that was his description of how people probably carried out their daily lives. Great Stone Circles does cover the construction of Swinside, but I'd liked to have seen more of this. As with many of Burl's other works, the great attraction is the space given to the lesser-known sites. I hope he can repeat the process at other circles in the future. Not a book you will tire of quickly if stone circles are your thing. So full of information it is hard to take in and digest in one reading, but that is more the fault of the reviewer than the author. Superb.
Review by Andy Burnham
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