Across the length and breadth of the British Isles, you will find echoes of our Neolithic past. From the hundreds of stone circles that stretch from Wiltshire to Orkney to Anglesey’s remarkable prehistoric mounds.
Below are 10 of the best Neolithic sites to visit in Britain. We have also included some stunning sites from islands surrounding the British mainland – on Orkney, on the Isle of Lewis and on Anglesey.
1. The Calanais Standing Stones
Situated on the Isle of Lewis, the Calanais Standing Stones are mightily impressive. The main site – Calanais 1 – includes a central stone (the monolith) surrounded by a ring of stones. It is believed to have been constructed in the first half of the 3rd millennium BC.
A few generations after its construction a chamber tomb was added to the centre of the great circle. Pottery fragments discovered within the small chamber tomb date to c.2,000 BC.
The purpose of Calanais is debated though it is once again assumed to have had a religious function.
Several more stone circles are located across the Island. Calanais II and III, for instance, are located within sight of Calanais I.
2. Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Heart of Neolithic Orkney is the collective name for a group of four Neolithic monuments located on the island of Orkney. Two of these monuments are great stone circles.
The first is the Stones of Stenness, a group of 4 upright stones that are all that survive of what was originally a much larger stone circle. The Stones are enormous in size, emphasising how the earliest stone circles of the Neolithic period appear to have been much larger than the later ones (though dating is difficult it appears the Stones were constructed by at least c.3,100 BC).
The second great stone circle is the Ring of Brodgar. Giant in its design, this Ring is one of the most remarkable stone circles in existence. It originally consisted of 60 megaliths, with only roughly half of these stones still standing today.
Nevertheless this large, circular stone ring – surrounded by a ditch and believed to have been constructed in the mid 3rd millennium BC – remains one of the most fascinating Neolithic monuments in the UK.
Alongside the two stone circles is Maes Howe, a large chambered cairn that was similarly constructed in the early 3rd millennium BC, and Skara Brae, the nearby stone-built Neolithic village.
Castlerigg is a great stone circle in the northern Lake District. Constructed in c. 3,200 BC it is one of the oldest stone circles in Britain. Its design is not a perfect circle, while the stones vary in size. A significant gap in the circle is visible, which may have been the circle’s entrance.
Swinside Stone Circle can be found in the southern Lake District. Constructed some 5,000 years ago the Circle was constructed on a platform specially created for it. Some 55 of the original stones remain standing, making it one of the most intact circles in Britain.
The discovery of stone axe heads within the ring suggests the circle may have been a centre for axe trading.
5. The Rollright Stones
Following on from Stonehenge and Avebury, the Rollright Stones is one of the best-loved Neolithic sites in Britain. It consists of three separate monuments: the King’s Men, the King’s Stone and the Whispering Knights. The legend goes that all these men were turned to stone.
The truth is we know relatively little about why these Neolithic monuments were erected, though the circle’s similarity to Swinside suggests it may have been a centre for axe trading.
The circle itself was restored in the 19th century. Fortunately engravings of the circle from earlier centuries survive, giving us an idea of how it looked before restoration.
6. Long Meg and Her Daughters
Long Meg and Her Daughters are situated on the eastern edge of the Lake District. Long Meg itself is a 12 foot high megalith overlooking a large stone circle – ‘Her Daughters’.
What is perhaps so fascinating about Long Meg is the detail that survives on the megalith. Spiral carvings are visible along the face of the stone.
Her Daughters consists of 69 stones and is the third largest surviving stone circle in England.
7. Bryn Celli Ddu
The best-known Neolithic monument on Anglesey, Bryn Celli Ddu is a Neolithic passage tomb. At the centre of the tomb is a burial pit, which was used as a central marker around which the rest of the tomb was constructed. The tomb appears to have been enlarged at a later date.
A domed mound of earth was placed on top of the completed passage tomb. The mound included an important solar alignment. On the longest day of the year, the sun would shine down the passage and light up the chamber.
8. Silbury Hill
The largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe. Standing 30 metres tall it towers over the surrounding Wiltshire countryside. Like at Bryn Celli Ddu, the monument we see today is one that appears to have been enlarged over several generations.
Stonehenge needs little introduction for being on this list. In regards to stone circles, its construction in 2,300/2,400 BC sees that it sits very nicely on the boundary between the Great Circles and the smaller later circles.
Activity at the site goes back earlier than 3,000 BC, before the Henge itself was constructed. At first the site served as a cremation cemetery.
When constructing Stonehenge itself, the famous trilithons were put up first. They then added stones around the outside. Both above components consisted of local stones.
Once these stones were added, it was then that the Neolithic communities brought the famous bluestones from the Preseli Hills in Wales and placed them in the central area of Stonehenge.
The best time to visit Stonehenge is during the mid-winter solstice (21/22 December).
10. Avebury Henge and Stone Circle
One of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in Britain. Situated partly within the Wiltshire village of Avebury today, this is the largest stone circle in Britain, originally consisting of 100 stones. Like many other great stone circles its construction roughly dates to the early 3rd millennium BC.
Two smaller stone circles are enclosed within this great stone circle, constructed later that once again epitomise how these monuments decreased in size as the Neolithic era progressed.
Its function remains hotly-debated, but it certainly appears to have had a religious significance. Animal bones found in the vicinity of the Henge suggests Avebury may have also served as a focal point for communal Neolithic feasts and gatherings.