Digging into henges and henging…

“The problem with henges is that archaeologists no longer know what they mean by the term.”
Alex Gibson. An Introduction to the Study of Henges: Time for a Change? (2012)
The Ring of Brodgar from the air, showing the two opposing entrance causeways. (Jim Richardson)
The Ring of Brodgar from the air, showing the two opposing entrance causeways across the ditch. (📷Jim Richardson)

By Sigurd Towrie

Rewatching a lock-down-era online talk recently I was struck by the number of times the speaker referred to the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness as “henge monuments”. Nothing new there – the two stone circles have been described as such since the term was coined in 1932. [1]

But are they really? And, if so, what actually is a henge?

Described as the most numerous, widely distributed monuments of the British Neolithic, henges are also, arguably, one of the least understood. [2]

Hailed the “archetypal ritual sites of the third millennium BC” [2], they comprise earthen banks and ditches enclosing circular, or oval, areas ranging from a few metres to 26.5 acres. [3]

Lieutenant Thomas ' 1848 plan of the Ring of Brodgar.
Lieutenant Thomas’ 1848 plan of the Ring of Brodgar.

Accessed by one or more entrances, henge interiors often featured timber or stone circles – the many different component arrangements inevitably resulting in monuments whose appearance varied as much as their size.

As with chambered cairns it has long been proposed that, because of the architectural similarities, all henges had the same purpose — a role generally assigned to the catch-all “somehow utilised as ritual monuments”. [4]

The sheer scale of the ditches and banks defining some henges certainly suggests something beyond mere practicality. Avebury’s ten- to 14-metre-deep ditch, for example, lay in the shadow of a six- to eight-metre-high enclosing bank. [5]

The work required to excavate this ditch and raise the bank was clearly considerable, prompting the idea that it was construction that was perhaps the significant element. That done the completed structure had no further importance. [6]

While this may be the case in some instances — where smaller henges had short lifespans or were backfilled soon after digging — it’s harder to accept at sites where a history of maintenance and modification is evident. The argument for these is that the episodes should not be seen as repair but rather “a re-enactment of the original construction”. [6]

Although he conceded it was difficulty to say, with any certainty, “what concepts and beliefs lie embedded” within henges, Cunliffe was confident they were places where “mortals could relate to their gods”. [7]

Circularity, he added, was clearly significant and the settings of timber and stone represented a “house” occupied by gods or an appropriate place to “enact rituals and keep religious regalia”. [7]

The size and form of henge monuments across Britain also led to the widespread interpretation that they represented meeting places — demarcated arenas for activities involving large numbers of people.

“Henges were enclosures,” stated Burl, “and presumably the size of the enclosed space in an indication of the number of people who congregated there”. [8]

Again, while this could well be the case for some, can it really account for the giant henges at Avebury, Durrington Walls, Marden or Mount Pleasant? These have diameters between 320 and 480 metres! And if henges were constructed to contain gatherings, why do we also have tiny examples only a few metres across? Clearly, there is something else going on in sites like these.

Therein lies a major problem with henges.

As we’ve seen, the tendency was to lump them all together and look for a universal role or purpose, regardless of size or variations. A situation not helped by their classification as a monument “type” in the early 20th century.

The shared components saw them crowbarred into three main categories, based on the number of entrances and ditches:

  • Class 1: Single entrance, single bank, and, usually, a single ditch circuit.
  • Class 1A: Single entrance, single bank, and double circuit of ditches
  • Class 2: Two opposed entrances, single bank, and single ditch circuit
  • Class 2A: Two opposed entrances, single bank, and two or more circuits of ditches
  • Class 3: Four opposed entrances, single bank, and single ditch circuit.

And here we can return to the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness. Based on the henge classification criteria — an internal ditch, external bank and entrance(s) — neither qualify!

Lieutenant Thomas ' 1848 plan of the Stones of Stenness showing the ditch and proposed bank.
Lieutenant Thomas’ 1848 plan of the Stones of Stenness showing the ditch and proposed bank.

Although regularly described as a “classic henge” [4], the Stones of Stenness falls short because evidence for an external bank remains debated [9]. The same goes for the bankless Ring of Brodgar [10].  Even Stonehenge is excluded because its external ditch denies it the title of a true henge! [2]

But does this mean anything?

Not really – perhaps just a warning not to rely too much on typology when trying to understand, or interpret, monuments.

The henge definitions have been described as a “classic example of the archaeological love of classification taken to extremes, even gone awry” [11] and although great progress has been made in recent years [12], old habits die hard.

The focus tended to remains on the exterior earthworks, often assuming they were contemporary with the features within and radically oversimplifying the study of the monuments. [13]

The catch-all term “henge” was problematic from day one, loosely including ditched enclosures, timber circles, stone circles and even elements of round barrows [14].

It resulted in the sites being considered as unitary constructions – monuments planned and built as single entities – rather than “complex, dynamic places, that were constantly being reworked.” [11]

The depth of the ditch surrounding the Ring of Brodgar revealed in 2008. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The extent of the ditch surrounding the Ring of Brodgar revealed in 2008. The ditch was originally three metres deep and seven metres wide. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

What does this mean? At the Stones of Stenness, for example, we must question whether a stone ring, ditch and bank were planned from the outset.

Instead, what has been considered a single “henge monument” may be the result of distinct phases of activity, perhaps even over a prolonged period of time.

With the Stones of Stenness, was the circle of megaliths erected first and then afterwards enclosed by a ditch (and wall/bank)? How long after is the key question here.

Things are further complicated when we consider the excavation evidence, which shows that the stone circle was never completed. On top of that it may be that the individual megaliths were added, piecemeal, over time.

So, if the plan was to erect twelve megaliths and then surround them by a ditch and wall, it clearly changed.

Or were the ditch and (hypothetical) bank/wall the first creations , intended to define an area (or enclose an earlier structure) and the addition of the standing stones part of a later phase? Alternatively, were the earthworks added long after the stones to emphasise, or contain, a site of special (but waning) significance?

One thing is for sure, we can’t treat all the elements of the monument as necessarily being part of the original plan and therefore contemporary.

So where does that leave us?

I think Kenny Brophy and Gordon Barclay have hit the nail on the head:

“[W]hen considered as an act, a verb, rather than a thing, a noun, the word henge begins to make a little more sense as a common response to something, rather than as a cultural or temporal identifier.” [12]

Describing the process of “henging” as an “emphatic act”, they added:

“The earthwork element of these monuments inevitably altered the experience of these places, regardless of the scale of the earthworks, changing these places for ever, clearly defining an inside and an outside more explicitly than had been possible (or even desirable) before at places that had already had long life-histories.” [12]

They suggest these alterations were associated with:

“…putting places beyond use, moments of no return. In some instances, such acts decommissioned monuments altogether, while in others activity was still attracted to the fringes or raised areas of these places.” [12]

One thing we can say with relative confidence is that elements of henges – their ditch and bank – demarcated space. Like the Ness of Brodgar complex’s northern and southern boundary walls, henge earthworks not only kept things out but, perhaps just as importantly, kept things in.

“The need to enclose is a basic one,” wrote Alex Gibson [15]:

“Various walls, fences and hedges define our gardens, over which territorial disputes can occasionally arise. The walled gardens of country estates do not just define the lands around the great house but make a statement as to the wealth of its owners and the manpower that they could once command.”

The Avebury Henge. (R.J.C. Atkinson, Stonehenge and Avebury. 1959)
The Avebury Henge. (R.J.C. Atkinson, Stonehenge and Avebury. 1959)

Given the scale of the ditches and banks defining some henges across the country, it could be argued the same applied in prehistory. They not only marked a specific area but did so by making a highly visual statement in the landscape.

The arrangement of the ditch/banks is intriguing. Because the banks tend to be on the outside of the deep ditch, it’s unlikely they had the defensive role once proposed. An external bank would provide would-be attackers the benefit of high ground, rendering them useless for defence, unless the intention was to “keep things in, rather than out”. [4]

With Iron Age enclosures in Ireland, it has been suggested the internal ditch was an inversion of the hill fort earthworks of the period. Where the normal arrangement was to defend against external forces, the reversed, internal ditch offered protection from preternatural threats from within. [16]

This led to the proposal that Iron Age enclosures were constructed at locales thought to link the “Otherworld” with the “Real World”. [16]

While supernatural denizens could not be stopped from entering the human world, they had to be stopped from exiting the “sacred area” [16]. The suggestion was one that Barclay considered a plausible interpretation of henge features but he proposed that, in the Neolithic, it may have been earlier structures, or the dead, that people needed protection from. [17]

In the Neolithic was the mythology surrounding an already ancient building or location enough to elicit its “sealing off”? This need not have had the negative connotations of fear or dread but could equally have further monumentalised it or commemorated its role in the folk history of the area.

While the construction of a henge saw the creation of a physical “place” detached from the surrounding landscape, exclusion was not a new concept in the Neolithic – a prime example being chambered cairns. The difference was that henge earthworks contained an area that remained open to the heavens and, perhaps, distant deities or spirits.

But the idea of containment can also be problematic.

While understandable at enclosures with a single or no entrance, it raises questions when we encounter sites with two or more access points. Why, if the sole purpose was to keep something inside, or out, break the all-encompassing ditch and bank to create what were presumably entrances and exits?

But in just the same way as ditches and banks contained and excluded, they also defined and displayed [15] and the entrances could have acted as visual framing devices. One of the functions proposed for the external banks was to restrict views to and from the centre of the enclosed area [18] [19]. This meant the interior was only partially visible to those approaching the entrances.

Once inside the banks also blocked views of all but significant exterior features specific to the alignment of the entrance(s) — whether natural or man-made.

The Thornborough Henges. (Tony Newbould. Via Creative Commons)
The Thornborough Henges. (Tony Newbould. Via Creative Commons)

Using the complex of Thornborough – three massive henges in North Yorkshire, England, constructed 550 metres apart over a distance of 1.7km, atop a gravel plateau [18] – Bradley suggested that the deliberate siting of monuments over existing constructions sought to “subvert the existing meaning” of its predecessor, perhaps in an effort to legitimise new beliefs or social authority. [6]

At Thornborough, the central henge was built on top of a cursus and forms part of a line of henges that cut across its axis at a right angle. Cursus monuments directed movement towards a specific location [19]. By appropriating the earlier cursus, the idea of structured movement was perhaps inherited by the three Thornborough henges.

The scale and complexity of the complex — “one of Britain’s largest ‘sacred landscapes’” — led to the suggestion that it was a “cult centre”, attracting pilgrims on a journey that was perhaps as significant as the final movement through the henges. [3]

As we’ve already covered, we may have something similar on the Ness of Brodgar, with what perhaps began as a simple route along the length of the peninsula became increasingly monumentalised and embellished.

That there may have been an earlier path is suggested by the location of the Ring of Brodgar, which was not constructed on top of the ridge but built on sloping ground to the north. Why?

The two opposing causeways in the Ring of Brodgar’s ditch suggest the monument was meant to be passed through. Then, excavation in 2008 noted “small, flattened ridges” running from both causeways, prompting archaeologists to ponder whether a pathway had been “enveloped and aggrandised by the construction of a huge stone circle and deep, rock cut ditch.”

2008: Excavating a section of the monumental ditch. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
2008: Excavating a section of the Ring of Brodgar’s monumental ditch. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Movement along the Ness of Brodgar, perhaps controlled and emphasised by the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness, seemed to fit neatly with the visible evidence – with walkers passing over the double causeways at the Brodgar ring and ending/starting at the Stenness circle with its single, north-facing entrance.

However, geophysical surveys in 1999, suggested the Stones of Stenness ditch may have had a second entrance.

If a break in deposits on the ring’s southern side does represent a former causeway, then clearly movement did not necessarily begin or end at the Stenness circle. Of course, without excavation we can’t say for sure, and the geophysical anomaly could represent a much later archaeological feature or even an unrecorded antiquarian trench. [20]

There’s also the possibility that the Ring of Brodgar’s large, south-eastern causeway was a later addition, suggesting movement through the interior was not necessarily intended from the outset. [21]

South-eastern entrance to the Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)
South-eastern causeway to the interior of the Ring of Brodgar. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

According to Harding, the spread of henges was the result of “radical, if protracted, social change” in the Late Neolithic – a “profound break with the past” that saw a shift from the previous importance of ancestry [2]. In Burl’s words: “The power of the ancestors seems to have failed and their cult gave way to the worship of gods”. [22]

Part of this, it is proposed, saw an increased emphasis on Bradley’s “circular world” in which “the constant emphasis on the circle reflects a shared perception of the world — a prehistoric cosmology” [23]. The symbolism of the circle is many layered — from the cyclical concepts of birth, life and death to the simple representation of place within a landscape and the movement/shape of heavenly bodies.

“Whatever their ultimate meanings, circular constructions reflect a perception of space that extends outwards from the individual and upwards into the sky,” Bradley concluded. [23]

Rainwater lying in the remains of the Stones of Stenness ditch.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Rainwater lying in the remains of the Stones of Stenness ditch. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

So are we any closer to understanding henges? Although questions remain, in many ways we are, particularly that they should not be treated as homogenous phenomenon.

Instead, perhaps we need to consider that the role of the “henge” differed greatly, depending on geographical location and inevitably the beliefs and traditions of each area.

We should not assume that all were symbolic barriers created to contain malevolent influence, but neither that they all monumentalised nor celebrated locales significant to their creators. Nor, for that matter, that they all played major roles involving the movement of people, religious rites or were simply meeting places.

Some were perhaps all of these, others none.

Even if we were to accept the idea that they represented the widespread adoption of a “complex package of new practices and material culture” [2], the considerable variation in layout suggests that no one definition applies to all.


  • [1] Kendrick, T.D. and Hawkes, C.F.C. 1932. Archaeology in England and Wales, 1914-1931. London: Methuen and Co.
  • [2] Harding, J. (2003) Henge Monuments of the British Isles. Stroud: Tempus.
  • [3] Burl, A. (2000) The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. Yale University Press.
  • [4] Darvill, T. (1987) Prehistoric Britain. Routledge.
  • [5] Pollard, J. & Reynolds, A. (2002) Avebury: The Biography of a Landscape. Stroud: Tempus
  • [6] Bradley, R. (1993) Altering the earth: the origins of monuments in Britain and continental Europe (Vol 8). Msas
  • [7] Cunliffe, B. (2013) Britain Begins. Oxford University Press
  • [8] Burl, A. (1997) Prehistoric Henges. Haverfordwest: Shire Archaeology
  • [10] Downes, J., Richards, C., Brown, J., Cresswell, A.J., Ellen, R., Davies, A.D., Hall, A., McCulloch, R., Sanderson, D.C. and Simpson, I.A. (2013) Investigating the Great Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. In Richards, C. (ed) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North. Oxford: Windgather Press.
  • [11] Younger, R. K. (2016) Making Memories, Making Monuments: Changing understandings of henges in prehistory and the present, in Brophy, K., Macgregor, G. and Ralston, I. (eds) (2016) The Neolithic of Mainland Scotland, pp 116–138. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  • [12] Brophy, K. and Barclay, G. (2012) Henging, Mounding and Blocking: The Forteviot Henge Group. In Gibson, A. (ed) Enclosing the Neolithic – Recent Studies in Britain and Europe. BAR Publishing, Oxford.
  • [13] Bradley, R. (1998) The Significance of Monuments: On the shaping of human experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. Routledge.
  • [14] Gibson, A. (2012) An Introduction to the Study of Henges: Time for a Change? In Gibson, A. (ed) Enclosing the Neolithic – Recent Studies in Britain and Europe. BAR Publishing, Oxford.
  • [15] Gibson, A. (2012) Enclosure. In Gibson, A. (ed) Enclosing the Neolithic – Recent Studies in Britain and Europe. BAR Publishing, Oxford.
  • [16] Warner, R. B. (2000) Keeping out the otherworld: the internal ditch at Navan and other ‘Iron Age’ hengiform enclosures. Emania 18, 39–44.
  • [17] Barclay, G. J. (2005) The ‘henge’ and ‘hengiform’ in Scotland. In Cummings, V. and Pannett, A. (eds) Set in stone: new approaches to Neolithic monuments in Scotland, 81–95. Oxford, Oxbow.
  • [18] Harding, A. (2000) Henge monuments and landscape features in northern England: monumentality and nature. In Ritchie A. (ed) Neolithic Orkney in its European context, pp.267–74. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
  • [19] Thomas, J. (2003) Understanding the Neolithic. New York: Routledge.
  • [20] Brend, A., Card, N., Downes, J., Edmonds, M. and Moore, J. (2020) Landscapes Revealed: Geophysical Survey in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Area 2002-2011. Oxbow Books, Oxford.
  • [21] Nick Card per comm with Mike Parker-Pearson.
  • [22] Burl, A. (1987) The Stonehenge People: Life and Death at the World’s Greatest Stone Circle. London: Guild Publishing.
  • [23] Bradley, R. (1998) The Significance of Monuments: On the shaping of human experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. Routledge.

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