Stone circles intrigue both archaeologists and the general public. It is generally felt that circles which are marked by large stones probably delineate an area in which ceremonies—perhaps religious, perhaps civil, perhaps both—were carried out. In addition, some stone circles seemed to have functioned as observatories for marking major solar events, such as solstices and equinoxes. In some instances, the stone circles are associated with tombs and other features. Whatever the purpose of stone circles, however, they must have been important to those who built them, maintained them, and used them for many centuries. Construction of the stone circles required a great deal of community effort.
There are basically two kinds of stone circles in Ireland: continuous circles in which the stones in the circle are touching or relatively close to each other, and non-contiguous. In some of the non-contiguous circles there are two adjacent orthostats which are taller than the others and across the center of the circle from them is a recumbent stone. This often marks a solar event, such as a solstice or equinox.
One of the characteristic features of the Late Bronze Age in southwest Ireland is the construction of ceremonial monuments made up of small stone circles with a boulder burial in the center.
The stone circle at Kenmare consists of 15 stones and a center stone which may mark a grave. The stone circle is about 17 meters (about 56 ft.) in diameter. It is known locally as the Druid’s Circle. The stones are not local, but were quarried from several miles away. This was probably used for ceremonies as well as for a solar calendar. It was constructed during the Bronze Age, about 3,000 years ago.
Shown above is a model of the stone circle.
In the center of the circle is a large boulder resting on three supports. This type of boulder burial tomb is unique to southwestern Ireland and most date to the Bronze Age.
There are also a number of rock carvings, generally designated as rock art by archaeologists, in the South Kerry area. Natural rock outcrops or boulders were used for the rock art which often consists of cup marks (cup-shaped hollows) surrounded by concentric circles. The rocks used for the rock art are generally on high ground, near water, with a panoramic view of the countryside. Many people feel that this rock art may be connected with some type of water religion or water ceremonials.
Shown above is a replica of the rock art which is on display at the small interpretive center in Kenmare. It is generally felt that this type of rock art dates to the Neolithic or to the Bronze Age. Stylistic similarities with rock art in the Iberian Peninsula suggest some contact with this region.
While the rock art is similar to that found in passage tombs, such as that at Newgrange, there are no passage tombs in the area.
The entryway to the Kenmare Circle is shown above.
Grange Stone Circle at Lough Gur:
The Grange Stone Circle near Lough Gur, made up of 113 contiguous stones, is the largest surviving stone circle in Ireland. It served as a ceremonial site as well as an astronomical observatory. The site was constructed about 2000 BCE (during the Bronze Age). Within the immediate area of the Grange Stone Circle are at least two other stone circles, three large standing stones, and one megalithic tomb.
The circle has an interior diameter of nearly 46 meters (151 ft.). The interior portion of the circle was raised more than half a meter (3 ft.) above the perimeter ground level. The large stones around the circle are supported by an exterior bank of earth which is about 9 meters (30 ft.) wide and 1.5 meters (5 ft.) high. This bank would have allowed spectators to view the ceremonies within the circle. Since there is no external ditch, the material for the bank must have been scraped up from the surrounding area. In addition, a layer of soil (60 centimeters or 2 ft. thick) was spread over the interior of the circle to conceal the packing stones in the sockets of the orthostats.
The entrance to the circle was through a stone-lined passage at the northeast. The northeast/southwest orientation of the circle corresponds to the sun’s rising and setting during significant times of the year. The circle is aligned on the sunrise of the summer solstice.
One of the large stones (shown above) is known as Rannach Cruim Duibh which suggests that the circle was associated with the festival of Lughnassa (today celebrated on the first Sunday in August). This was a celebration which marked the beginning of the harvest season. Cruim Duibh is a pagan deity who is credited with bringing grain to Ireland. The stone is estimated to weigh more than 40 tons and was transported over a distance of three miles.
Archaeological excavations at this site have uncovered over 400 pieces of flint blades, scrapers, and arrowheads. Thousands of pottery sherds, many identified as Beaker Pottery, were also found. The pottery appears to have been ceremonially broken during the construction of the circle and much of it was recovered from the sockets into which the large stones were placed.
Shown above is an example of Beaker Pottery which is on display at the National Museum—Archaeology, in Dublin. The Beaker people associated with this pottery had spread over much of Europe and Britain by 2000 BCE and are often credited with the spread of metal use. Some archaeologists have suggested that the Beaker people came to Ireland as prospectors and miners looking for suitable copper lodes to exploit. With regard to the Beaker Pottery found at the Grange Circle, the Irish archaeologist M.J. O’Kelly writes:
“It seems certain, therefore, that some Beaker people were present in the building of the circle, and indeed the whole undertaking may have been inspired by them.”
Shown above are the drawings from archaeological investigations of the site.