Book Review

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ADAM WELFARE, edited by STRATFORD HALLIDAY. Great crowns of stone: the recumbent stone circles of Scotland. xiv+317 pages, numerous colour & b&w illustrations. 2011. Edinburgh: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland: 978-1-902419-55-8 hardback £30.

Review by Gordon Noble
Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen, UK
(Email: g.noble@abdn.ac.uk)

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Late in 2011 the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs in Scotland tasked its agency, Historic Scotland, to undertake a "strategic options appraisal" on the future of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS). The latter are the guardians of Scotland's National Monuments Record, with a remarkable history of publishing seminal works on Scotland's past and innovators of some of the finest online heritage resources in Europe. In times when a "strategic options appraisal" more often than not means drastic cuts and a paring back of core research, these are worrying developments for Scotland's world class archaeology. The volume under review epitomises what the RCAHMS does and what we would miss without it. No other than the RCAHMS could write such a volume. It has had a long gestation, extending back to RCHAMS's programme of field survey in the rich Strathdon valley of northeast Scotland begun in the 1990s (In the shadow of Bennachie, 2007). In the era of the Research Exercise Framework at universities and the pressures of the commercial world elsewhere such painstaking and exacting research would be difficult if not impossible.

The volume describes and interprets some of the most spectacular megalithic structures in Europe: the recumbent stone circles of northeast Scotland. Located in an area of Britain that tends to be overlooked in favour of the better-known wilds of the north of the Highlands and Orkney, these monuments are not nearly as well known as they should be. Loosely defined, they are a distinctive type of stone circle consisting of a ring of orthostats that tend to rise in height towards the southern arc where a horizontally laid stone (the recumbent) is found framed by two flanking stones.

Chapter 1 sets the scene with a detailed account of the origins of the terminology used to describe recumbent stone circles, from Hector Boece's sixteenth-century 'temples of the gods' (deorum fana) to the more objective (and duller) descriptions of the twentieth century. One essential element of this volume is first outlined in this chapter—RCAHMS's rigorous review of the monuments that have been attributed to the class: in the end 71 monuments were confirmed as recumbent stone circles out of a much larger collection of monuments identified as recumbents at one time or another (85 were rejected). While some were simple misidentifications others are other forms of stone circles and settings, demonstrating that a much greater diversity of megalithic architecture was present in this region. Clearly a target for future research would be to define more clearly this diversity.

Chapter 2 contains an essential examination of the survival (and reasons for survival) of these monuments—the sort of study that should be integral to all future distributional studies. It tells the sad tale of the destruction and degradation of many of these monuments (only 9 are thought to be largely intact), including the use of gunpowder to blow-up recumbents—vividly portrayed in the shattered remains of Montgoldrum in fig.3.29—and the cultivation of the interiors of these monuments in more recent times (fig.2.20).

The monuments' architecture is considered in detail in Chapter 3; it includes the presence or absence of cupmarks, platforms and cairns, the sizes of monoliths and recumbent stones amongst other attributes. As elsewhere in this beautifully produced volume, discussion is liberally peppered with excellent photographs and drawn illustrations (e.g. fig.3.62, a striking illustration of the profiles of recumbent and flanker settings). Chapter 4 concentrates on mainly hidden features (internal pyres, cairns and other features) and on chronology. That these monuments were built over earlier pyres is a recurring and attractive idea, but rests on largely inconclusive evidence for cremated bone in early phases at two monuments. Elsewhere the evidence for pre-cairn activities frequently includes traces of extensive burning. What is also outlined in this chapter is the frustratingly poor chronology we have for these monuments despite a major campaign of excavations by Richard Bradley in recent years (The moon and the bonfire, 2005). Chronology rests on scattered Beaker sherds at a small number of monuments; a pit sealed below the rubble foundation for the recumbent stone at Tomnaverie providing a terminus post quem of around 2500 cal BC; Beaker sherds sealed below the surrounding platform at the same monument and charcoal associated with a Beaker from a pit dug into the ring-bank at Berrybrae providing a terminus ante quem. Set against these dates suggesting an Early Bronze Age floruit are the numerous Late Bronze Age dates for cremated remains from the centre of these monuments, mainly from their supposed re-use, but also a Late Bronze Age date from the packing of the kerb at Aikey Brae. All in all, the chronology of recumbent stone circles is not at all secure—neither their first construction nor their longevity can be precisely pinpointed. Therefore whether these are Early Bronze Age monuments or indeed structures with an earlier origin (perhaps even Later Neolithic if cremation was an important element of their use) is still infuriatingly out of our reach. It is this uncertainty over chronology that will continue to inhibit the incorporation of recumbent stone circles in our wider narratives of Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and Ireland.

Throughout the volume accepted 'facts' and traditions of interpretation are rigorously scrutinised and in some cases strongly rejected. This is a welcome departure for RCHAMS, whose previous volumes have tended to be written as beacons of objectivity. In Chapter 5 some post-processual research, on colour for example, is questioned and found wanting (although in the same chapter the idea that the circles were laid out using chordal pairs can also be questioned). Likewise in Chapter 6 decades of assertions regarding the lunar orientations of these monuments are convincingly unpicked. Detailed studies show that the recumbent settings of these monuments are orientated between WSW and SSE—a wide spectrum that is difficult to associate with anything other than a fairly general sighting—perhaps a broad focus on the midwinter sunset. However, if these monuments are truly Early Bronze Age monuments then it is important to note that inhumations in Beaker cists in Aberdeenshire are orientated according to gender—males with heads to east, females to west, but importantly both facing south. There may, therefore, be important links here to examine between these monuments and the wider north-eastern Scottish context, which may extend beyond simple solar (or lunar) concerns.

The penultimate chapter is dedicated to an extensive historiography of recumbent stone circle studies and an attempt to track the origins and inspirations that led to the creation of this distinctive tradition. The historiography is welcome, showing the origins of many of the classificatory and interpretative traditions that still underpin current studies. What is less convincing is the lengthy discussion arguing that recumbent stone circles were simulacra of the much earlier chambered cairns of northern Scotland. This is largely inspired by Bradley and narrowly focused on megalithic architecture. Nowhere are the potential wider links to timber architecture and other third-millennium architectural traditions fully explored. Likewise the idea that the recumbent represents a blocked doorway is not explored in relation to the (albeit very sparse) settlement architecture of the third millennium BC.

Overall, this is an important volume. The interpretations may not always be cutting-edge, but the volume contains important refutations of much perceived (and false) wisdom concerning these monuments. It is an incredible resource and a major development for anyone interested in Scotland's rich heritage. Consequently any detrimental change to the RCAHMS that may emerge from the current review would be a blow to archaeology and heritage not just for Scotland but for the world more generally. Scotland possesses some of the most inspiring, life-enriching remains of our past and RCAHMS is a recent but essential part of that past. Surely it should also be an important part of its future?