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The majestic standing stones of Callanish

STONE circles are evocative places and the stones at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis must be one of the most haunting. Not only is there the imposing physical presence of the stones and their spectacular landscape setting, there is also the atmosphere of mystery.

Callanish (or Calanais) is one of the larger stone settings of Britain. The stones tower to a height of nearly four metres and the main monument covers an area of some 5,000 square metres. The circle itself is relatively modest and comprises 13 upright stones with a huge megalith at the centre marking a later burial cairn. Callanish is set apart, however, by two things: The stone settings that run away from the circle in the form of a cross and the presence of at least six other stone circles in the vicinity.

The main monument at Callanish dates back to around 3,000 BC. Lewis at the time was populated by Stone Age farmers who lived in small villages dotted around these Outer Hebridean islands. At Callanish they quarried monoliths from local gneiss stone and erected them carefully in a circle. The stability of the monument was clearly important and low mounds of earth and stones were added to the base of each upright because of the problems of digging sufficiently deep sockets. The central stone was set in place at this time and it is likely that the three rows running away to south, east and west were added soon after, together with the avenue which today comprises 20 stones and runs to the north.The central cairn was built at a later date, though it seems that by 1,000 BC the use of the monument had changed and the land was once more under cultivation. Not long after this the onset of wetter conditions encouraged the formation of peat in the vicinity of the stones and the site became buried until only the tops of the stones were visible. Only in the last two centuries have the stones once more been revealed in full.

The construction of a monument like Callanish was a skilled and time-consuming job. Five thousand years later it stands as a credit to its builders. It has been the subject of much study to unravel its mysteries, but though we have some strong hints we can never be sure what was in the minds of the prehistoric people of Lewis. Nevertheless, it does not take much to realise that these were sites of some importance. We can step beyond the stones - majestic as they are - and imagine the colour, sounds and smells that must have filled the sites when they were alive.

Stone circles like Callanish seem to have been used for ceremony and ritual over many centuries. We do not know whether this involved the whole community or part of it. It may have involved separate people at different times of the year, or various stages in life. There is general agreement that many of these sites have astronomical associations and Callanish is no exception. It seems to be linked to the rising of the moon in the south when, at a major standstill, it barely enters the sky, seeming to roll along the horizon to set among the stones. This would be a magical sight that took place every 18.6 years. It required skill to incorporate it into the circle, but the prehistoric population is likely to have been much more familiar with the night sky than we are. Not only did they lack the distraction of electric light to dim the moon and stars, but they also lacked modern technology and thus had to rely more upon observation to tell the passing of the year and the coming of advantageous weather. For Stone Age farmers these elements were of great importance.Callanish has attracted a respectable plethora of archaeologists from General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, the UK's first inspector of ancient monuments and father of British archaeology who in 1885 was concerned with the welfare of the site, to his contemporary at Historic Scotland, Patrick Ashmore, who carried out excavations in the early 1980s.

Most recently, in 2002 and 2003, Callanish has been part of the Great Stone Circles project, led by Colin Richards from Manchester University. Richards has looked not just at the central site but also at the smaller circles. He is interested in the derivation of the stones and the results of his work are interesting. It seems that each circle comprises stone from a separate, restricted location. This has led Richards to suggest that the circles were built by individual communities who exploited their local stones. Whether they were working together or in competition remains unclear, but the result was to provide an impressive monumental landscape.

Another body with a strong field interest in Callanish comes from archaeologists at Edinburgh University, who have been studying the landscape on Lewis for more than 20 years. Much of their work has been associated with the development of visitor facilities at Callanish, from their own Callanish Archaeological Research Centre at Callanish Farm to the Callanish Visitor Centre which now forms the interpretive centre for the site.

Yet despite the strong academic interest in the stone circles it is their very mystery that continues to attract visitors. Long a popular focus for groups around the summer solstice, it is hoped the remoteness may ensure that the historic landmark retains its magical atmosphere for many centuries to come.

Caroline Wickham-Jones is an archaeologist who lives and works in Orkney.

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