10 Historic Landmarks of the Neolithic British Isles

The iconic historic landmarks of the Neolithic British Isles

Forget the digital revolution. Forget the Industrial Revolution. Arguably the greatest revolution in the history of the British Isles may well have been the Neolithic one. A period where traditional hunter gatherer society gave way to agriculture and lives lived in a single location, it shook the world as our ancestors knew it. Across Britain and Ireland, primeval forests came crashing down. Complex societies sprang up. The landscape began to change as never before. Fittingly, such a drastic shake-up left behind a plethora of historic landmarks. From the mysterious henges that litter our green and pleasant land to ancient monuments carved for some inexplicable purpose millennia ago, the landmarks of Neolithic Britain incorporate some of the greatest treasures in the whole of Northern Europe.

Ketley Crag, Northumberland

Cup and Ring Rock Art at Ketley Crag, Northumberland (Image: Simes in York)

The rugged border county of Northumberland is home to some of the most-glorious rock art from the dawn of history. Across northern England, mysterious Neolithic carvings flow across ancient stones, unchanged since they were first chiselled some six millennia ago. Some of the most spectacular of all can be found at Ketley Crag, near Chatton. Here, on a low summit overlooking the surrounding landscape, a plethora of cups, rings and grooves ripple across the stone, giving the whole place a mystical atmosphere.

As with other prehistoric carvings, their exact purpose has been lost to time. But it’s not too difficult to imagine that these extraordinary Neolithic symbols were the birth of art in Britain, the beginning of an illustrious tradition extending to Turner and Constable, and on to the great sculptors of today. Other cup and ring marks abound on the moors above Chatton, but its sheltered position beneath a rocky outcrop makes the petroglyphs of Ketley Crag some of the most unique and important historic landmarks of Neolithic Britain.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria

A moody and mysterious portrait photograph of Castlerigg Stone Circle in the Lake District (Image: Graham Richter)

Under the watchful eye of Cumbria’s highest peaks, Castlerigg stone circle sits on an otherwise-empty plateau, its stone fingers stretching out to the sky. Comparatively modest in terms of both height and total area, Castlerigg nonetheless fairly oozes poetry, its ancient grey stones contrasting perfectly with the stark northern landscape. That’s not to say this stone circle isn’t impressive to witness. While it might not measure up to Stonehenge in size, its heaviest stone still weighs 16 tons.

While Castlerigg gets less attention than many of Britain’s better-known historic landmarks, it has still had its share of fans over the years. Victorian era romantic drawings like this one by Robert Sears, speak to the poetry of the place. For locals and visitors alike, this is a Neolithic monument that manages to carve out a special place in even the flintiest of hearts. Standing above Keswick in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by mountains like  Helvellyn, Skiddaw and Blencathra, Castlerigg is the Lake District’s most visited stone circle.

Newgrange, County Meath

(Images: hbieser; gosiagarkowska2)

Newgrange is like a dream. An imagined slice of ancient history, somehow brought to life in the green countryside of Ireland. A vast mound that pre-dates the Pyramids, pre-dates Stonehenge, and likely even pre-dates the Stones of Stenness (see below), Newgrange was first constructed some 5,200 years ago. Millennia before Christ, the Buddha, or even Moses would ever have a chance to walk upon the Earth.

But Newgrange’s Neolithic credentials go beyond mere old age. It is an example of astronomical architecture of the highest order. Every winter solstice, as the sun rises (making allowances for cloudy weather), a single shaft of light pierces the interior of the mound, illuminating the treasures inside. According to those who’ve witnessed it, this moment can make you feel like you’re standing at the centre of the universe, making Newgrange not only one of the most important national monuments of Ireland, but one of the preeminent historic landmarks of the British Isles.

Standing Stones of Stenness, Orkney

The Standing Stones of Stenness on Mainland, Orkney (Image: Wilson44691)

While nowhere in Britain may match the sheer popularity of Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, perhaps nowhere else can match the Stones of Stenness in Orkney, Scotland, for sheer longevity. A haunting collection of sheer stone pillars rising from the rolling plains of the mainland island, this early proto-henge may have been around since 3100 BC, some 600 years before the Great Pyramid at Giza was built. To put that in perspective, you are currently closer in time to the English Civil War than the first pyramid builders were to the construction of the Stones of Stenness.

Although they are few, the Stenness Stones still have an air of grandeur that few other Neolithic and Bronze Age sites can match. Seen on a rare sunny evening, as the sun descends into the waters and the skies turn dark, you can almost feel as if you are back at the dawn of the human age, witnessing this remarkable historic landmark of ancient Britain for the very first time.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

The Ring of Brodgar on Orkney (Image: Dg-505)

Stretching out alongside the shores of the Loch of Stenness in Orkney, not far from the aforementioned Stones of Stenness, lies a breathtaking Neolithic landmark. Arranged on a narrow spike of land between the island’s two great lochs is the fabled Ring of Brodgar. The northernmost circle henge in the British Isles, Brodgar is like a message from another time. Erected some 500 years after the Stenness Stones were put up, it today forms part of the same World Heritage Site; a selection of ancient monuments known collectively as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

Grand in scale, the Ring of Brodgar retains a sense of Neolithic mystery that has tantalised visitors, historians and archaeologists for centuries. Many theories about the purpose of this fascinating historic landmark have been put forward, from it being a place for ancient, mystical rites, to others involving astronomy and the reading of the stars.

Roughting Linn (Prehistoric Rock Art), Northumberland

Roughting Linn Rock Art Carvings

Ancient cup and ring rock art carvings at Roughting Linn in Northumberland (Images: (top, left, right) Andrew Curtis)

Ketley Crag may be the best preserved example of prehistoric rock art in northeast England, but it’s not the only historic landmark of Neolithic Northumberland to fascinate scholars and those with an interest in the megalithic. At Roughting Linn, near Kimmerston, can be found one of the county’s most impressive collections of cup and ring carvings. Spirals whirl and coil across the boulders. Geometric shapes collide across the rock surface. The patterns are remarkable, fluid; the overall effect like peering into the mind of an ancient culture.

Like Ketley Crag, the works themselves are so old that their true purpose remains a compelling enigma of prehistory. A BBC report estimated they could date back nearly 6,000 years. These artworks were carved way back in the mists of time, when Britain was still a wild place and widespread agriculture had yet to take hold. That the rock art of Roughting Linn has survived this long is simply awe-inspiring.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire

(Images: Jim Champion; Gordon Robertson)

Only a short distance from Stonehenge (below) itself, and part of the extended Avebury site, lies one of Britain’s least-known record holders. Silbury Hill is a towering artificial mound, standing over 39 metres high, overlooking the surrounding Wiltshire landscape. The largest man-made prehistoric monument in the whole of Europe, its origins have long since been lost to the mists of time.

One of the most-interesting aspects of Silbury is the way it seemed to accrue history around it. Aside from its possible connection to Stonehenge, it was also the site of an ancient Roman village. In this case, ancient is a relative term. At the time the Romans built their streets in the shadow of Silbury Hill, they were closer in time to the creation of the internet than they were to work beginning on the Neolithic monument overlooking them. For the Romans, the historic landmark and icon of prehistory must have been as ancient and unknowable as it is to us.

Callanish Stones, Outer Hebrides

(Images: (top, bottom) amritagrace)

For such a small, remote corner of Britain, the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides sure has an impressive archaeological pedigree. The medieval Lewis Chessmen may be the most-famous of finds in this lonely place, but there traces of our Neolithic ancestors abound also. The most-stunning of these may well be the enigmatic Callanish Stones. A densely-packed stone circle, surrounded by alleyways of rocks forming what appears to be a crucifix shape, the Callanish Stones are strange, mysterious and otherworldly.

The focus of countless myths and legends, they’re said to be the place where a pagan entity known as the “Shining One” appears on midsummer morning, stalking the ancient alleyways of the historic landmark of ancient Scotland. While modern visitors are unlikely to encounter any ancient gods, they’ll still be left with a feeling of awe. What’s more, the ancient monument pictured above is one of multiple stone circles forming part of the ancient Callanish site. Just at stone’s throw away are at least three other impressive Neolithic circles, barely visited by comparison their larger neighbour.

Skara Brae, Orkney

Skara Brae: one of the most important historic landmarks of Neolithic Britain

Neolithic relics at Skara Brae (Images: Wknight94; Dr. John F. Burka)

Few places in the British Isles, indeed in the world, can compare to Stonehenge. But Skara Brae may just be one of them. A well-preserved Neolithic settlement on Mainland, Orkney, this incredible historic landmark is sometimes called the Scottish Pompeii. Over a cluster of eight ancient houses, a whole way of life has been captured here, a fragment of our past, frozen forever like a mosquito trapped in amber.

With a few leaps of imagination, it’s possible for visitors to feel like they’ve truly stepped back into the Neolithic. The ruins of each open-topped house are both identical, built along the same pattern, and curiously unique. It’s possible still to see the tiny touches that made each building a home for generations of ancient residents. While much of the history of Skara Brae remains shrouded in mystery, there’s still enough here to tantalise. Squint hard enough, and you just might be able to catch a glimpse of this long faded way of life. It’s not too surprising that the historic landmark was uncovered in a place recently dubbed “Britain’s ancient capital.”

Historic Landmarks: Stonehenge, Wiltshire

Stonehenge: arguably the most famous historic landmarks of Neolithic Britain (Image: Freesally)

Like a revered rock star taking to the stage at a festival, Stonehenge needs no introduction. The most iconic of Neolithic monuments, Britain’s most famous henge may well be its most-famous historic landmark, period. Built sometime between 3,000 BC and 2,000 BC, incorporating stone mined from Welsh quarries hundreds of miles away, this vast circle of standing stones continues to exude a sense of mystery and magic unmatched across the nation.

Perhaps the most-compelling aspect of Stonehenge is how little we still know about it. Despite being a source of fascinated study for centuries, we can’t say for certain what its purpose was, or why our ancient forebears dragged such heavy stones such distances to build it. For some, it will remain an ancient place of pagan worship. For others, it will always be intimately connected with astronomy. While the truth could be more prosaic, our chances of ever knowing for sure are minimal. Stonehenge, then, remains a mystery; the greatest and least-knowable of all Britain’s Neolithic leftovers.

Giant sarsen stones at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire (Image: Pexels; Stonehenge: arguably the most famous historic landmark of Britain)

Related: 10 Lost Cities & Mythical Civilisations of the Ancient World

 
 


 
 
 

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