WHAT TO LOOK FOR
ancient monuments involves both science and speculation – but
wondering what might have been is half the fun. There are many unanswered
questions about the Birkrigg stone rings; in fact very little has
been written about them. I wanted to share some of my thoughts and
researches on these issues although, in places, these may not be the
conventionally accepted view. Closer inspection reveals much more
than just the dramatic position of the stones revealed in part 1.
rings may not be large and dramatic with full of celebrity status
but they are amongst the most important, but under-rated, in the country
because they have several rare and distinctive features. As we have
seen they form part of an extensive array of Bronze Age settlements.
Sunbrick "circle" actually comprises two rings
of stones, neither of which is truly circular. Double rings
are rare - only 15 of some 400 rings still in existence
in Britain have this feature. The outer ring may well have
been added at a later date than the inner ring. Unfortunately,
in recent years, the stones of the outer ring have fallen
and are now often obscured during the summer months by bracken.
However, in 2015, a group of local volunteers managed to
get all the necessary permissions and have been trying to
clear some bracken on the Common at key wildlife and archeological
sites, including the outer circle.
outer ring is incomplete towards the north-east and is shown
as such on all old plans. One wonders whether it was ever
more than a horseshoe arrangement. Curiously, the other
double ring on limestone in Cumbria, Gunnerkeld (Shap),
is also incomplete at the north-east. This might make sense
as the “horseshoe” opens out towards the mid-summer
sunrise beyond Chapel Island (the horseshoe arrangement
of trilithons at Stonehenge opens out towards the mid-summer
of what little we know about the Sunbrick rings comes from two
archaeological digs carried out in 1911 and 1921. These were
very amateurish by today's standards - three besuited gentleman
(one a vicar, one a bookseller) stood around while a farm worker
dug with a spade!
diameter of the inner ring was given as 24 feet in 1911
and 27 feet in 1921. Actually, neither is particularly informative
as the ring is far from a circle, stones 4 and 5 tending
to bulge towards the south-east (see plan below). Taking
the circle on which the majority of the stones lie gives
a diameter of 26 feet (some would argue that this is exactly
10 Cumbrian “yards” - such a yard being equal
to 0.794 metres or one man’s pace).
1911 there were only ten visible stones in the inner ring
(see diagram below). Today you will notice two additional
stones, both barely showing above ground (1a and 1b on the
diagram below). These were discovered during the 1921 dig
and left uncovered, as a record from 1850 had indicated
that there were 12 stones at that time. I have marked these
on the map below along with the major sun and moon events
but, although some stones seem to have alignment with these,
the inner ring is too small to serve this purpose accurately
and the stones are too small to guarantee that they have
not been moved down the ages. However, the concentration
of stones in the north-east sector suggests that
stones 1a and 1b may have indicated the extremes of mid-winter
moonrise between the major and minor lunar standstills.
Just as the rotational axis of the earth is tilted relative
to the orbit of the eath round the sun causing the position
of sun rise to vary between south-east and north-east, the
tilt of the moon on its axis means that the position of
full mid-winter moon progresses from further north than
the mid-summer sunrise to further south, and back again;
this follows a 19 year cycle, with the extremes being known
as the major and minor lunar standstills. Meton, of Ancient
Greece, noticed that it takes the moon 19 years to reappear
for the first time in exactly the same point in the sky
(i.e. in precisely the same position within the zodiac constellation)
and in exactly the same phase. This also creates the 19
year cycle of tides.
discovered that the inner ring was paved with a layer of “cobbles”,
some three to six inches (10 to 15 cm) below the surface,
separated by a thin layer of earth from a second layer of
cobbles beneath. In the centre of the pavement was a circular
saucer-shaped depression just over 3 ft (1 metre) across.
Local myth has it that these cobbles came from the shore,
but they were described in the report of that dig as being
of “blue rag”, a term used in those days to describe
local blue slate. This suggests the use of the hard blue stones
(of slate) found in the limestone quarried on the Common;
many such blue “eggs” have been dug out during
quarrying and incorporated into the limestone walls or left
scattered around. These often break with a flat face, which
would have made them suitable for paving and perfect as the
flat-faced stones that were reported to be wedged around the
stones of the inner ring, helping to hold them upright as
the stones of the ring were not buried to any great depth.
stones of the circle have a special significance. The “north”
(1) and “south” (6) stones have male and female
connotations. The long thin male and bulky female stones are
typically found in other Cumbrian rings (like Swinside) and
elsewhere (even Britanny). At Sunbrick the female stone (below
right) is sometimes referred to as the “whale stone”
(because of its resemblance to a whale's head) and was at
one time thought - incorrectly - to have been carved. The
positions of these stones would have been determined by bisecting
the positions of sun rise and sun set on any one day and are
consequently a little out of alignment with the true north-south
Sunbrick there is also a deep trench running along the north-west
side of the rings; it is several metres wide and almost
100 metres long and has always puzzled observers. It is
obscured by bracken in summer.....
trench has never been excavated or examined archaeologically.
However, at the bottom of the slope it is aligned with Chapel
Island, but as it skirts the north-west side of the rings
it curves slightly to align with the mid-summer sunrise
and the mid-winter sunset. It is possible, but I think
unlikely, that the trench is a natural formation (streams
don't form on Birkrigg) and it may have been dug
as a processional feature. Whether true or not, I like to
think it was dug with the shoulder blades of auroch used
as spades! The skull of an auroch was discovered in 1955
near the shore opposite Chapel Island (in the photo above).....
A close examination of many of the stones of the inner ring
, especially of the male and female stones shows that they
have been eroded down the centuries. It looks like weathering,
but actually a secret agent has been at work ........
agent of attack is snails. The snails of Birkrigg featured
in a scientific paper in the Geological Magazine in 1870,
which led to a general acceptance that snails can digest
limestone, creating deep cavities (saxicavous behaviour).
The cavities on the stone circle are found on the leeward
side, out of the sun and the prevailing winds. It is not
unusual to find a snail occupying a hole in one of the stones,
often a perfect fit.
the autumn, Brown-lipped Banded snails make preparations
for winter and large numbers of them can often be found
“feeding” on the limestone – it is thought
they secrete an acidic fluid at this time which enables
then to dissolve the rock and take up the calcium.
has been estimated that it takes a snail ten years to deepen
a hole by 1 mm, so some of those holes must represent many
hundred years of effort, by many generations. It appears
that something in the formation of the limestone at particular
points on the limestone appeals to the snails and this is
where they concentrate their effort.
the summer months, many visitors find that the stone rings
are hard to find, as SLDC have failed to provide a single
signpost to them and they are obscured from the road by bracken.
By August the rings themselves also look terribly overgrown
and neglected. It is not unusual to find the ground scarred
by barbeque fires and pitted with holes that have been dug
to bury cremation ashes or plant remembrance flowers.
only is it selfish to commandeer this public place in this way
it is also illegal, as this is a very important Scheduled Ancient
Monument. It has stood here for over four thousand years as
a spritual place and deserves to be treated with more