12/09/2018
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The Old Stones: A field guide to the Megalithic sites of Britain and Ireland – book review

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Book review of The Old Stones, a comprehensive guide to the many megaliths and related monuments of the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Britain and Ireland. 

Rachel Bellerby of History Scotland magazine reviews The Old Stones, a 416-page field guide which covers more than 1,000 Megalithic sites. Whilst many of us are familiar with sites such as the Grey Cairns of Camster, the Callanish Stones and Stonehenge, there are many hundreds more Megalithic sites around the country.

This new guide has been created by a community of megalith enthusiasts, bringing together a wealth of knowledge from archaeologists, theorists and stones aficionados, and giving readers a unique insight into these monuments from the people who have visited and studied them.

The book’s foreword, by Mike Parker Pearson, professor of British Later Prehistory at University College London, takes a wide-ranging look at what megaliths are, their place in history, and the role of the Megalithic Portal in making people aware of these ancient monuments. The portal’s founder and editor, Andy Burnham, takes up the story, introducing this website and explaining how the book has been influenced by the knowledge and enthusiasm of the portal’s participants.

This public input is one of the book’s key strengths. Much of the Megalithic Portal’s content has been created by volunteers, who contribute facts, photographs and information from the thousands of sites covered. This data, and the opinions of the website’s members have helped editor Andy Burnham to create the engaging content within The Old Stones, including the top ten and top fifteen lists scattered throughout the book, as well as star ratings for those monuments these volunteers feel are particularly worth a visit.

Expert insight

One of the real bonuses of this book is that you can actually use it as a field guide for visiting monuments around the country. With photographs, site information and theories and expertise, you really will get the best out of your visit and come away wanting to find out more. Volunteers have helped to bring together the site information, allowing for very accurate location details from people who have actually visited.

The book’s freshness and appeal comes partly from the fact that everyone from volunteers to full-time archaeologists are featured – different ideas and viewpoints are presented and we, as readers, are allowed to make up our own mind about the sites and their origin and use. 

Top ten lists have been democratically selected using a voting system on the Megalithic Portal website, where members selected sites to visit in each region of Britain. More than 1,000 sites are featured, 600 of which have a ‘full’ profile. The latest research and excavation findings are included, but full credit is also given to older viewpoints. 

The’ Scotland’ section is pleasingly a chunky 100 pages, which equates to around a quarter of the book. Alongside the site details are articles on stone circles, dowsing at Cairn Holy, top ten urban prehistory sites and investigating the Forteviot ceremonial landscape. One topic which may be unfamiliar to many readers is the practice of archaeoastronomy, which is introduced in a special article. The Western Scotland Megalithic Landscape Project uses 2D graphics and 3D renderings to show that our Bronze age ancestors sited their monuments in locations based on particular horizon shapes, with many deliberately oriented to the sun or moon.

Site guides

One of the strengths of the individual site guides is that the sites are not presented in isolation; many include details of the surrounding landscape that the visitor can enjoy, as well as details of various theories cited over the years for the monument in question, and an overview of relevant finds from the site in question. 

The comments and advice from previous visitors, scattered throughout the book, are a nice tough and give the guide a fresh and modern feel, encouraging readers to get out and start exploring. Each entry has the name of the monument, alternative names, type of monument (e.g. standing stone, stone circle), nearest town or village, map reference, latitude and longitude. 

The regions covered are:

  • West of England
  • South of England
  • Midlands & East of England
  • North of England
  • Isle of Man
  • Wales
  • Scotland
  • Ireland

Conclusion

I enjoyed the way that the various sections were scattered throughout The Old Stones, giving the book a lively and inviting feel. Each of the UK regions has its own section and within these are the site listings, interspersed by boxed text including ‘top ten’ style lists, expert essays exploring how the monuments were created and used, as well as plenty of maps and photographs to help put everything into context.

This is a book that I’ll keep in the car to have as a guide for when I’m out and about, particularly in areas I don’t know very well, although having said that, The Old Stoneshas introduced me to sites within just a few miles of where I live that I wasn’t aware of.

There will be some sites that I’ll probably never visit because of time and distance but that doesn’t matter. It’s enjoyable to read about these far-off places, incorporate some of them into my future travel plans, put others on the bucket list for future breaks and visit the rest in my imagination.

Review by Rachel Bellerby, editor, History Scotland

Book details

The Old Stones: A Field Guide to the Megalithic Sites of Britain and Ireland

Edited by Andy Burnham

Published by Watkins Publishing 

ISBN 9781786781543

£29.99

Order your copy today.

MORE: Top ten urban prehistory sites

Image: Ring of Brodgar - Sharon O'Grady/The Old Stones/Watkins 2018

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