The Ring of Brodgar (or Brogar or Ring o’ Brodgar) is a Neolithic henge and stone circle in West Mainland parish of Stenness, Orkney, Scotland. Most henges do not contain stone circles; Brodgar is a striking exception, ranking with Avebury (and to a lesser extent Stonehenge) among the greatest of such sites. The ring of stones stands on an eastward-sloping plateau on the Ness o’ Brodgar, an isthmus between the Lochs of Stenness and Harray. These are the northernmost examples of circle henges in Britain. Unlike similar structures such as Avebury, there are no obvious stones inside the circle, but since the interior of the circle has never been excavated by archaeologists, the possibility remains that wooden structures, for example, may be present. The site has resisted attempts at scientific dating and the monument’s age remains uncertain. It is generally thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, and was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness. A project called The Ring of Brodgar Excavation 2008 was undertaken in the summer of the year in an attempt to settle the age issue and help answer other questions about a site that remains relatively poorly understood. The results of the excavation are still preliminary.
The stone circle is 341 ft in diameter, and the third largest in the British Isles. The ring originally comprised 60 stones, of which only 27 remained standing at the end of the 20th century. The tallest stones stand at the south and west of the ring. The stones are set within a circular ditch up to 9.8 ft deep, 30 ft wide and 1,250 ft in circumference that was carved out of the solid sandstone bedrock by the ancient residents. Technically, this ditch does not constitute a true henge as there is no sign of an encircling bank of earth and rock. Many archaeologists continue to refer to this structure as a henge; for example, Aubrey Burl classifies the ditch as a Class II henge; one that has two opposing entrances, in this case on the north-west and south-east.
Examination of the immediate environs reveals a concentration of ancient sites, making a significant ritual landscape. Within 2 square miles there are the two circle-henges, four chambered tombs, groups of standing stones, single stones, barrows, cairns, and mounds. The immediate area has also yielded a number of flint arrowheads and broken stone mace-heads that seem to date from the Bronze Age. Although its exact purpose is not known, the proximity of the Standing Stones of Stenness and its Maeshowe tomb make the Ring of Brodgar a site of major importance. The site is a scheduled ancient monument and has been recognized as part of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” World Heritage Site in 1999.
The Brodgar ring was first recorded in the early 16th century, in an account of Orkney written by the enigmatic author Jo Ben. His Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum is the oldest surviving account of the Orkney Islands since the transfer to Scotland in 1468. Jo Ben’s identity is unknown, although it has been suggested that he was a priest, a visiting superior or travelling monk, who resided in Orkney around 1529.
Regarding the Ring o’ Brodgar, Jo Ben wrote:
“[In Stenness] beside the lake are stones high and broad, in height equal to a spear, and in an equal circle of half a mile.
In 1792, the ring contained 18 standing stones, with eight lying prone. But by 1815, an account shows that two more stones had been toppled, leaving only 16 erect.
Then, in 1854, in what was the first detailed account of the stone circle, there were only 13 erect stones, ten complete, but fallen, stones and fragments of 13 more.
The Ring o’ Brodgar was taken into state care in 1906 and, two years later, most of the fallen stones were placed in what was thought to be their original sockets. Since then two stones have suffered lightning strikes, leaving 27 standing today.