The Long Meg stone circle consists of a ring of 68 huge boulders (the ‘Daughters’) with Long Meg herself standing to the south-west, in line with the winter solstice sunset. The ‘circle’ is actually nowhere near circular, with a diameters of c112 meters east-west and c90 meters north-south. It is the third-largest stone circle in Britain, and undoubtedly one of the most enigmatic. A detailed discussion is provided in a recent paper by Paul Frodsham, available here.

Long Meg is red sandstone, almost certainly quarried from the east bank of the nearby River Eden, close to Lacy’s Caves. She has mysterious carvings on her east face; the motifs here are of a type very rarely found in Britain, but much more common in Ireland. The Daughters are glacial erratics, transported to the Eden Valley during the Ice Age. They may have been found during tree-clearance or ploughing, and for some reason were all dragged to the site for incorporation into the circle. Some of them, probably most of them, must have been dragged several kilometers. Recent geological survey has identified 42 of them as of the Borrowdale Volcanic Group (BVG), 22 as Threlkeld Microgranite, and four as granite (probably from south-west Scotland). Discussion of the lithology of the stones, and of the archaeological implications, is set out in the report on the recent geological survey, which will be available here soon.

Aerial view of Long Meg and her Daughters
Aerial view looking north-east over Long Meg and her Daughters (Photo: Richard Carlton).

Radiocarbon dating suggests a date of around 3100BC, during the middle Neolithic, for the erection of one of the Daughters. The circle was almost certainly constructed over several generations, but this date of 3100BC seems about right in light of what we know about sites elsewhere throughout Britain.

The stone circle was not the earliest monument here. A huge ditched enclosure, much bigger than the stone circle, was constructed to its north. Radiocarbon dating suggests that this may have preceded the stone circle by several centuries, dating back to perhaps as long ago as c3900BC. We don’t know why it was built here, but it seems to have been focused upon a natural spring which was probably significant. It may have functioned as a meeting place, perhaps for people from far and wide at particular times of year. The northern edge of the stone circle is straight rather than curved, built to coincide with the southern side line of the earlier enclosure. In terms of function, we simply don’t know what the relationship was between the enclosure and the stone circle. Neither, for that matter, do we know anything for sure about the functions of the stone circle, though it is reasonable to assume that it was a focus for seasonal gatherings at the time of the winter solstice.

English Heritage aerial view with false colour, showing enclosure
Aerial view of Long Meg, with false colour, clearly showing the earlier enclosure (Photo: Historic England).
Aerial view showing paralell linear cropmarks, mistakenly interpreted as a cursus monument, the southern cropmark from which is now realised to be a modern field drain
Aerial view showing parallel linear cropmarks, mistakenly interpreted as a cursus monument, the southern (right) cropmark of which is now realised to be a field drain (Photo: Cumbria County Council).

There are also other features at Long Meg, some of which may be of Neolithic date, surviving as earthworks or cropmarks (the latter indicating buried remains, even though the ground surface has been ploughed flat). For example, two roughly parallel lines visible on aerial photos, approaching the stone circle form the west, have been interpreted as a cursus (cursuses are long, straight monuments probably relating to processions of some kind). But there is almost certainly not a cursus here; the suggestion resulted from misinterpretation of cropmarks which actually relate to recent field drains. Part of the supposed cursus may, however, be a Neolithic ditch, of unknown purpose. This was briefly investigated during the digging of a cable trench in 2015 (see the report here).

On the basis of what we already know, Long Meg was a very important place at the heart of Neolithic Britain. But we still have much to learn!