The Glastonbury stone circle is a recent monument on the British landscape, yet it is one that is visited by huge numbers of people over a very short period of time. Estimates of the numbers of people gathering at the Glastonbury stone circle are subject to speculation, however with a large proportion of the hundreds of thousands of people at festival visiting the stone circle it’s influence and draw is undisputed.
Compared to Stonehenge, a site where a maximum of around 20,000 people are able attend the managed Solstice event at Stonehenge, (the only time that people are allowed within the circle) the Swan Circle sees some heavy traffic.
There is a saying that people in the UK will visit Stonehenge three times in their lives: once as a child, once as a parent and once as a grandparent; in comparison many people visit the Glastonbury stone circle numerous times in their life.
Guerilla Archaeology have enjoyed an in-depth study of the Glastonbury stone circle. We produced this introductory text drawn from various web-based sources, and from the publication by Ivan McBeth (in 1992 and reprinted in 2016 – available here), as a starting point for a contemporary archaeological analysis of the site.
We took a number of ‘fieldtrips’ to the monument during the festival to undertake a pilot survey followed up with interviews, where possible, of those involved in the circles construction and those who visit the site. Our research resulted in a short video (see below) and a book chapter ( Mulville, Jacqueline and Brayshay, Barbara 2021. Festivals: monument making, mythologies and memory. In: Nita, Maria and Kidwell, Jeremy eds. Festival Cultures; Mapping New Fields in the Arts and Social Sciences, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 141-168.)
A short video about Stone Circles, the Swan Circle and how we found out what it means to people….
The stone circle at Glastonbury is a megalithic monument located at the site of Worthy Farm (map reference ST590397) situated in a valley lying between two low sandstone ridges. The monument lies in Kings Meadow at the far south of the area enclosed by the Glastonbury Festival. The monument comprises about 20 stones ranging from over 2.5 metres to approximately 1.5 metres in height and includes a balanced horizontal stone resting on a number of smaller stones. The stones form an oval with a maximum length of 25m and a minimum of 20m in diameter with a central band of stones. To date no excavation or survey has been recorded for this monument.
Historic accounts date the monuments construction to 1992. Oral and written accounts indicate that the design of the monument specifically references prehistoric henges for example Stonehenge, a site that dwarfs the Swan Circle both in area and the number of stones. Since the inception of the Glastonbury festival in all its forms there has been a link between the festival, the solstice and Stonehenge.
There have been a number of previous circular monuments constructed associated with the festival activates. Previous megalithic (the Pixie Circle May to June 1990) and megametallic monuments (Carhenge 1987) have been constructed but the present day Stone Circle is the longest-lived incarnation. More recent monuments that referenced the trilithon structures and the ‘alter stone’ at Stonehenge are the structure built by Banksy in 2007 and Cubehenge constructed in 2010 by Connected Cube.
The Swan Circle was conceived, created and constructed by a single individual Ivan McBeth who stayed on the site over a six-week period to complete this task. McBeth indicates that the morphology and location of the stone circle is linked to both landscape features, the Kings Hill, and to astronomical alignments, in particular the sunrise on the summer Solstice. Additionally the prominent stones in the circle were designed to represent the major stars of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan (McBeth 2016).
The constellation Cyrus is illustrated below and the swans ‘head’ the star Alberio, is represented by the most easterly stone, as it is this stone that is described as aligning with the solstice sunrise by McBeth. It is assumed that personal observation over the six weeks construction period allowed the position of the sunrise to be estimated.
The techniques used to geometrically create the ground plan of the circle are not recorded by McBeth nor the dimensions of the post-holes, although archaeologists suggest that post-holes are generally one third of the uprights height. These post-holes were dug by volunteers over the course of one month with the architect stating that ‘the more a temple is made by hand, the more profound the energy it holds’ but the number of person hours it took to achieve this remains undocumented. Further movement and manipulation of stones was achieved by mostly by machinery.
The monument is constructed of limestone sourced from a local quarry, Torr Works, that produces both pale to dark grey well bedded Carboniferous Limestone and buff-coloured Jurassic oolitic limestone. McBeth individually selected the stones, however the processes creating the exact shape and dimensions of the individual stones are not recorded. No surveys to identify tool marks have ever been undertaken and accounts indicate the stones were already shaped and were selected rather than fashioned to order. The stones were estimated by McBeth to weigh between five and thirteen metric tons and were transported to the site using tractors and tipper trailers. The individual stones were allocated to particular positions and then left on the ground as close to the postholes as possible. There are suggestions that ritual deposits were placed into the postholes prior to the stones insertion, described as water from the Ganges and crystal from Stonehenge, but these are not mentioned in McBeth’s account. The stones were then manoeuvred into position using a JCB and the soil replaced around the stones as packing. Unlike most of other excavated monoliths (single stone structures) there is no account of post-packing (stones to hold the upright in place) being used.
The stones were ‘ inaugurated’ after a night vigil on Midsummer’s Eve by the Glastonbury Order of Druids and the sun rose directly over the swans head (McBeth) There are no documented accounts or image of this alignment available to the author at present.
Whilst the location of the main stage at Glastonbury was decided via the use of dowsing to locate a ‘ley line’ said to have direct links to Stonehenge. There is no account of any similar techniques being used to site the stone circle, nor discussion of ley lines (McBeth). The stone circle is the focus of the opening ceremony for the Glastonbury festival.
The Glastonbury stone circle offers a fantastic opportunity to examine monument making, use and meaning as well as a series of investigations on how unregulated visitor use affects the monument. Whilst people cannot even approach or touch the Stonehenge stones, the stones at Glastonbury are caressed, climbed upon and heavily used as a social space – are there any lesson to learnt regarding monument management from this? There are of course a large number of other modern stone circles dotted around Britain, many are privately constructed but there are a number that are constructed for ceremonial purposes.
Further reading: A publication from English Heritage ‘Prehistoric Henges and Circles’ provides an excellent overview of ancient monuments of this type and is downloadable here.
McBeth, I. 2016, THE SWAN CIRCLE
The birth of a new stone circle in King’s Meadow, Worthy Farm, near Glastonbury. Privately Published.
See also Ivan’s firsthand account of other stone circle he built