Stone circles are one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world. The sheer size of these megalithic monuments is daunting even by modern-day standards, so it’s difficult to imagine how our ancestors ever planned and constructed them. Not to mention the mystery of what they were used for!
All we know is that for thousands of years, all over the world, pre-history societies erected huge stone circles, along with solitary dolmens and other standing stones, to follow the alignment of the sun and mark the seasons. Perhaps these ancient observatories helped unknown cultures to plan harvests and crops, and perhaps—on the creepy side, they even served as places of ceremonial sacrifice.
Whether you’re a mega-megalith fan or a just newbie to the world of standing stones, one thing is for sure: they are absolutely beautiful and totally worth visiting. We’ve put together this guide to help you find the most fascinating stone circles in the world.
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Introduction to Stone Circles
What exactly are stone circles? The short answer is—nobody knows. These ancient structures have baffled scientists and archeologists for generations. One of the reasons why is that they come in all different shapes and sizes. Despite the name, stone circles aren’t actually circular, they’re usually oval or elliptical. And they vary greatly in pattern and design.
The word megalith comes from Greek and just means great stone. It is generally used for any large stone structure that was man-made. There are roughly 35,000 of these megalithic monuments in Europe, many along the Atlantic coast of Spain, France, and Scandinavia, and particularly around England, Ireland, and the islands of Scotland, such as Orkney and the Isle of Lewis.
However, while there’s often a notion that stone circles only exist in Europe, there are in fact many more scattered throughout the world, including some which have been submerged under the sea or lost in the sands of the desert. To help bust this Eurocentric myth, we’ve split this article into two parts: stone circles in Europe, and stone circles outside of Europe.
One thing is absolutely sure, stone circles are old. Very old. Most of the ones in Western European locations date from between 5,000 to 500 B.C., but the oldest in the world can be found in Anatolia, Turkey, and it’s been dated to around 9000 B.C. That’s a whopping 12,000 years—twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids!
Stone Circles in Europe
1. Stonehenge, England
Obviously, we just had to start with the most famous of all the stone circles: Stonehenge itself. Located in Wiltshire, in the southwest of the country, this iconic monument is a sight to behold. Estimated to be around 3000 years old, the henge isn’t the largest stone circle in the UK—that title goes to the nearby Avebury circle, which has an enclosure of more than 300 meters across—but it’s still huge, reaching over 100 meters in diameter.
The larger stones are arranged in sets of three, known as trilithons, with two uprights and a lintel stone across the top. What’s incredible about this is that each stone is around 13 feet high and seven feet wide, making them close to 25 tons. Each. Just how prehistory neolithic people were able to transport and lift these stones without the invention of cranes—let alone the wheel, is a complete mystery.
However, the Circle of Stonehenge is just one of many archaeologically fascinating structures in the surrounding moorland, all of which are owned by the National Trust. Scattered around the site are dozens, possibly hundreds, of ditches, mounds, and barrows. Many of these date to the bronze age and are believed to be burial sites for kings or other figures of importance. Exactly why this is, we don’t know, but it seems this area has long been a place for sacred rituals and celebrations, possibly of healing or even human sacrifice.
Today, you can visit this English heritage site whenever you like—you can even see it from the road when you drive past. There is a handy car park and visitor center close by which will serve all your needs. You can grab lunch then buy a ticket and head down to the site via the regular shuttle bus. However, it should be noted that you can’t actually touch the stones as there is a small fence between you and them. The only time you can get up close is during the summer solstice and winter solstice when modern-day pagans and druids gather to celebrate the changing of the seasons.
While you’re in the area, why not swing by the historic town of Glastonbury and embark on a magical adventure of your own with our Glastonbury Giddy Gallivant Scavenger Hunt? And if you like Stonehenge, it’s worth taking a look at some of the other areas famous for stone circles in the UK, such as Cumbria, Cornwall, or Salisbury.
2. The Ring of Brodgar, Scotland
Next in our lineup is the awesome but desolate Ring of Brodgar, a Scottish henge monument just outside Stromness on Mainland, the biggest of the isles of Orkney. Overlooking the icy North Sea, this windswept circle surrounded by barrows, cairns, and mounds is one of the wildest on our list. It’s definitely the place to go if you want to soak up some pagan cosmic energies in solitude—in comparison, Stonehenge is famous for being almost always busy.
At 104 meters in diameter, it’s the third-largest henge in the U.K. and the northernmost henge in the world, as well as being one of the only major stone circles in Britain or Scotland that’s almost a perfect circle. It was originally comprised of up to 60 stones, but only 27 still stand. There is also evidence of burial mounds surrounding the stones, possibly belonging to the early bronze age. Despite several attempts, the site has still not been properly scientifically dated and the monolith’s age remains uncertain, though it is generally thought to have been erected between 2,500 B.C. and 2,000 BC. That’s older than Stonehenge but still younger than the nearby Stones of Stenness.
3. Drombeg Stones, Ireland
Over in Ireland, the Drombeg Stones are located east of Galndore in County Cork. Also known as The Druid’s Altar, this circle is much smaller than the first two on this list, being less than 10 meters wide. However, this site is one of the most visited megalithic sites in Ireland, possibly because of its curious artwork and somber archeological discoveries.
One of the stones lies on its side, with two egg-shaped cup marks carved into it. Two other stones are engraved with curious petroglyphic marks that resemble fertility symbols. In addition to this, the remains of a child’s ashes were excavated from the center of the circle in 1957, leading to the suggestion that perhaps this place had deep connotations with fertility and reproduction. Suppose we’ll never really know.
4. Brittany Stones, France
Being the first on our list which is outside of the British Isles, we had to make it a good one. The thousands of monolith and megalith stones at Carnac in Brittany don’t comprise a single circle, but dozens and dozens of them. The result is more like a labyrinth of standing stones, forming all kinds of alignments.
Dated to the middle Neolithic period, the total area of this UNESCO world heritage site stretches for more than four miles. Like the other sites, this place generally baffles historians, but there is an interesting medieval legend that explains them. The local story goes that when the Roman army was marching on Brittany, the wizard Merlin appeared, furious at the invasion, and magically transformed the soldiers to stone. Just goes to show, never mess with a wizard when he’s angry.
Now that you’re in France, it would be a shame to miss the opportunity for an educational adventure. How about the Nevers-Ending Treasure Quest of Neves? If that doesn’t sound like fun, nothing does.
5. Dolmen of Guadalperal, Spain
This last one’s a little special, as it was only recently rediscovered. Also known as The Drowned Henge or Spanish Stonehenge, this collection of standing stones and recumbent stone circles has actually been buried under the sea for hundreds, or even thousands of years. It was only during the particularly hot summer of 2019 that the drought caused the shoreline of the Tagus River to recede, and then there it was.
The entire site consists of more than 100 granite stones, some as large as 1.8 meters tall, arranged in a 26-meter diameter circle. Like the others, this area is believed to have been of deep spiritual importance to those who inhabited Spain in the early and late Neolithic. Archeologists think it was perhaps a temple, burial site, or even sacred meeting place due to its strategic original location on the banks of the rivers. It really makes you think, what else could be buried under the water?
Stone Circles Outside Europe
1. Rujum El-Hiri, Israel
First on our list of non-Europian stone circles is Rujum El-Hiri. Literally translated as “stone heap of the wild cat”, this messy yet beautiful hedge monument can be found in the Golan Heights, around ten miles from the coast of the Sea of Galilee, in Israel. It consists of 42,000 basalt rocks arranged in concentric circles and has a 4.6-meter tall mound at its center.
Like the others, we have no idea what this place was used for, but since excavations have yielded very few ancient objects or weapons, it is not believed to have been a defensible position, like a stone fort, or a place where people lived. Instead, archeologists think it was most likely a place of spiritual or religious activity to placate the gods.
Those who lived in the area most probably used the stones to worship Tammuz and Ishtar, the gods of fertility and harvest, to thank them for a plentiful year, or perhaps to pray for a better crop next year. However, it should be said there is no complete agreement as to its function, as no comparable circles have been found in the Near East. Interesting!
While you’re in the mystical land of Israel, take some time to check out Tel Aviv with our “Tel Aviv Scavenger Hunt: Stone Streets and Blue Views”.
2. Natba Playa, Egypt
This next one’s located in the land of temples, tombs, and stone structures galore! That’s right, the archeological treasure trove of Egypt. Around 700 miles south of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Natba Playa stone circle is one of Earth’s oldest astronomical observatories, as well as one of the oldest prehistoric monuments ever discovered. Archeologists and historians think this structure was built more than 7,000 years ago by a cattle-worshipping cult of nomads who used it to mark the summer solstice and track the monsoon.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, the story of how it was discovered is also a bit of an adventure. In 1973, a member of the Beduin tribe came across it was traversing the Sahara desert, and shared the discovery with the prominent American archaeologist Fred Wendorf. Wendolf insisted that he be taken there immediately to begin excavation and study. However, his college at the time recalls a different story of the discovery. He claims the entire team was driving across this stretch of desert in 1973 when they happened to stop in the middle of nowhere for a bathroom break. It was then that they spotted these incredible megalithic remains. Amazing what can happen on a road trip.
3. Wassu Stone Circles, Gambia
These next circles are even further into the African continent, all the way over in West Africa, in the Gambia. The amazing site consists of four large groups of stone circles that speak to an incredible concentration of over 1,000 monuments all along the shores of the River Gambia. The four sites consist of stone circles and burial mounds that date back to the third century B.C. It’s famous for being the largest concentration of stone circles seen anywhere in the world and an important sacred landscape that was in active use for more than 1500 years, reflecting a prosperous and highly organized society.
Archeologists have discovered that the stones forming the circles were shaped using iron tools and skillfully crafted into almost identical pillars, of either cylindrical or polygonal shape, approximately two meters tall and weighing up to seven tons each. Together, the four groups make up 93 circles and other sites. Though not all have been excavated, some have revealed such treasures as iron instruments, fragments of pottery, and even jewelry.
4. Deer Stones, Mongolia
Time to hop over to Asia where they have their fair share of standing stones and structures too, including these jaw-droppingly beautiful illustrated stones in Mongolia and Siberia. Generally known as the Deer Stones, these 1,200 ancient structures are scattered across a wide area and given their name because of the elaborate carving of flying deer chiseled right into the rock.
The size of the stones varies from one to four meters tall and are often found grouped together in rough circles. Scientists believe they were erected by the Bronze Age nomads who roamed these lands over 3,000 years ago. However, just like the other sites, they are shrouded in mystery.
What’s particularly mysterious is the meaning of the intricate carvings, which show not only flying deer but other animals like tigers, pigs, frogs, and horses. However, these animals are depicted much more simplistically, leading experts to suggest that the ornate, winged deer had deep symbolic meaning for these tribes. They could even be the origin of the flying deer that belong to Santa Claus, who knows?
5. Stone Spheres, Costa Rica
Okay, so we’re going out on a limb with this last one, as no one actually knows how these stones would have originally been arranged. Nevertheless, we think the Sphere Stones, or Bolas de Piedra, of Costa Rica, belong on this list. After all, there is some evidence to suggest that these hand-carved spheres might have once represented the planets, and possibly would have been laid out in the style of constellations, which would certainly qualify for a circle
While we don’t know the exact number, there are at least 300 of these structures discovered in the region of Costa Rica. These highly mysterious stone spheres are commonly attributed to the extinct Diquís culture, and they are often referred to as the Diquís Spheres. They date back to around 300 A.D. and are made out of hard igneous rock—solidified lava or magma, and were most definitely shaped by people, not nature.
One of the reasons they are so mysterious is that when they were first discovered they were treated as expendable ornamentation, rather than available symbolic artifacts. Many were stolen and placed in private gardens or used in construction, yet others were destroyed or broken into by treasure hunters who believed them to be full of gold. If you want to see one, you need not travel to Costa Rica, as two were even transported to the US. One sits at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., and the other is located in a garden near Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
However, here at Let’s Roam we always recommend an adventure. Why not journey these stones in the land they were crafted? And while you’re on the road, you may as well keep exploring. The Bolivar‘s Bounty Bonanza Scavenger Hunt is fun guaranteed.
Are you ready to roam some stones?
We hope this list of the most beautiful stone circles in the world has sparked some inspiration for your next overseas trip. It’s a big world, and there are thousands of places to see! Don’t forget to take Let’s Roam with you for all the best adventures. Our Explorer blog has hundreds of fascinating articles just like this one.
Frequently Asked Questions
While most people think stone circles are a European phenomenon, there are in fact many stone circles outside of Europe which are well worth visiting.
While stone circles and similar ancient monuments are present all over the planet, the highest concentration of fascinating stone circles can be found in the British Isles.
The oldest stone circle can be found in Turkey, and it’s dated to around 12,000 years old—twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids! Jump on a scavenger hunt around Turkey to enjoy more historical wonders.
Nobody knows exactly what the original use of these fascinating stone circles was, but their purpose was almost certainly spiritual.