A monumental error: The misdating of a stone circle by roughly 4,000 years

Ever made a big mistake with an assignment or had a bad day at work?  Read on…

Scotland is littered with ancient historical monuments, cairns, and stone circles dating back to the Bronze Age and perhaps even earlier.  These structures, often featuring standing stones or remains of passage graves or cairns, have become part of a romanticised view of Scotland.  They often feature in folk tales, legends, and literature from Sunset Song to Outlander.  Knowledge of who built them and why has been lost in time, adding to their romantic charm.  The monuments would have required considerable effort and skill to build and are a fascinating window into Scotland’s past.

Recumbent stone circles are unique to Moray and parts of Ireland.  They feature a stone laid flat – the recumbent, which can weigh around 24 tons – with large upright stones on either side which are known as flankers.  The structure resembles a large upside-down table or alter. The recumbent and flankers make up part of a larger circle of standing stones which are graded in height with the smallest opposite the recumbent stone.  They are thought by some to be places where ancient rituals took place. It is possible these rituals involved moonlight, as at certain times the moon is framed between the flankers above the recumbent stone. Diameters of the stone circles range from around 18 to 24 metres.

In December 2018, researchers were excited to announce the finding of a previously unrecorded example of a recumbent stone circle at a farm in the parish of Leochel-Cushnie, Aberdeenshire.  This discovery was particularly interesting as the diameter of the circle was smaller than previously recorded examples and the stones were in “good condition”. The find was celebrated in national media, both in print and on television.

But, all was not quite what it seemed…

After seeing news of the discovery, a previous owner of the farm got in touch and revealed he had in fact built the structure in the 1990s.  Far from being a prehistoric, 4,000-year-old stone circle, the monument was revealed to be less than 30 years old.

The researchers took their error in good spirits, celebrating the attention to detail and enthusiasm for archaeology the farmer had shown.  Neil Ackerman, one of the researchers to have made the ‘discovery’ has seen a rise in twitter followers since the incident and has even been recognised while shopping as ‘the archaeologist’.  

Sharing an article from his employers about the incident, Ackerman joked, “if you are having an awkward day at work at least you’re not the guy who identified a new prehistoric stone circle to the press that now turns out to be about 20 years old.” He sets the perfect example for us all in how to take ownership of your mistakes and make the best of a bad situation – even experts mess up. News of the error is spreading around the world, which can only be good for archaeology and general interest in Scottish history.

Mr Ackerman expressed hope that the stones would “continue to be used and enjoyed – while not ancient it is still in a fantastic location and makes for a great feature in the landscape.”

He added:”These types of monument are notoriously difficult to date.”

Image: johndal via Flickr

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