Glossary: Neolithic Enclosures

These take many forms – the causewayed enclosures of the early Neolithic, distinguished by one or more irregular circuits of ditch interrupted by numerous gaps or causeways; or the cursus monuments of the middle centuries of the Neolithic – long, narrow monuments, rectangular in shape and defined by bank and external ditch. These are generally over 100 metres in length but several are measurable in kilometres.

During the third millennium BC, a type of enclosure known to archaeologists as a ‘henge’ began to appear all over the British Isles. The most basic definition of a henge is a circular or near-circular enclosure defined by a ditch with external bank. They generally had either a single entrance or a pair of opposed entrances.

As with most archaeological monuments, there is a great deal of variety, which underlines the fact there is likely to be no simple explanation for their form and functions. Some sites identified as henges have more than two entrances; some are empty of internal features while others originally held one or more arrangements of timber or standing stones; some featured an internal bank – Stonehenge, for example; while some of the largest and best-known henges stretch the definition of ‘circular’ to its limits.

Perhaps the one thing common to all of them is that they were likely to have been venues for ceremonies, ritual and gatherings. They were not places that were lived in, although many people may have been present at times. They were not places for burial, although human remains and sometimes complete individuals may have been interred there.

Henges and related forms of enclosure were mainly constructed and used from around 3000 BC down to around 2000 BC, but continued to act as a focus for later monuments, including clusters of round barrows.