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 Location: Glenrothes, Fife, Near Markinch, Scotland.  Grid Reference: 56 12' 53.9" N, 3 9' 33.93" W.


      Balfarg: (Henge Circle).

Balfarg henge is uniquely situated in the centre of a housing estate, surrounded by a circular road and ring of houses which were built in 1977 and 1978.

The Balfarg henge is part of a larger prehistoric ceremonial complex which was in use for over 1500 years. It contains the remnants of a stone circle which has been partly reconstructed.





The huge bank and ditch of the enormous circle-henge of Balfarg was used as a ceremonial centre from around 3,700 BC onwards. A Causeway was left at the north-east. On the central plateau, nearly sixty metres across, the people put up a ring of timbers whose posts increased in size and width towards the south-west, where two colossal trunks stood. This impressive circle was later replaced by a stone circle of ten or eleven stones.

The site was discovered from air-photographs by Dr K A Steer and surveyed by R J C Atkinson in 1950.

Traces of the enclosing bank exist to a height of 6 to 8 inches on the north and east; its original diameter could have been about 280 feet. The two standing stones are of undressed sandstone and lie some 45 feet apart. That on the north-west, 6 feet 7 inches high, was probably one of a pair set in the entrance-gap; the other, 5 feet 3 inches high, the survivor of a ring of stones set some 20 feet within the ditch and concentric with it.

R J C Atkinson 1952.

The Balfarg henge was excavated between 1977 and 1978 by Roger Mercer prior to the development of a new housing estate, work which established that the two extant standing stones were part of a circle that stood within the henge. The two surviving stones lined the north-west oriented entrance to the henge. (1)

Within the 64.9m diameter henge (comparable to Brodgar), were found broken Neolithic pottery, burnt wood and bone which had been dumped on the site prior to the erection of a 25m wide timber circle of 16 wooden posts. Two especially large portal timbers stood on the west side of the circle. It is likely that the henge was built after these phases of activity. Grooved ware pottery found in the postholes dates to around 2,900 BC. Some of the vessels may have been used to hold black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which is a poison but also a powerful hallucinogen. This has reinforced the suggestion that the site was a 'ceremonial' centre.


The Use of Henbane as a Hallucinogen at Balfarg:

The specialist report included in the excavation publication identified high pollen values and seed numbers of henbane (Moffat 1993). Organic residues adhering to pottery sherds, which had been broken and often scorched at the time of deposition, were examined by Moffat. The context of these sherds, associated with what has been identified as a ritual monument, and the manner of deposition, has been interpreted as ritual activity. The presence of henbane in significant concentrations has been interpreted as the use of a hallucinogenic drug, as part of these ritual activities. To date, excavations at other `ritual' sites have not been able to produce comparable evidence for the use of poisonous or hallucinogenic plants at these sites (Long 1998) and Balfarg is unique in this respect. However, this evidence has been used to support theories of the use of hallucinogenic drugs in the Scottish Neolithic and parallels have been drawn to the use of other members of the Solanaceae in South America and Australia (Sherratt 1996).

An approximate chronology from the Balfarg/ Balbirnie complex (Barclay & Russell-White 1993) suggests that ceremonial activity lasted from the 4th to the 2nd millennium BC (uncalibrated). Organic residues adhering to three types of pottery were examined. These three groups are defined by Cowie (1993) as Early Neolithic Cowie Group 1 and 2 and Grooved Ware vessels. Radiocarbon dating of associated charcoal indicates an age range spanning some 1000 years, between 3710 and 2610 years cal BC (Barclay & Russell-White 1993: 160-61). Sherds of different vessels were deposited in separate locations and sometimes sherds from a single pot were deposited in different locations (Barclay & Russell-White 1993: 187). This and the low numbers of sherds means that context is difficult to interpret although Richards and Barclay (in Barclay & Russell-White 1993: 187-92) suggest that deposition may have had ritual significance as all pottery appears to have been used, broken and often burnt prior to deposition on site. There is no evidence that sherds were removed from the site. Richards (1993) interprets this as evidence that the sherds were `ritually charged'.

Botanical evidence from the residues consisted of a pollen assemblage identified on one sherd (Pot 63) that included significant proportions of henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), goosefoot (Chenopodiaceae) and cabbage/mustards (Brassicaceae). A `small cache' of henbane seeds was also identified in the residue of this same sherd (Moffat 1993). No comparable evidence was found in residues from other sherds examined by Moffat. There is no indication published of the number of pollen grains or seeds involved. Assessment of pollen preservation can be used to indicate the reliability of a pollen assemblage by highlighting those assemblages with high proportions of poorly preserved pollen, which can suggest differential preservation of the assemblage. However, published information from the 1997 study does not allow this assessment of reliability. This makes re-interpretation and further use of these data difficult to the extent that re-analysis is the only way to assess their reliability.

Henbane has profound and intoxicating properties (Cooper & Johnson 1984): the plant is poisonous and ingestion causes euphoria, hallucinations, blurred vision, dizziness, rapid heartbeat and eventually death when consumed in excess. Grieve (1931) suggests that the leaves, flowering tops and seeds are most frequently used in medical preparations and adds that boiling does not destroy the toxic properties of the plant. Seeds, however, have 10 times the strength of the leaves and Grieve (1931) specifies that although a dose of 20 seeds has not proved fatal to adults, reactions to this dose would include vomiting, loss of consciousness and sometimes suffocation. (2)

(More about the Role of Drugs in Prehistory)



Balbirnie Stone Circle:

This nearby stone circle originally dates from between 4,000 to 1,500 BC. Unfortunately the location of the circle only dates from 1970/71 when it was moved from its original site in favour if a dual carriageway.

The relationship between Balbirnie and the Balfarg henge is unknown, although it is possible that the small circle at Balbirnie may have had a similar function to that of the Sanctuary near Avebury. They are both single parts of a larger 'ceremonial' complex.


(European Neolithic Super-Complexes)



(Other Prehistoric Scottish Sites)





1). Mercer. Roger, J. The Excavation of a Late Neolithic Henge Type Enclosure at Balfarg. 1981. Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scot.
2). http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb3284/is_283_74/ai_n28792175/

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