Haunting look at the unknown Stonehenges; Rings of Stone: The Prehistoric Stone Circles of Britain and Ireland, by Aubrey Burl, with photographs by Edward Piper. New HAven and New York: Ticknor & Fields. $19.95

Three thousand years before Christ -- about the time when Narmer was the first Pharaoh of the first dynasty in Egypt and the first primitive pyramid had yet to be built, when pictograph writing had just been invented in Summer, when most of Western Europe was still covered with virgin hardwood forest - small groups of people in the British Isles were setting up circles of huge, carefully cut stones.

No one, today, knows precisely how, or precisely why. Yet more than 1,000 such circles remain discernible, in various states of preservation and ruin, throughout England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Aubrey Burl's "Rings of Stone ," with its superbly spooky photographs by Edward Piper, amounts to an elegant guided tour of those artifacts, of the body of archaeological data that has been teased from them, of the theories that have been assembled from (or in some cases, despite) the data, and of the bleak and glowering beauties of that world that was Neolithic Britain. This book is not just good; it threatens of magic.

The most famous of the circles, of course, and the most spectacular as a feat of engineering is Stonehenge. But Stonehenge nowadays is a zoo animal, an imposing but humbled beast, captive behind a wire fence and a turnstile, embarrassed by the near presence of a visitors' car park. The other rings treated by Burl and Piper are mainly wild creatures, still on the loose, standing stolid and largely ignored in the center of wheat fields, at the edge of lochs, amid deserted moorlands, even on golf courses. Scattered all across Britain and Ireland, they testify silently to the presence, 5,000 years ago, of farming tribes with a knack for stone-cutting and a yen for ritual.

Aubrey Burl, an academic archaeologist who writes English prose better than many American novelists, has done years of site excavation and a great deal of simple legwork to bring us a broad portrait (the first third of the book) of the stone circles and the culture that produced them, plus what he describes as a "selective gazetteer," a guide (the latter two- thirds of the book) to the locations and individual characteristics of 50 chosen sites that can be visited by the reader. This balance of parts, one-third general commentary and two-thirds guidebook, might suggest that "Rings of Stone" is merely something for the fortunate few to tuck under their arms as they leave on vacation flights for London, and read on the plane over mid-Atlantic. It is well suited to that, yes; but it is also, I think, one of the most sensible and persuasive books available on the subject of megalithic monuments.

And, with the eerie Piper photographs, it is certainly the most beautiful.

Burl points out that "the sacred circle, whether of earth or of stones, had a long tradition behind it in prehistoric Britain, linked to cults in which human bones were used in rites so powerful that there had to be a barrier between them and the ordinary world of living. But it was only when people ceased to cover such sanctuaries with cairns or barrows that the open circle became the monument that archaeologists recognize as a henge or a stone circle today."

Enduring a chronicaly insecure existence in a harsh landscape, with an average adult life span of less than 35 years and high infant mortality, these Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Britons used the rings of stone, according to Burl's careful postulation, as centers of ritual, in which they communicated with the intimidating forces of nature and destiny, "They burned great fires, gave 'dead' things, the deliberately broken pots, the incinerated bones of their own people, as offerings to give strength to their temple. . . . These were times of hope and fear." The hope was well expressed, and also the fear, the perception of stark and ponderous forces looming up on all sides of fragile humankind, inthese arrangements of towering stone.

Near the beginning of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" occurs a scene in which a prehuman ape gazes reverentially upon an inexplicable dark monolith standing up out of the wilderness and, its imagination quickened, to the swelling accompaniment of "Thus Spake Zarathustra," performs the first human act, inventing a weapon. Kubrick must have known Britain's stone circles, at least Stonehenge, to have undestood so well the inspirational possibilities of a tall mute slab.

If you remember that movie moment, if you remember feeling a confused ecstatic shiver, turn to Page 94 of "Rings of Stone," and see what Edward Piper has done.

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