Archaeo-astronomy Steps out from the Shadows of the Past

This week, a developing field of research that combines astronomical techniques with the study of ancient man-made features and the surrounding landscapes will be highlighted at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) 2014 in Portsmouth. From the ‘Crystal Pathway’ that connects stone circles on Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor to star-aligned megaliths in central Portugal, archaeo-astronomers are discovering new evidence that Neolithic and Bronze Age people were acute observers of the Sun, Moon and stars and that within their local landscape they managed to insert astronomical references.

“There’s more to archaeo-astronomy than Stonehenge,” says Dr Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University, the man who will be presenting his findings on the 4000-year-old astronomically aligned standing stone at Gardom’s Edge in the UK’s Peak District. “Modern archaeo-astronomy encompasses many other research areas such as anthropology, ethno-astronomy and even educational research.  It has stepped away from its speculative beginnings and placed itself solidly onto the foundation of statistical methods.  However, this pure scientific approach has its own challenges that need to be overcome by embracing humanistic influences and putting the research into context with local cultures and landscape.”

In response to this crossover of the two fields, some researchers are suggesting that the field should be renamed to ‘Skyscape Archaeology’. Dr Fabio Silva, from UCL and co-editor of a recently established Journal for Skyscape Archaeology, says, “We have much to gain if the fields of astronomy and archaeology come together to a fuller and more balanced understanding of European megaliths and the societies that built them.  Archaeologists will need to learn some basic observational astronomy, but archaeo-astronomers will also have to engage more with the archaeological record and ask different research questions. It is no longer enough to simply collect orientation data for a large number of monuments spread over vast regions and look for broad patterns.  In addition, archaeo-astronomers cannot base their assumptions on modern concepts of precision and symmetry of axis, unless this can be independently demonstrated.  To understand what alignments meant to prehistoric people and why they decided to incorporate them into their structures, we need to identify patterns and interactions between structures, landscape and skyscape.”

Silva’s investigations of European megaliths concentrate on 6000-year-old winter occupation sites and megalithic structures in the Mondego Valley in central Portugal. He has been able to discover that the entrance corridors of all passage graves in a given necropolisare aligned with seasonal rising over nearby mountains of the star of Aldebaran, the brightest star of Taurus. The connection between the appearance of the star in the springtime and the mountains where the dolmen builders spent their summers has echoes in local folklore about how the Serra de Estrela or ‘Mountain of the Range Star’ established its name from a Mondego Valley shepherd and his dog following a star.

Megalith: WikiPedia
Megalith: WikiPedia

Pamela Armstrong, from the University of Wales Trinity St David, integrates the idea of skyscapes in her research on the finest stone chambered tombs in Britain, which are located in the north Cotswolds. Neolithic people are known to have buried their deceased in these earthen mounds, but it has been considered that they possibly also placed their tombs towards significant points of lunar, solar, and stellar rise and set on their local horizons. Pamela’s work explores whether these Neolithic settlers practiced a different type of astronomy to that of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who were their predecessors on this landscape.


In addition to this, Brian Sheen and Gary Cutts of the Roseland Observatory have worked alongside Jacky Nowakowski, from Cornwall Council’s Historic Environment Service, to investigate the important Bronze Age astro-landscape extending over several square-miles on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall. At the centre lies Britain’s only triple stone circles, The Hurlers, of which two are connected by the 4000-year-old granite pavement, named the Crystal Pathway. The team has confirmed that the inhabitants during the Bronze Age used a calendar that was controlled by the Sun. The four cardinal points are marked together with the solstices and equinoxes.

“The Pipers are standing stone outliers to the main circles. When standing between the stones, one to the right and the other to the left, one looks north & south; when lining both up, one faces east & west,” says Sheen.  “We also think the three circles that comprise The Hurlers monument may be laid out on the ground to resemble Orion’s Belt. Far from being three isolated circles on the moor they are linked into one landscape.”

Additional researchers who a presenting in the session are Liz Henty from the University of Wales Trinity St David, reporting on Tomnaverie Recumbent Stone Circle in Scotland and Dr Frank Pendergast from Dublin Institute of Technology, discussing findings on a passage tomb at Knockroe in County Kilkenny, Ireland.

Prof Richard Bower of ICC/IMMEMS Durham University will also be presenting computer models of a universe based on a 13th century text written by Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, and will illustrate how it links to today’s concept of multiple universes.


Contributing Source: Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) 

Header Image: Fotopedia


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