A 6,000 year old telescope without a lens – prehistoric tombs enhanced astronomical viewing

Related Articles

Related Articles

Astronomers are exploring what might be described as the first astronomical observing tool, potentially used by prehistoric humans 6,000 years ago.

They suggest that the long, narrow entrance passages to ancient stone or megalithic tombs may have enhanced what early human cultures could see in the night sky – an effect that could have been interpreted as the ancestors granting special power to the initiated.

Their idea is to investigate how a simple aperture, for example an opening or doorway, affects the observation of slightly fainter stars. They focus this study on ‘passage graves’, which are a type of megalithic tomb composed of a chamber of large interlocking stones and a long narrow entrance.

 

These spaces are thought to have been sacred, and the sites may have been used for rites of passage, where the initiated would spend the night inside the tomb, with no natural light apart from that shining down the narrow entrance lined with the remains of the tribe’s ancestors.

These structures could therefore have been the first astronomical tools to support the watching of the skies, millennia before telescopes were invented.

Kieran Simcox, a student in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology, and leading the project, said: “It is quite a surprise that no one has thoroughly investigated how for example the colour of the night sky impacts on what can be seen with the naked eye.”

Seven-stone Antas, Portugal - Credit : Clive Ruggles
Seven-stone Antas, Portugal – Credit : Clive Ruggles

The project targets how the human eye, without the aid of any telescopic device, can see stars given sky brightness and colour. The team intends to apply these ideas to the case of passage graves, such as the 6,000 year old Seven-Stone Antas in central Portugal.

Dr Fabio Silva, of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, said: “The orientations of the tombs may be in alignment with Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. To accurately time the first appearance of this star in the season, it is vital to be able to detect stars during twilight.”

The first sighting in the year of a star after its long absence from the night sky might have been used as a seasonal marker, and could indicate for example the start of a migration to summer grazing grounds. The timing of this could have been seen as secret knowledge or foresight, only obtained after a night spent in contact with the ancestors in the depths of a passage grave, since the star may not have been observable from outside. However, the team suggest it could actually have been the result of the ability of the human eye to spot stars in such twilight conditions, given the small entrance passages of the tombs.

The yearly National Astronomy Meetings have always had some aspects of cultural astronomy present in their schedules. This is the third year running where a designated session is included, exploring the connection between the sky, societies, cultures and people throughout time.

The session organiser over the past three years, Dr Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University, said: “It highlights the cultural agenda within astronomy, also recognised by the inclusion of aspects of ancient astronomy within the GCSE astronomy curriculum.”

NOTTINGHAM TRENT UNIVERSITY

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Tenochtitlan – The Aztec Capital

Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztec civilisation, situated on a raised islet in the western side of the shallow Lake Texcoco, which is now the historic part of present-day Mexico City.

Archipelago in Ancient Doggerland Survived Storegga Tsunami 8,000-Years-Ago

Doggerland, dubbed “Britain’s Atlantis” is a submerged landmass beneath what is now the North Sea, that once connected Britain to continental Europe.

Cereal, Olive & Vine Pollen Reveal Market Integration in Ancient Greece

In the field of economics, the concept of a market economy is largely considered a modern phenomenon.

The Annulment of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon at Dunstable Priory

The Priory Church of St Peter (Dunstable Priory) is the remaining nave of a former Augustinian priory church and monastery, that today is part of the Archdeaconry of Bedford, located within the Diocese of St Albans in the town of Dunstable, England.

Teōtīhuacān – Birthplace of the Gods

Teōtīhuacān, named by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs, and loosely translated as "birthplace of the gods" is an ancient Mesoamerican city located in the Teotihuacan Valley of the Free and Sovereign State of Mexico, in present-day Mexico.

Chetro Ketl – The Great House

Chetro Ketl is an archaeological site, and the ancient ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan settlement, located in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico, United States of America.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings

The Gila Cliff Dwellings is an archaeological site, and ancient settlement constructed by the pueblos Mimbres branch of the Mogollon, located in southwest New Mexico of the United States of America.

Rare Cretaceous-Age Fossil Opens New Chapter in Story of Bird Evolution

A Cretaceous-age, crow-sized bird from Madagascar would have sliced its way through the air wielding a large, blade-like beak and offers important new insights on the evolution of face and beak shape in the Mesozoic forerunners of modern birds.

Popular stories

Teōtīhuacān – Birthplace of the Gods

Teōtīhuacān, named by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs, and loosely translated as "birthplace of the gods" is an ancient Mesoamerican city located in the Teotihuacan Valley of the Free and Sovereign State of Mexico, in present-day Mexico.

Legio IX Hispana – The Lost Roman Legion

One of the most debated mysteries from the Roman period involves the disappearance of the Legio IX Hispana, a legion of the Imperial Roman Army that supposedly vanished sometime after AD 120.

The Secret Hellfire Club and the Hellfire Caves

The Hellfire Club was an exclusive membership-based organisation for high-society rakes, that was first founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton, and several of society's elites.

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.