“For what is orientation, or direction? What is the meaning of North, South, East or West?
How did we derive these fixed points to start with? Not from any local or national origin;
for pure direction is entirely independent of locality. It is, in fact, derived solely from the movements
of the ‘heavens’. It is only by reference to the position of the stars, sun or moon that azimuth,
or true direction, exists. There is no other meaning in the term.”
– H. Boyle Somerville (1912)
Clocks, calendars, navigational devices – all have their origins in astronomy.
At any given time, in almost any country in the world, those living in the 21st century can know their position in time and space. This knowledge and technology has been acquired almost exclusively within the last half millennia. It is hard to imagine life without them, or to conceive of the challenges facing prehistoric peoples. For thousands of years the sky was likely as mysterious to our ancestors as quantum physics is to us now.
It is generally acknowledged that civilisation began in the middle east from approx. 3000 BC, between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, a region then known as Sumer, now Iraq. The Sumerians developed writing, large scale agriculture, the first known system of laws and lived in city-states. They are widely held to have forged the path towards the later Babylonian and Egyptian civilisations, and the foundations of the modern world.
In the last few decades, however, a radical new theory has emerged. It concerns the legacy of a people who inhabited Northern Europe from as far back as 26,000 years ago. We know them as the Mesolithic – ‘Old Stone Age’ peoples, and their descendants as the Neolithic – ‘New Stone Age.’ Scattered from the western shores of Ireland to the eastern borders of Poland, and into areas of north Africa and the Mediterranean, are some of mankind’s oldest and most mysterious monuments. Standing stones, stone circles, long ‘Barrows,’ chambered ‘Cairns,’ earth mounds and ‘Dolmens,’ monuments collectively known as ‘Megalithic’ (from the Greek – meaning ‘large stone’).
Beginning in approx. 4500 BC, and reaching a climax around 1800 BC, the size, scale and design of these monuments ranges from the prosaic to the truly extraordinary, and some pre-date the Egyptian pyramids by over a thousand years.
The British Isles are saturated with Megalithic sites, and yet the culture that was responsible for them had not, as far as it was known, developed a written language.
Archaeological research in the last 70 years has shed much light on the physical evidence recovered from such sites, revealing a society very much concerned with spirituality and the cycles of life, death and agriculture, and who possessed burgeoning skills in art and crafts. However, the overall purpose of these sites, and by what means they came to be built, continues to generate a huge spectrum of debate.
Prior to this time these constructions had aroused little more than scorn and ridicule from academics, who often described them as the work of “…illiterate barbarians…” and “…savages…” whilst the monuments themselves endured devastation at the hands of religious belief systems, industrialisation and modern farming. It was a train of events that we may come to bitterly regret, for encoded within some of them may lie answers to the origin of our culture, and the first principles of science itself.
The first serious study of stone circles was undertaken by John Aubrey, a fellow of The Royal Society. In his book, MONUMENTA BRITANNICA, compiled between 1663 and 1693, he remarked of Stonehenge and other megalithic structures that there was:
“…clear evidence these monuments were Pagan temples….” [and a] “…probability that these were the temples of the Druids.”
His cautious thesis remained unpublished at the time of his death in 1697, but twenty years later it came to the attention of Dr. William Stukeley. A physician and antiquarian, his most enduring contribution to the study of Stonehenge was his observation that the axis of the structure, as defined by the orientations of key features, pointed:
“…directly North East, whereabouts the sun rises, when the days are longest.”
Stukeley was the first to suggest that Megaliths were possibly built with astronomical alignments in mind.
It was not until the 19th century, however, that archaeologists began to notice a consistent pattern of sun worship in many countries, and in 1901 they gained their most notable recruit, Sir Norman Lockyer. Founder of the prestigious journal NATURE, Lockyer had made his name with the first astronomical studies of the great pyramids of Egypt. Turning his attention to his own country, and utilising the same techniques, Lockyer published his findings in the 1906 book STONEHENGE AND OTHER BRITISH STONE MONUMENTS ASTRONOMICALLY CONSIDERED.
He asserted that the ancient Britons were easily the equals of their Egyptian contemporaries and that they had designed Stonehenge and other sites as calendars, to mark crucial points in the cyclical movements of the heavens, thus mastering complex feats of long term astronomical observation and calculation. Though Lockyer was a giant in the field of astronomy, many attacked his conclusions. The reception to claims made by astronomer Gerald Hawkins of Boston University in his 1965 book STONEHENGE DECODED were similarly dismissive. His calculations convinced him that the chances of so many astronomical alignments occurring purely by chance were greater than a million to one.
Professor Sir Fred Hoyle of Cambridge University, known for his radical viewpoints, was one of the few hospitable to Hawkins’ conclusions:
“A veritable Newton or Einstein must have been at work. It demands a level of intellectual attainment that is orders of magnitude higher than the standard to be expected from a community of primitive farmers.”
It was not, however, an astronomer, but an engineer, whose dogged investigations would gather the data that would contribute to the birth of a new science: Archaeo-Astronomy.
Alexander Thom, a professor at Oxford University until his retirement in 1961, had been studying ancient stone structures since before World War 2. He had published two books – MEGALITHIC SITES IN BRITAIN and MEGALITHIC LUNAR OBSERVATORIES – even before making his first trip to Stonehenge in 1973.
Thom’s methodical surveys of nearly 600 sites demonstrated that many stone ‘circles’ were not in fact so. As many as 30% were actually elliptical and a further 10% were ‘flattened’ circles, often laid out in six regularly proportioned shapes. He concluded:
“Megalithic man had a highly developed knowledge of geometry. It now appears that his knowledge of how to apply it put him intellectually in line with the greatest civilisations of antiquity.”
He went on to note that many sites appeared not just to be isolated observation posts, but acted in concert with one another, sometimes lining up across several miles like rifle sights, as well as with natural features in the landscape, against which relative movements of celestial objects could be accurately observed. To achieve regularity he proposed an underlying, constant unit of measurement that was employed in the construction of many European sites.
He called it the ‘Megalithic Yard.’ This 2.72 ft unit was derived from the mean regular spacing of standing stones within the three principal layouts. This indicated a commonality of knowledge and communication between disparate sets peoples never previously contemplated.
In his book WALKING IN ALL OF THE SQUARES, Thom went so far as to claim:
“A statistical analysis of the sites shows that they were so carefully erected that we can from them deduce, with an accuracy better than one arc minute: the inclination of the ecliptic, the inclination of the lunar orbit, the mean amplitude of the lunar perturbation, and the mean lunar parallax.”
Historian R.J.C. Atkinson, who had dismissed Hawkins’ work as “…tendentious and slip-shod…” was forced in the face of Thom’s carefully compiled data to reconsider his position:
“It is important that non-archaeologists should understand how disturbing to archaeologists are the implications of Thom’s work. His opinions do not fit the conceptual model of the pre-history of Europe which has been current during the whole of the present century.”
Atkinson’s opinion was a rarity amongst the archaeological community. Thom never formulated a possible mechanism for arriving at his Megalithic Yard, and his work was largely ignored. For many years no serious attempts were made to refute or confirm his data. Yet it very much caught the public imagination, and led to a greatly increased interest in Megalithic sites generally. Interviewed by the BBC in 1969, Thom was asked:
“Your theories about Stone-Age Einsteins have got up the back of some archaeologists. […] Does it worry you?”
“Not at all,” he replied, “I just go right on recording what I find.”
From 1971-1972 American ‘light’ artist Charles Ross undertook his SUNLIGHT CONVERGENCE project. On a rigid frame he mounted a magnifying glass to burn the trace of the sun’s rays into consecutive planks of wood over the course of 366 days.
He then transposed these successive day’s patterns into an overall picture of the transit of the solar year.
Unbeknownst to Ross at the time, strikingly similar and correlated variations of this image are carved into the stones of dozens of the most complex Megalithic sites in Europe, most notably Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland.
During the Newgrange excavations of 1962-1975, project leader Professor Michael O’Kelly was intrigued by local folklore that the main interior chamber was lit by the rising sun on a particular day of the year. Acting on a hunch, he was finally able to literally shed light on one particular feature of the monument whose significance had eluded him.
Above the main entrance was a mysterious opening, framed by an inscribed lintel. Referred to as the ‘Roof Box’ its purpose was unknown, until O’Kelly, on the morning of the winter solstice, December 21st 1967, stationed himself inside the chamber.
Just after after sunrise a shaft of light began to pierce through the ‘Roof Box.’ For seventeen minutes the sun’s beam tracked over the far walls and their carvings.
“I was literally astounded. The light began as a thin pencil and widened to a band of about six inches, lighting up everything as it came until the whole chamber – side recesses, floor and the roof six metres above – were all clearly illuminated.”
What O’Kelly witnessed had not been seen for almost 5000 years, and suddenly the significance of the level of the passageway floor became apparent. It rises seven feet from entrance to chamber. Sunlight can not reach the interior via the entrance, it can only penetrate via the ‘Roof Box.’ Its placement was thus clearly deliberate, and confirmed by subsequent excavation.
The discovery made headlines all over the world, attracting many researchers.
Among them was Irish artist Martin Brennan. He began investigating his country’s sites and artefacts in the late 1970’s. Though he could find no evidence to support the ‘Megalithic Yard’ in Ireland, he was fascinated by the extraordinary abundance of markings on stones and Thom’s theories of ancient astronomy. He wondered whether these markings might comprise a language of some type, and if so, whether they might be providing astronomical information.
Analysing 360 carved stones, Brennan highlighted the most common symbols used, and the frequency of their occurrence.
He first published his findings in 1983, and expanded upon them in his 1994 book THE STONES OF TIME.
“They are all found in ‘Passage Mounds’ and [ …] they have all been shown to be astronomically oriented, which reveals the context in which the art appears. The relationship between the art and astronomy is further reinforced by the presence of engraved sundials, calendars and explicit solar-lunar imagery.”
Brennan’s breakthrough discovery occurred at Cairn T, a passage tomb in the Loughrew group of monuments, 30 miles west of Newgrange. Here the rising sun at the spring and autumn equinoxes clearly illuminates explicitly related carvings in the interior.
This prompted him to state that Newgrange was not, therefore, an isolated case of advanced Megalithic engineering, but part of a much broader and complex picture. At the time, however, his findings were met with dismissal, and in some cases outright hostility, from the archaeological community.
In 1996, British newspaper The Sunday Times reported the discovery of inscribed pottery fragments, attributed to a Neolithic culture whom have become known as the ‘Grooved Ware’ people.
“[An] 89 symbol script is preserved in scores of fragments used 3500 years ago in settlements reaching from the Orkneys to Majorca. It is more complex than any previously known.”
William Waldren, an archaeologist from Oxford University commented:
“These finds suggest that some part of Western Europe, previously regarded as illiterate, may have been as advanced as the ancient Greeks and Romans.[…] Historians may no longer be able to regard the Eastern Mediterranean as the only spiritual home of modern culture.”
His colleague Professor Nicholas Purcell, a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford, remarked:
“It would be sensational if this civilisation had developed its own script. It would show that they had developed for themselves the complex concept of using symbols to represent sounds and so moved towards developing a rudimentary alphabet.”
In recent years the more extreme claims of pioneering investigators such as Brennan, Hawkins and Thom have been softened by further observation and refutation. However, their contribution has been immense. The astronomical aspect of Megalithic sites, previously almost completely ignored by archaeologists, has become widely accepted and incorporated into their work.
The study of prehistory has taken on a startling new direction. Far removed from barbarians or savages, a civilisation earlier than the Sumerian may have developed a written symbolic script and a knowledge of geometry far in excess of any known requirement of subsistence agriculturists. They appear to have recorded and utilised divisions of long duration time, and devoted huge efforts to the construction of massive stone monuments based on astronomical principles.
But the questions, still pondered by the millions of people who visit these sites every year, are: how….and why?
In setting out to answer these questions, ANCIENT SKIES celebrates the emergence of this new scientific discipline, features timelapse photography of never before seen monument-alignment events, and is the first large format film to explore the enduring popularity and fascination with our Neolithic heritage.