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Archaeo-astronomy Steps out from Shadows of the Past

Last Updated on Monday, 23 June 2014 09:21
Published on Friday, 20 June 2014 15:27

This week, a developing field of research that merges 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 links stone circles on Cornwall's Bodmin Moor to star-aligned megaliths in central Portugal, archaeo-astronomers are finding evidence that Neolithic and Bronze Age people were acute observers of the Sun, as well as the Moon and stars, and that they embedded astronomical references within their local landscapes.

Archaeoastronomy Fig3 SilvaMegalithic cluster of Carregal do Sal: a) Dolmen da Orca, a typical dolmenic structure in western Iberia; b) view of the passage and entrance while standing within the dolmens' chamber: the 'window of visibility'; c) Orca de Santo Tisco, a dolmen with a much smaller passage or corridor. Credit: F. Silva"There's more to archaeo-astronomy than Stonehenge," says Dr Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University, who will present updates on his work 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 more cross-fertilized approach, some researchers are proposing to rename the field 'Skyscape Archaeology'. Dr Fabio Silva, of UCL and co-editor of the 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 studies of European megaliths focus on 6000-year-old winter occupation sites and megalithic structures in the Mondego valley in central Portugal. He has found that the entrance corridors of all passage graves in a given necropolisare aligned with the seasonal rising over nearby mountains of the star Aldebaran, the brightest star of Taurus. This link between the appearance of the star in springtime and the mountains where the dolmen builders would have spent their summers has echoes in local folklore about how the Serra da Estrela or 'Mountain Range of the Star' received its name from a Mondego valley shepherd and his dog following a star.

Pamela Armstrong, of the University of Wales Trinity St David, integrates the idea of skyscape in her work on the finest stone chambered tombs in Britain, located in the north Cotswolds. Neoltihic people buried their dead in these earthen mounds, but they may also have oriented their tombs toward significant points of lunar, solar and stellar rise and set on their local horizons. Her work sheds light upon whether these Neolithic settlers practiced a different astronomy to that of the Mesolithic hunter gatherers who preceded them on this landscape.

Archaeoastronomy Fig7 SheenThe Pipers 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. Credit: B. SheenAdditionally, Brian Sheen and Gary Cutts of the Roseland Observatory have worked together with Jacky Nowakowski, of Cornwall Council's Historic Environment Service, to explore an important Bronze Age astro-landscape extending over several square miles on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. At its heart lie Britain's only triple stone circles, The Hurlers, of which two are linked by the 4000-year-old granite pavement, dubbed the Crystal Pathway. The team has confirmed that Bronze Age inhabitants used a calendar controlled by the movements of 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."

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

Prof Richard Bower of ICC/IMEMS Durham University will also present computer models of a universe based on a 13th Century text by Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, and show how that links to today's concepts of multiple universes.

 

Media contacts

NAM 2014 press office landlines: +44 (0) 02392 845176, +44 (0)2392 845177, +44 (0)2392 845178

Anita Heward
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243
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Dr Robert Massey
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
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Dr Keith Smith
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An ISDN line is available for radio interviews. To request its use, please contact Sophie Hall via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Science contacts

Dr Daniel Brown
Nottingham Trent University
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Dr Fabio Silva
Institute of Archaeology
University College London
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Brian Sheen
Roseland Observatory
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Prof Richard Bower
Institute for Computational Cosmology
Durham University
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Image and captions

http://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2014/Archaeoastronomy_Fig1_Brown.jpg
Fig. 1 - The standing stone located at Gardom's Edge with its distinct triangular profile and erected 4,000 years ago. The flat north facing side just receiving sunlight has been orientated astronomically. The location of this stone within its surrounding landscape shows signs of careful selection and symbolic meaning. Credit: D. Brown

 

http://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2014/Archaeoastronomy_Fig2_Brown.jpg
Fig. 2. - A Ordnance Survey map illustrating the landscape surrounding Gardom's Edge. Note the location of the standing stone marked with an open circle and the weathered rocky feature of the Three Ships highlighted in yellow. These features are visible on the horizon, as sketched in the bottom of the figure for eight locations A to D, in the hatched region below the red line. Another prominent rocky feature is Eagle Stone that is only visible in the hatched region between the blue lines. The standing stone is located in a liminal location avoiding both visibility regions. Credit: D. Brown

 

http://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2014/Archaeoastronomy_Fig3_Silva.jpg
Fig. 3 - Megalithic cluster of Carregal do Sal: a) Dolmen da Orca, a typical dolmenic structure in western Iberia; b) view of the passage and entrance while standing within the dolmens' chamber: the 'window of visibility'; c) Orca de Santo Tisco, a dolmen with a much smaller passage or corridor. Credit: F. Silva

 

http://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2014/Archaeoastronomy_Fig4_Silva.jpg
Fig. 4 - The view towards the east from the Carregal do Sal megalithic cluster, at dawn at the end of April around 4,000 BC, as reconstructed using a Digital Elevation Model and Stellarium. Aldebaran, the last star to rise before the sun, is rising directly above Serra da Estrela, the "mountain range of the star". Credit: F. Silva

 

http://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2014/Archaeoastronomy_Fig5_Armstrong.jpg
Fig. 5 - Illustration: Elsie Clifford. The Excavation of Nympsfield Long Barrow, Gloucestershire. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 1938. p. 195.

 

http://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2014/Archaeoastronomy_Fig6_Sheen.jpg
Fig. 6 - The three circles that comprise The Hurlers monument may be laid out on the ground to resemble Orion's Belt. To illustrate the point the image shows them lit by and seen looking north from Caradon Hill, a similar view can be seen from Stowe Hill looking south. Far from being three isolated circles on the moor they are linked into one landscape. Credit: B. Sheen

 

http://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2014/Archaeoastronomy_Fig7_Sheen.jpg
Fig. 7 - The Pipers 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. Credit: B. Sheen

 

Notes for editors

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2014) will bring together more than 600 astronomers, space scientists and solar physicists for a conference running from 23 to 26 June in Portsmouth. NAM 2014, the largest regular professional astronomy event in the UK, will be held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP), Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar-Terrestrial physics (MIST) and UK Cosmology (UKCosmo) meetings. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the University of Portsmouth. Meeting arrangements and a full and up to date schedule of the scientific programme can be found on the official website and via Twitter.

The University of Portsmouth is a top-ranking university in a student-friendly waterfront city. It's in the top 50 universities in the UK, in The Guardian University Guide League Table 2014 and is ranked in the top 400 universities in the world, in the most recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013. Research at the University of Portsmouth is varied and wide ranging, from pure science – such as the evolution of galaxies and the study of stem cells – to the most technologically applied subjects – such as computer games design. Our researchers collaborate with colleagues worldwide, and with the public, to develop new insights and make a difference to people's lives. Follow the University of Portsmouth on Twitter.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3800 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others. Follow the RAS on Twitter.

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