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

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 June 2016 08:33
Published on Thursday, 30 June 2016 08:33

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. The team present their study at the National Astronomy Meeting, being held this week in Nottingham.

The team's 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 initiate 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 at Nottingham Trent University, and leading the project, comments: "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."

The project targets how the human eye, without the aid of any telescopic device, can see stars given sky brightness and colour. The team intend 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, explains that, "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, says: "It highlights the cultural agenda within astronomy, also recognised by the inclusion of aspects of ancient astronomy within the GCSE astronomy curriculum."


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Royal Astronomical Society
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Science contacts

Mr Kieran Simcox
Nottingham Trent University
School of Science and Technology
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Dr Daniel Brown
Nottingham Trent University
School of Science and Technology
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Dr Fabio Silva
Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture
University of Wales Trinity Saint David
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Images and captions

https://nam2016.org/images/nam2016/Media/Brown/megalithic_tomb.jpg
Photographs of the 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

https://nam2016.org/images/nam2016/Media/Brown/sky_map.jpg
The view towards the east from the Carregal do Sal megalithic cluster, at dawn at the end of April around 4,000 BCE, 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



Notes for editors

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting 2016 (NAM 2016, http://nam2016.org) takes place this year at the University of Nottingham from 27 June to 1 July. NAM 2016 brings together more than 550 space scientists and astronomers to discuss the latest research in their respective fields. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society and the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Follow the conference on Twitter via @rasnam2016

The University of Nottingham (http://nottingham.ac.uk/) has 43,000 students and is 'the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a "distinct" approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.' (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of 'Outstanding Support for Early Career Researchers' at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015. It is ranked in the world's top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world's greenest campus for four years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University's vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC, http://www.stfc.ac.uk) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar. STFC's Astronomy and Space Science programme provides support for a wide range of facilities, research groups and individuals in order to investigate some of the highest priority questions in astrophysics, cosmology and solar system science. STFC's astronomy and space science programme is delivered through grant funding for research activities, and also through support of technical activities at STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. STFC also supports UK astronomy through the international European Southern Observatory. Follow STFC on Twitter via @stfc_matters

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