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Origins of Standing Stone Astronomy in Britain

18 Aug 2016
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An article released by the University of Adelaide - Astronomy shown to be set in standing stone - reports that research has for the first time statistically proven that the earliest standing stone monuments of Britain, the great circles, were constructed specifically in line with the movements of the Sun and Moon, 5000 years ago.

Stenness, Isle of Orkney

Stenness on the Isle of Orkney

The research, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, details the use of innovative 2D and 3D technology to construct quantitative tests of the patterns of alignment of the standing stones.

Project leader and University of Adelaide Visiting Research Fellow Dr Gail Higginbottom, who is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian National University, states that no previous scientific research has ever statistically determined that a single stone circle was constructed with astronomical phenomena in mind; until now it has been supposition.

Callanish on the Isle of Lewis

'Origins of Standing Stone Astronomy in Britain: New quantitative techniques for the study of archaeoastronomy'
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Volume 9, October 2016, Pages 249?258
Gail Higginbottom & Roger Clay

By c. 3000 BCE, in the late Neolithic, there had been a significant change in the way people materialized their cosmology across Scotland with the introduction of free-standing stones that continued to be erected almost until the end of the Bronze Age (Burl, 1993, 2000). Significantly, a series of astronomical patternings have been empirically verified for many Bronze Age monuments that were erected in the latter Bronze Age (Higginbottom et al., 2000, 2001, 2015). Further, two series of complex landscape patternings associated with the monuments and their orientations have been identified (Higginbottom et al., 2015; Higginbottom and Clay, in press). However, when and where these patterns were first associated with standing-stone structures was unknown.Through innovative statistics and software we show that visible astronomical-landscape variables found at Bronze Age sites on the inner isles and mainland of western Scotland were actually first established in stone nearly two millennia earlier, likely with the erection of two of the earliest dated British 'great circles': Callanish on the Isle of Lewis and Stenness on the Isle of Orkney. In particular, we introduce our new statistical test that enables the quantitative determination of astronomical connections of stone circles. It is seen that whilst different standing-stone monuments were created over time (Burl, 1993, 2000; Higginbottom et al., 2015) with a mixture of landscape variables (Higginbottom et al., 2015), we nevertheless see that highly relevant landscape markers and other aspects remained unchanged through these years. This suggests that there is some continuity of this cosmological system through time, despite the various radical material and social changes that occurred from the late Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age (Lynch, 2000; Mullin, 2001; Owoc, 2001).


Stenness on the Isle of Orkney

Examining the oldest great stone circles built in Scotland - Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis, and Stenness, on the Isle of Orkney (both predating Stonehenge's standing stones by about 500 years) -  the researchers found a great concentration of alignments towards the Sun and Moon at different times of their cycles. And 2000 years later in Scotland, much simpler monuments were still being built that had at least one of the same astronomical alignments found at the great circles.

Furthermore, the researchers discovered a complex relationship between the alignment of the stones, the surrounding landscape and horizon, and the movements of the Sun and the Moon across that landscape; Dr Higginbottom claims that this proved that the ancient Britons connected the Earth to the sky with their earliest standing stones, and that this practice continued in the same way for 2000 years.

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Examining sites in detail, it was found that about half the sites were surrounded by one landscape pattern and the other half by the complete reverse; these chosen surroundings would have influenced the way the Sun and Moon were seen, particularly in the timing of their rising and setting at special times. For example, at 50% of the sites, the northern horizon is relatively higher and closer than the southern and the summer solstice Sun rises out of the highest peak in the north. At the other 50% of sites, the southern horizon is higher and closer than the northern, with the winter solstice Sun rising out of these highest horizons.

Dr Higginbottom concludes from this research that the ancient Britons chose to erect these great stones very precisely within the landscape and in relation to the astronomy they knew. They invested a tremendous amount of effort and work to do so. It tells us about their strong connection with their environment, and how important it must have been to them, for their culture and for their culture's survival.

The research is part of the Western Scotland Megalithic Landscape Project carried out by Dr Higginbottom and Professor Roger Clay, astrophysicist at the University of Adelaide.

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