Stones & Stars

The stone circles at Brodgar and Stenness form part of Orkney’s World Heritage archaeological area, and their alignmements to sun, moon and stars have been the subject of research and speculation for over a century. Some of the contributions to the growing science of archaeoastronomy have been made in Orkney, and are highlighted by the Festival at various opportunities. We have various examples here.

A visitor to several Festivals has been Dr Euan MacKie. He has carried out significant work on various neolithic sites such as stone circles and standing stones, and last year his topic was the Iron Age broch towers that are particularly notable in Orkney. Elsewhere they’re mainly found in the north and west of Scotland, although there’s a small group between the Forth and the borders.

It turns out that the brochs are either circles or ellipses – and Dr MacKie’s analysis has shown certain patterns recurring in the data – the mark of the use of a fundamental measuring unit.

That gives us a link to the pioneering work of Professor Alexander Thom who studied many hundreds of stone circles across western Europe. He found many alignments ot the night sky – and also the use of a fundamental unit of measurement, which he called the ‘megalithic yard’.

It was Dr MacKie who provided the first practical confirmation of a part of Professor Thom’s work. This was at Kintraw in Argyll. Thom’s measurements led him to conclude that the site was an extremely accurate observatory for the winter solstice. He worked out where an observed would have to stand, and pointed to a grassy ledge on the site. Dr MacKie excavated the area of the ledge and found a layer of small stones. Statistical analysis of their positions showed a degree of order which meant that they had to have been placed there – suggesting that indeed the ledge had been used for human activity.

There’s debate about various aspects of Thom’s work, but the only way to try to resolve it will be to follow classic scientific method: see if it can lead to a prediction which can be tested.

Meanwhile to show what can lie behind those stone shapes from the past, here’s a fascinating picture sent a little while ago by the late Gerry Morris, a good friend of the Festival.

The island has a standing stone, with a small hole in it. This type of stone seems to date from the Neolithic period, four to five thousand years ago. So the question is: what was the significance of the hole? This was Gerry’s comment:

This does suggest that the modern custom of gathering at the stone is in keeping with the stone’s original purpose, thousands of years ago.

A frequent Festival topic – appropriate for Orkney with its wealth of ancient sites – is archaeoastronomy: ancient astronomy as shown in alignments of stone structures to sun, moon or stars.

The custom was revived in 1994, with a dance at sunset. This year there was a sunset unobscured by cloud at the gathering – and the alignment of the hole with the setting sun is striking.

To catch the sunset through the hole on New Year’s Day it was necessary to take the photograph at 3.15 pm, standing a little to the left of the stone. Perhaps the alignment with the sun would be exact at the winter solstice, ten days earlier, an indication of the care and precision with which the massive stone was erected. If so, then North Ronaldsay’s ‘stan stane’ should join Maeshowe in showing, in its unique way, the significance of the winter solstice in neolithic culture.

This is extremely interesting, and we’re going to follow up with further links.

And for another opening into Orkney’s archaeoastronomy, there’s a particularly interesting section on Sigurd Towrie’s Orkneyjar site. The site itself is recognised as one of the finest places anywhere for insights and information into Orkney’s past. It’s always up with the latest news, and provides authoritative assessments of developments.

Sigurd has been looking at the conclusions coming from some other areas where stone circles are found, which suggest a layout on the ground that maps parts of the constellation of Orion. He’s looked at the three Orkney stone circles of Bookan, Brodgar and Stenness, and argues that these could be laid out in the shape of the stars of Orion’s Belt.

The argument is careful and clear, the approach thoughtful, and it really opens up some fascinating directions for investigation.

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