School of Archaeology and Ancient History

Lecture 1: The nature and development of archaeoastronomy

Photograph of Kintraw, Argyll, Scotland Copyright © Clive Ruggles, University of Leicester.


To introduce archaeoastronomy through its "social history", from the Stonehenge and "megalithic astronomy" controversies of the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of "world archaeoastronomy" in the 1970s and 1980s, and its position relative to mainstream archaeology today.

Main reading

Introduction from Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland


"Historical" background

Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered. J. Norman Lockyer. (Macmillan, 2nd. edn. 1909). The first scientific investigation of astronomical alignments at British prehistoric ritual monuments, by the astronomer editor of the journal "Nature".

Stonehenge Decoded, G.S. Hawkins and J.B. White (Fontana 1965). The cult book of the 1960s, and an invaluable insight into the nature of some of the material fuelling the controversies of the 1960s.

"Moonshine on Stonehenge." Richard Atkinson, Antiquity, 40 (1966), 212-16. Atkinson's reaction to Hawkins' book. A killer!

"Speculations on Stonehenge." Fred Hoyle, Antiquity 40 (1966), 262-76. The professional astronomer enters the debate.

"God in the machine". Jacquetta Hawkes, Antiquity 41 (1967), 174-80. Further reaction to Hawkins and Hoyle.

Megalithic Sites in Britain, A. Thom (OUP 1967); Megalithic Lunar Observatories, A. Thom (OUP 1971). Alexander Thom's first two books, technical and making few concessions to those who cannot cope with mathematics. Worth glancing at to see the nature of the material with which archaeologists were faced in the 1970s, and to assess their reaction.

From Stonehenge to Modern Cosmology. Fred Hoyle (Freeman, 1972); On Stonehenge. Fred Hoyle (Heinemann, 1977). Fred Hoyle's books in which his theories of Stonehenge are developed in detail.

`The place of astronomy in the ancient world', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, A276 (1974). Papers from a joint meeting of the British Academy and Royal Society held in 1972. One of the first meetings to draw together contributions on ancient astronomy worldwide.

'Megalithic astronomy--a prehistorian's comments.' Journal for the History of Astronomy 6 (1975), 42-52. Atkinson's reactions to Thom's work; rather different from his reactions to Hawkins' ten years earlier!

Science and Society in Prehistoric Britain, E.W. MacKie (Paul Elek 1977). Controversial book by an archaeologist who, against the trend of his colleagues, took fully on board the ideas of Thom about ancient astronomy and geometry and explored the social implications. See also MacKie's paper in Ruggles & Whittle (below), where he attempts to stave off the barrage of criticism.

Astronomy and Society in Britain during the period 4000-1500 BC, ed. C.L.N. Ruggles & A.W.R. Whittle (BAR 88, 1981). The Proceedings of a conference at which both sides in the `megalithic astronomy' debate met and exchanged views. A collection of papers from a diverse set of viewpoints.

"Archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy so far", by Elizabeth Chesley Baity.Current Anthropology 14 (1973), 389-449. A wide overview of work on astronomical practices in past and present non-Western societies.

Archaeoastronomy in the Old World, ed. D.C. Heggie (CUP 1982). The first of two volumes of Proceedings from the first `Oxford' International Conference in Archaeoastronomy, held in 1981. The "green" book.

Archaeoastronomy in the New World, ed. A.F. Aveni (CUP 1982). The second `Oxford 1' volume. The "brown" book.

Some recent publications and controversies

Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos, by John North (HarperCollins, 1996), and reviews by Anthony Aveni (Nature, 383 (1996), 403-404) and Clive Ruggles (Archaeoastronomy no. 24(supplement to Journal for the History of Astronomy 30) (1999), S83-88).

"Cosmology, calendars, and society in Neolithic Orkney: a rejoinder to Euan MacKie", by Clive Ruggles and Gordon Barclay, Antiquity 74 (2000), 62-74. A response by Euan MacKie is about to be published on Antiquity's web pages with a further response by Ruggles and Barclay.


For some of the most recent source material, consult the Archaeoastronomy supplement to Journal for the History of Astronomy (this is filed in the library under history of astronomy as well as Archaeology) and the journal Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture published by the University of Texas Press.

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Last updated: 07 February 2002 10:48
Prof C.L.N. Ruggles
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