School of Archaeology and Ancient History

Lecture 2: Sun, moon and stones: the arguments surrounding "classic" astronomical sites

Photograph of Newgrange, Co. Meath, Ireland Copyright © Clive Ruggles, University of Leicester.


To introduce some fundamental issues of methodology.
To introduce some of the basic astronomical concepts.

This is done through case studies of five monuments that have been intensively discussed in the context of prehistoric astronomy: Newgrange, Ballochroy, Kintraw, Minard (Brainport Bay), and Le Grand Menhir Brisé (Carnac).

Main reading

Chapter 1 in Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland

Further information and supporting materials


The definitive book on the excavations, which has a full account of the midwinter surise phenomenon and the roofbox, is Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend, by Michael O'Kelly (Thames and Hudson 1982). Alternatively, see Claire O'Kelly's Illustrated Guide to Newgrange (John English, Wexford, 1967, 1971 & 1978).

For an interpretation of the designs carved on the roofbox as solar symbols, see pp 132-3 of Rodney Castleden's The Making of Stonehenge (Routledge 1993).

For a more extensive, and individualistic, astronomical interpretation of the megalithic art at Newgrange and elsewhere, apply a critical eye to: The Stars and the Stones: Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland, by Martin Brennan (Thames and Hudson 1983).

Photos of Newgrange

Take a look at a web resource that describes some detailed investigations into Newgrange and its solar alignment. Click here, here and here, and use the "Back" button on your web browser to return to this page afterwards.


The original astronomical account of Ballochroy by Thom was published in 1954, in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association (vol 64, pp. 396-404). For commentary by an astronomer see Douglas Heggie's Megalithic Science (Thames and Hudson, 1982).

For archaeological critiques see pp. 176-8 of MacKie's paper in The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World (see Lecture 1 info.) and ch. 2 of Aubrey Burl's Prehistoric Astronomy and Ritual (Shire 1983 & 1997). (This is a short but useful introduction to a number of the topics covered in the first two or three lectures.)

Photos of Ballochroy


For MacKie's account of his excavation to test Thom's astronomical hypothesis, see pp. 178-85 of MacKie's paper in The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World" (see Lecture 1 info).

For critiques see pp 211-5 of Jon Patrick's paper in Astronomy and Society (see Lecture 1 info) and McCreery et al.'s paper in Archaeoastronomy in the Old World (see Lecture 1 info).

Photos of Kintraw

Minard (Brainport Bay)

This enigmatic collection of structures--artificially enhanced platforms, standing stones, cup-marked stones and other features--was brought to prominence in the "megalithic astronomy" debate by Euan MacKie, who believed it to be a prehistoric calendrical complex. It raises a number of methodological issues to do with procedures for testing astronomical ideas using archaeological techniques, and whether this is the best way to proceed in the first place.

A detailed critique is contained in Chapter 1 of Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland. I didn't show many photos of Minard in the lecture, and these will supplement the ones in the book.

What is most striking about Brainport Bay is that a number of stone structures occur in a single NE-SW alignment. These were explored from 1976 onwards by members of the mid-Argyll Archaeological Society. Euan MacKie's attention was first drawn to the site in 1976. For his early ideas in relation to the 'main alignment' see MacKie's paper in Astronomy and Society, ed. Ruggles and Whittle (BAR88, 1981) 131-4. The argument was extended later when he explored features in the vicinity of a standing stone at Oak Bank (see MacKie, Euan W., Fane Gladwin, P. and Roy, Archie E. (1985). "A prehistoric calendrical site in Argyll?" Nature 314, 158-61); MacKie's chapter in Records in Stone, ed. Ruggles, CUP 1988.

Le Grand Menhir Brisé

Could the backsights have arisen by chance? For different points of view see Jon D. Patrick and C.J. Butler, "On the interpretation of the Carnac menhirs and alignments by A. and A.S. Thom", Irish Archaeological Research Forum, 1(2) (1974), 29-39, p. 30; Richard Atkinson, "Megalithic astronomy: a prehistorian's comments", JHA 6 (1975), 42-52, pp. 44-5; Peter R. Freeman, "Carnac probabilities corrected", JHA 6 (1975), 219.

But for a definitive critique of Thom's ideas see Evan Hadingham, "The lunar observatory hypothesis at Carnac: a reconsideration", Antiquity 45 (1981), 35-42.

On whether the great menhir ever actually stood, or fell during erection, contrast Robert L. Merritt and Archibald S. Thom, "Le Grand Menhir Brisé", Arch. J., 137 (1980), 27-39, and R. Hornsey, "The Grand Menhir Brise: megalithic success or failure?", Oxford J. Arch. 6(2) (1987), 185-217.

Picture of Le Grand Menhir Brisé

Basic astronomical concepts

Several books contain reasonable accounts of the background concepts introduced in the lecture, but most also go into a lot of technical detail unnecessary for our purposes. For a short explanation of declination, see Astronomy Box 1 in Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland. For a short and simple explanation of the motions of the sun and moon, see pp 220-1 of Christopher Chippindale's Stonehenge Complete (Thames and Hudson, 2nd edn, 1994). For fuller explanations, see other Astronomy Boxes in Chapter 1 of APBI.

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Last updated: 06 March 2002 10:29
Prof C.L.N. Ruggles
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