School of Archaeology and Ancient History

Lecture 3: Going for groups: looking for trends in groups of monuments

Photograph of Reenascreena South, Co. Cork, Ireland Copyright © Clive Ruggles, University of Leicester.


To introduce you to some simple probability arguments and their potential strengths and their weaknesses.
To introduce you to arguments involving archaeoastronomical evidence from groups of monuments, and to give you an adequate basis to assess their strengths and limitations.

Main reading

Chapter 1 in Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, from p. 35 (Stonehenge);
Chapter 5 in Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland

Further information and supporting materials

Stonehenge: sun, moon and probability

The probability arguments that are at the core of Hawkins' assertion that Stonehenge incorporated numerous deliberate solar and lunar alignments, are contained in his paper published in Nature in 1963 and reproduced as Appendix A of Stonehenge Decoded (see Lecture 1 info.). For a critique see pp. 148-151 of Douglas Heggie's Megalithic Science (Thames & Hudson, 1982) as well as pp. 42-43 of Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland.

More generally about mid-twentieth-century ideas about Stonehenge astronomy, deriving from Newham, Hawkins, Hoyle etc: there are numerous discussions and critiques, but see especially Heggie's Megalithic Science, which gives a critical discussion from the point of view of an astronomer. The first edition of Chippindale's Stonehenge Complete (Thames and Hudson, London, 1983) discusses Stonehenge astronomy in some detail (pp. 216-35), but this is considerably cut down in ch. 14 of the 1994 edition as it is "no longer a current affair" (p. 276). See also Rodney Castleden's The Making of Stonehenge (Routledge, 1993), pp. 18-27.

Full reports on excavations at and around Stonehenge in this century have finally appeared in Cleal, Walker and Montague, Stonehenge in its Landscape: Twentieth-century Excavations, English Heritage (English Heritage Archaeological Report 10), London, 1995.

More on Stonehenge in a later lecture.

Thom's "megalithic astronomy"

In the course we do not consider the work of Alexander Thom and its reassessment in any detail, partly because the topic is a very technical one and partly because many of the issues are no longer of current archaeological interest. However, it is worth skimming through Chapters 2 and 3 of Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, and you should at least read the first and last sections of Chapter 2 and the first and last two sections (from 'Lessons Learned' onwards) of Chapter 3.

Fun time!
And, while you're at it, why not see if you can identify the four foresights at the Brodgar "lunar observatory"....

Local groups of similar monuments

Chapters 5 and 6 of Astronomy and Prehistoric Britain and Ireland include all the pointers you need to further reading.

Recumbent stone circles

The Scottish RSCs are one of the most important local groups of monuments in archaeoastronomy as they manifest a consistent symbolic relationship with the midsummer full moon. For a full discussion see APBI Chapter 5 up to p. 99. See also Aubrey Burl's The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany (Yale University Press, 2000).

On the web: Richard Bradley's recent excavations at Tomnaverie: see here and here.

Photos of recumbent stone circles

Axial stone circles

These are type of stone circle found in the south-west of Ireland distinguished by having a recumbent, or axial, stone around SSW and two high uprights, or "portals" placed on the opposite side. Their similarity in form to the Scottish recumbent stone circles has led to them also being termed "recumbent stone circles" by some authors. They are generally smaller than the Scottish RSCs, some consisting of only five stones in total. See APBI Chapter 5 from p. 99.

Photos of axial stone circles

Short stone rows

See APBI Chapter 6. Also known as "stone alignments", these are rows of up to six standing stones set up in parts of Britain and Ireland, with particular concentrations in western Scotland, northern Ireland and south-western Ireland, erected between about 3000 and 1500 cal BC. Stone Rows by A. Thom, A.S. Thom and A. Burl (BAR International Series S560, 1990, in two volumes) and From Carnac to Callanish: The Prehistoric Stone Rows and Avenues of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, by Aubrey Burl (Yale University Press, 1993) both contain full gazetteers.

Photos of south-west Irish short stone rows

Photos of western Scottish short stone rows

Short stone rows of Britain and Ireland: further examples

"The general v. the specific"

I used the example of the Clava cairns to illustrate the question of how we balance statistical evidence from trends at local groups of monuments against broader contextual evidence from single sites. See also Richard Bradley's The Good Stones: A New Investigation of the Clava Cairns (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland monograph series no. 17, 2000), especially p. 126.

On the web: Richard Bradley's excavations at Balnuaran of Clava: see here.

The general theme is developed in my paper "The general and the specific", Archaeoastronomy (University of Texas Press), 15 (2000), 151-177. This article broadens the discussion to take into account, for example, Mesoamerican case studies, but might be worth a read at this stage of the course.

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Last updated: 12 February 2003 13:25
Prof C.L.N. Ruggles
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