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Cite as: Arbour, Chelsee. 2007. Megaliths, Man, and the Cosmos: Implications for both Archaeology and Pseudoarchaeology. PARA Research Paper A-07.

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Megaliths, Man and the Cosmos

Implications for both Archaeology and Pseudoarchaeology

Chelsee Arbour

May 31, 2007


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            Proving that the megaliths of Northern Europe were constructed as astronomical markers is difficult and creates a lot of problematic implications for both archaeologists and pseudo-archaeologists. The idea that one person can observe the stars from the same spot and notice that each day the sun is in a slightly different position is relatively unproblematic, as everyone can see how at different times of the year the sun rises or sets in different positions (North: 1996: 6). The possibility that as a person observes this phenomena, the position of the sun can be marked on certain days which correspond to changing seasons, or the length of daylight hours, is also relatively unproblematic because of availability of this phenomenon to all people (North 1996: 7). However, when it comes to analyzing monumental architecture from prehistory with the intent of uncovering celestial alignments, this relatively unproblematic issue becomes loaded with unknowns and misconceptions.


            A variety of hypotheses have been put forth on the subject of megaliths as astronomical markers and ritual spaces, in both archaeology and pseudo-archaeology, which comes from a longstanding history of myth and folklore. Of all of the monuments in Northern Europe, none has been as avidly written about or as romanticized as Stonehenge, in Southern England. For the purpose of this essay, I believe that a very brief and general summary of some of the myths revolving around this structure will provide an understanding of how pseudo-archaeologies and the archaeological interest in monuments began to blossom.


One of the first scientific researchers who emphasized the mythic and ritualized aspect of Stonehenge was William Stukeley, a self-proclaimed French Druid (Chippindale 2004: 82). Stukeley analyzed and measured Stonehenge, illustrated a parish church that ‘would have’ accompanied the site, and drew a representation of the cathedral of Avebury in his novel on the mythical nature of Stonehenge and the magical druids (Chippindale 2004: 83). In Stukeley’s mind, it was obvious that Stonehenge was a ritual space constructed by or at the command of the great druids. Unfortunately, very little was known of the mythical brotherhood, and what little information existed in historical records from the Romans and some British authors did not present any connection between Stonehenge and the magicians who ‘built’ it (Chippindale 2004: 84).  To reconcile this minor inconvenience, Stukeley turned to the biblical accounts of the Old Testament and to Hebrew names. From this, he concluded that the druids were descendants of Abraham, who had left the East to find enlightenment in the North. Stonehenge was then seen as being the druids’ temple of learning and direct evidence of their strive towards enlightenment (Chippindale 2004: 85). When Stukeley published his work, the mass appeal of an ancient society of magicians became widespread, and many poets, artists and scientists began making their own analysis of the ancient site.


Theories of astronomical alignments, based on people spending the night on summer or winter solstices, as well as explanations of different ritual practices, began to sprout up all over Northern Europe. Soon any stone structure that looked constructed regardless of whether it was naturally formed, was considered the work of the Druids. This Druid craze did not stay in Britain; it went all over Northern Europe. Germany, Denmark, Poland, France, Scotland and Ireland all had similar theories revolving around the construction of monumental architecture, no matter how different the monuments were physically (Chippindale 2004: 88). This is not to say that all of these scholars believed that the Druids of Britain had come to the region to practice their arts. On the contrary, the Druids were thought to have originated from a variety of different areas, or had been influenced by the sacred prehistoric priests of a given region. The nationalistic tendencies in these early theories are definitely not something to overlook. Everyone wanted to claim that in prehistory, the forefathers of their country were the ones who had obtained the first knowledge of ritual and the first to map out the movement of the stars by constructing great markers (Balfour 1976: 11-33). It’s not surprising that this Druid craze took place, given that only a hundred years prior to Stukeley’s claims there were theories that Merlin had brought many of the stones for British monuments from Ireland by magic. At this time, theories of great pagan rituals where human sacrifice and sexual debauchery occurred were also widely spread (Balfour 1976: 17-33).


This is not to say that legends and myths were not prevalent before Stukeley; on the contrary, there were many written accounts of Stonehenge and its magical origins. These accounts began with the Romans and Julius Caesar’s documentation of the evil pagan primitives in Britain, and continued all the way through to the beginnings of scientific analysis in the 1600’s. Rather, Stukeley’s case emphasizes how preconception and romanticism can infiltrate a scientific endeavor and influence how history is conceived for a very long time. In contemporary society, druids are still considered by some to be the builders of Stonehenge and other monumental constructions in Britain. Megaliths in other countries, like Denmark, are seen as places of great ritual importance and a testament to the sacred priests of the past. Offerings are left regularly at a variety of different monuments, and mass solstice rituals are conducted at the largest monumental sites (Chippindale 2004: 257-258). It is not surprising given this background that pseudo-archaeological theories are widely accepted and have been produced on a regular basis over the past decades.


I have made the distinction between past research based on folklore and haphazardly argued connections of the not so distant past (up to roughly the 1800s) and the pseudoarchaeological hypotheses that have been proposed rather recently in contemporary history because of one simple fact; the theoreticians of the past couldn’t have known any better. It is acknowledged that theories such as Stukeley’s have a lot of pseudoarchaeological tendencies, but the main difference is that during that time period there really weren’t any scientific methods developed to complete investigations of this sort, although clearly Stukeley had a preconception of who built what and why. The pseudoarchaeological theories of the present do not have the same excuse. An enormous amount of scientific research has been conducted on the nature and possible alignments of monuments in Northern Europe; almost all of these sources use a variety of state of the art techniques and methods that provide raw hard data on what is possible, probable or in need of further research. So what are the pseudoarchaeological theories about the possibility of astronomical alignments in Northern European monuments?


            One of these tendencies is to present information on the past vaguely enough that the information appears commonplace or widely accepted. This includes connecting documented historical fact, archaeological evidence and internally consistent hypotheses that cannot be compared to any other information without being shown as externally inconsistent. Presenting information in this way blends historical fact with individual fallacy, which can be indistinguishable to a reader who does not have prior knowledge of the subject or who is not inclined to do research. These claims include the hypothesis of the origins of druids and to some extent various theories about what type of technology would be needed to construct the great monuments of Northern Europe (Gibson 2005: 11). Other tendencies include claims of ‘first-time-that-this-hypothesis-has-been-proven’, in which the author's theory is put forth as already established and agreed upon. An example of this can be seen in Andis Kaulins’ monograph ‘Stars, Stones and Scholars’ (Kaulins 2003). This example has been chosen to indicate a few of the more mainstream trends in pseudo-archaeological claims for the function and astronomical relation of the megaliths of Northern Europe.


In this massive book, Kaulins argues that almost all of the monuments in Northern Europe, going from France, to Germany, Denmark, Poland, Britain, Ireland and Scotland can be seen as one large, unified astronomical system of markers. He uses a variety of drawings and pictures with notes and arrows to demonstrate that almost every monument is a part of a larger astronomical star maps (2003: 27-56). His main argument revolves around the cup marks that have been found on a variety of different megaliths across Northern Europe. He claims that each set of cup marks are depictions of constellations, which the larger monuments like Stonehenge were later based on. To accentuate his theory, Kaulins takes a variety picture of stones with the cup marks and superimposes dots/lines that supposedly connect them into larger form of a given constellation (2003: 29). He goes on to describe various stone structures, small monuments, burial chambers and larger open-air megaliths as all being a part of this larger system of star charts, which (supposedly) clearly indicate the orientation of prehistoric man towards the sky (2003: 31).


He also discusses how mainstream archaeologists and astronomers did not come to the same conclusions because of the disagreement in scientific circles about what to look for (2003: 37). He continues this discourse of star maps by describing how this system cannot be seen from just one stone. Instead, to understand the system, you have to look at all of the stone structures and megaliths in order to see the pattern (2003: 37). To his credit, Kaulins does talk a little (about half a page) about some of the scientific calculations that are needed to verify astronomical alignments in prehistory (such as azimuths). While he does pose the question of whether modern day alignments could reflect prehistoric alignments, he doesn’t try to answer that question. He tentatively concludes that the answer is yes, mentioning that such claims need to be verified (2003: 40).


To recapitulate, first, Kaulins claims to have found a unifying connection between all of the megaliths of Northern Europe and their associated stone structures in the form of star maps. He backs up this claim with pages and pages of pictures, some being drawn on to illustrate the more important features, but does not discuss in length a) how he discovered this phenomena; b) what his motivations were for researching the megaliths; c) what are some of the implications both for our understanding of prehistoric motivations or how this will affect the scholarship that had already been accumulated on the possible astronomical alignments; and d) what is shown in the prehistoric archaeological record. He also haphazardly connects different monuments in a variety of regions regardless of the period in which they were constructed or the different material cultures that could be seen in prehistory across regions. He tends to assume the ‘answer to the question’ will obviously prove his theory right, even though he cannot provide any factual evidence to support his claim. Almost no mathematical equations are presented, and what little is given is so vague and broad that it doesn’t do anything to support his claims. Other considerations, such as alignment degrees and environmental factors (such as cloud cover) are completely ignored. Although only a small portion of the book has been quoted, the rest of the text uses many of the same unfounded and unsupported arguments. That is not to say that it is not an interesting theory. On the contrary, the notion that constellations were depicted across Northern Europe as a huge star map is truly fascinating and an intriguing proposal for further research. It is his approach that is not founded.


Unfortunately Kaulins' framework is not alone in its all-encompassing claims. One of the reasons that this type of analysis is so misleading is that the general public usually doesn’t have a deep-rooted understanding of the archaeological evidence from the prehistory of Northern Europe, nor do they have a detailed conception of the different types of constraints that influence prehistoric life or the problems associated with claims of astronomical alignments (Gibson 2005: 11). What makes these sort of pseudoarchaeological claims so difficult to refute once they have been rooted in mass culture is the tendency of archaeologists to ignore the problem. Because of the sometimes ludicrous nature of most of these types of claims, many archaeologists do not try to address them as they would a scientific hypothesis. When an archaeologist or an astronomer does respond to such a claim, it is usually within a framework that is not readily accessible to the public and therefore does little to ‘set the record straight’. Another problem is that many archaeologists, and would-be archaeologists (like myself), have a sometimes overwhelming distaste for such claims that makes any sort of commentary overly critical, impatient and elitist (Krupp 1997: 210). But why is it that archaeologists react in such a way against pseudoarchaeological theories?

            There are many reasons why seasoned researchers in both archaeology and astronomy would have such unmerciful critiques of pseudoarchaeological claims. One of the reasons for this reaction is that a lot of pseudoarchaeological claims are based on how we, in modern times, can infer the conceptualization of what was meaningful to prehistoric populations based on what we can see in our modern sky. The difference is that archaeo-astronomers, astronomers and archaeologists ask what prehistoric populations saw in the sky and how it was meaningful to them (Baity 1973: 393). This is not an easy question to answer. A major theoretical question that arises when addressing this problem is what is represented in the archaeological record and how it relates to the prehistoric skyscape. Detailed analysis of monuments in Northern Europe has been undertaken by a variety of different researchers, and there have been many revisions of what we should be looking for and thinking about when analyzing these structures.

Anthony Aveni (1972) argues that in order to have a better understanding of how prehistoric humans viewed their surroundings, we must first understand what the surroundings were. That is to say, we would need to know what the environmental, visibility and material constraints were when a monument was built in order to begin to make inferences about why and how it was built (1972: 531). In order to check the precision of megalithic alignments, Aveni notes that a) precession of the equinoxes (when they will appear at certain elevations and time zones); b) deviation from perceived skyline and astronomical skyline (question of elevation and depression of land); c) atmospheric refraction; d) atmospheric extinction (the conditions in which a body of light can be seen); and e) barometric and elevation variation (which can change the azimuth degree if not mathematically corrected) must be taken into account before inferring the social significance of the monument (1972: 532). These theoretical considerations stem from the broader question of what is and is not visible to the human eye in the sky at a moment in history (Schaefer 2000: 121). Different factors will influence what can or cannot be seen at any given time, such as humidity, altitude above sea level, time of year, latitude, ground temperature, sky clarity both in turns of weather patterns and astronomical inhibitors, such as molecules above the ozone layer, water vapor, sky brightness, phase of the moon and position of the sun (Schaefer 2000: 122). The different visual constraints of observing the sky vary from day to day, season to season, site to site and depend on what factors (listed above) or combination of factors are in play at a certain time (Schaefer 2000: 126). A further consideration for measuring alignments is which celestial bodies were observed and recorded in prehistory.

Alexander Thom argues that if a site aligns with four specific astronomical events, then it is at least likely that the sun and moon movements were observed and recorded. These events are the rising and setting of the winter and summer solstice, when the day or night is the longest (1971: 36). He also argues that if a site does align certain events within a reasonable degree of error, then it is possible to mathematically determine the effects of refraction and extinction as well as what effect ecliptic phenomena would have had on these alignments (1971: 36). Although this theory may in fact have a lot of merit, the problem is that centuries of changing constraints and environmental conditions can alter the original alignments of different structures. Because of these changing factors, which were not originally accounted for by Thom, a good portion of his work is currently viewed as falling within the realm of pseudo-archaeological research. Another problem is deciding what a reasonable degree of error would be. But what about planets and stars? Ruggles notes that stellar orientations are by far much most difficult to investigate. This is primarily because of the atmospheric extinction rate, in which the rising and setting of stars would be hidden by the brightness of either the sun or the moon. In order for monuments to have been based on alignments with stars, the stars would have had to be at a higher altitude than the horizon profile (Ruggles 1999: 277). On top of this, stars change position frequently, and within centuries monuments that were originally based on a certain set of stars would no longer align with anything because of this movement.

 In order to verify star alignments, we would need to know the date of a monument within a certain time frame, which in the majority of cases we do not. On top of this, if we did know the estimated dates for a given monument within a few hundred years, we would have to test almost every year within the margin of error for any sort of star alignments (Ruggles 1999: 277). If an alignment became evident from the testing of each year, it would then have to stand up against the scrutiny of other researchers in order to be considered an accurate assessment of the astronomical function of the site, which is next to impossible because of the uncertainty of the actual age of a site. The difficulty of assessing star alignments is one of the reasons why so many researchers focus on sun or moon orientations. When pseudoarchaeological theories of star maps and star alignments are presented, the basis for these theories usually does not include a detailed discussion of these difficulties and are therefore refuted by mainstream researchers as unfounded or ridiculous.  The concern when investigating prehistoric monuments is not only what has been left behind and how it aligns with what we see in today’s sky, but also questions such as: What environmental factors influenced how these megaliths were constructed? What was the motivation behind the building of these structures? If they were astrological markers, what were they marking? How were these astronomical events recorded? How did monumental architecture fit into the larger social system in prehistory? Why were these architectural forms chosen to represent celestial events if they were astronomical identifiers? These issues go well beyond what has been presented by pseudoarchaeological theories, as well as strict alignment hypotheses, and focus much more on what life was like in prehistory.

There are also methodological issues that go past the calculation concerns of reconstructing prehistoric alignments. The landscape and the environment is always shifting and changing so that no two people can experience the exact same environment. Even if these changes were as small as different weather patterns, or brightness, the landscape would appear different (Darvill 1981: 4). If two people from the same time period cannot experience the same landscape, then how can we as researchers hope to reconstruct the prehistoric environment within a certain degree of probability? This is a major problem for time periods that do not have written documentation, because anything that we describe will always be a little off. This is true among contemporary researchers as well. Two independent researchers will view a site from different perspectives and therefore have differing descriptions of that site (Cox 2001: 26). When analyzing astronomical alignments for megaliths, there is always a certain margin of error in calculating to what degree a stone aligns. Different analysts may fall on the opposite sides of this margin based solely on their previous experience (Cox 2001: 26). The choosing of what margin of error is more correct is not necessarily a problem, except when faced with a site where there has been a large amount of erosion or dispositions that has already skewed the original alignments of the structure (Cox 2001: 26). The problem then is that any alignments taken from poorly preserved sites will not reflect the original alignments. This would be abstracted by the individual choices of different analysts with certain theoretical frameworks and experience.

These preconceived notions are developed from various sources, such as past field experience and methodological decisions. However, one of the major problems within archaeoastronomy is the disagreement about what is relevant, what is evidence and what is fallacy (Ruggles 1999: 16). A lot of this disagreement is a result of what is perceived to be relevant to the social context of a given site, and not nessicarily a concern for the statistical data that illustrate what aligns with what celestial body on what day (Ruggles 1999: 16). These alignments are usually tested before being published in order to rule out randomly distributed or accidental alignments that weren’t humanly constructed. These tests address the question of how precise, or how many alignments are necessary before it can safely be assumed that a structure is indeed an astronomical marker (Ruggles 1999: 18). In the end, there is no universally agreed upon number of alignments or uncontested precision which can be used as a basis for investigating monumental architecture. For the most part analysts have to make judgment calls on how much is enough to reasonably be considered a true alignment (Ruggles 1999: 18). From this perspective, its no wonder that pseudoarchaeologists think that they can make judgment calls on what is reasonable and what isn’t. Unfortunately for them, these aren’t the only considerations that archaeoastronomers have in mind when thinking about astronomical alignments. Some of this disagreement comes from interpretations of what would be relevant to the prehistoric populations that constructed the monuments. For example, ecliptic events probably would not have mattered much to the builders of monuments who were primarily interested in documenting the sun as it moves through the seasons (Balfour 1976: 49).

Other questions about how the surrounding environment of certain monuments would influence what was constructed are also concerns that come up when trying to understand the motivations behind prehistoric choices (Aveni 1989: 6) What did astronomical event x mean to the people who witnessed and recorded it? (Aveni 1989: 7). Why was x more important then y (Aveni 1989: 7)? How were these events incorporated into the social ideology (Aveni 1989: 7)? And how are these decisions reflected in other aspects of prehistoric society, like decorative motifs or settlement patterns (Ruggles 1984: 14). Instead of being primarily concerned with questions about whether alignments are precise, these ask how to view monuments and what the environments of prehistory were like. The issue is more about why prehistoric populations would want to construct these monuments in the first place. This is another complicated set of questions that do not necessarily have answers yet.  Yet, some interpretations have been put forth by different researchers.

R.J.C Atkinson (1974) for example, argues that the movements of the sun and the moon would have been especially important to early farmers, who would depend on understanding the changing seasons in order to maintain their crops (126). He also argues that shepherds from early pastoral communities would spend a lot of their time moving with their flock, which consequently allows for a deep familiarity with the movements of the sky (1974: 126). While this is undoubtedly logical, I would argue that hunter-gatherers would have a relatively equal investment in understanding the changes of the seasons, because they would need to know what resources are available to them at a given time in the year. This would be more crucial to hunter-gatherers during periods of environmental change and resource shifting, which is the case in the Neolithic of Northern Europe (the time period when monumental architecture first began to appear on the landscape). Gibson also argues from this perspective and postulates that Neolithic man (which also includes hunter-gatherers) would have invested a lot of time/energy in studying how the sun and moon predict seasonal change (2005: 104). However, he hypothesizes that our modern conception of time and change is vastly different from that of prehistoric populations (2005: 104). To contemporary populations, the sun and moon have become binary opposites that allow us to categorize the difference between night and day. Our world is filled with technology that informs us of the exact time of day, and we no longer focus on how this can be discerned from the natural environment which we live in. In prehistory, this would be extremely different and it is quite logical to assume that prehistoric communities would have relied on natural phenomena to inform them of changes in the environment.

 If we take this line of thinking further, constructing markers that indicate the different seasons (a very large type of seasonal clock) would have been a worthy investment to a group whose livelihood depended on time changes (2005:104). The issue of how time is conceptualized is a major factor in the discussion of prehistoric monuments. Anthony Aveni (1989) advocates that the natural flow and rhythm of time is always available to those who watch for it (26). What he meant by watching time is that anyone can become sensitive to the moment of time by watching the changes in nature. Therefore, a time sensitive individual or community has the ability to be very precise when recording time. This brings us back to the question of whether exactness was really the point of recording the movements of celestial bodies in the sky. If recording the seasons was the reason behind the construction of monuments, then to pinpoint the exact degree of a rising or setting star would not have been the point. But then again, it does occur at different sites across Europe. Could it be possible that it was a combination of both concerns for recording time and precision of astronomical events? If so, then why would precision be important?

E.C.Krupp (1997) describes studies from the ethnographic record that suggest that the important placement of celestial movements within the social structure of cultures is in part because of the time factor, but also because of the power that these movements have over the conceptualization of the world (1997: 153). It has been suggested that as societies become more complex, different forms of social structures emerge. One of these structures is the development of chiefdoms. The chiefdom is structured around one key figure, the leader. The leader does have certain privileges which are not given to everyone in the chiefdom but is also responsible for a variety of tasks such as providing food for feasts, guiding the community, etc (1997: 153). The election of a chief is based on the candidate's strength and cunning, but perhaps the most important factor in retaining that power is ideology (1997: 153). Ideology is a framing device which enables an individual or community to believe that they operate within a much broader notion of the natural order. If these chiefdoms were also highly sensitive to time and changing seasons, then there could be a need to feel incorporated into that changeability. The notion of ritual could then be a great part of the construction of monumental architecture because the monuments could be used both as a recording device as well as a sacred space in which to reaffirm or establish this connection with the natural order (Broda 2000:142). The use of ritual is also very important in maintaining traditions of conception, especially when time is concerned.

Repetition of activities at certain times (a specific day, time of day, in the month of) help to reinforce the construction of a worldview (North 1996: 520). The watching or celebrating of the winter and summer solstices have been argued to reinforce the understanding of time and the reinstating of the universal order. There are a lot of issues with reconstructing ritual behavior and what has been said so far by no means covers the entire breadth of the debate that revolves around ritual activity and perception. Due to the scope of this paper, an unfortunate drawback is the inability to proceed in depth for each issue that is present in studies on monumental architecture. Nevertheless, the attempt has been made to describe some of the problems and concerns which are embedded in this discourse. As can be seen, there are a wide variety of questions that surround the construction of monumental architecture and many of these are not directly addressed by pseudo-archaeological theories. In fact, within the discipline of archaeology and the framework of archaeoastronomy, a lot of researchers do not address all the issues either. There is a great amount of disagreement about how to interpret megalithic construction, and very little initiative to rectify this conflict. One of the main reasons for this lack of initiative stems from the various theoretical frameworks that different analyst work from. Astronomers and archaeoastronomers tend to concentrate more on the ‘what’ questions (such as what astronomical event occurred at what site) instead of the ‘why’ questions. These ‘why’ questions tend to be addressed more fully by mainstream archaeologists. There appears to be very little communication between the two camps, which leads to a lack of theoretical movement on the whole. It is very easy for theories that are not factually based to infiltrate the body of literature on this subject because of this unmitigated debate. This makes it very difficult for people with no prior knowledge of the debate to pinpoint when something is pseudoarchaeological or when it is another form of scientific inquiry.

To conclude, there is a massive amount of interest and documentation on the monuments of Northern Europe. Within the body of literature, there are theories that simply do not address questions of how monumental architecture fit into the social pattern of prehistoric life, whether the monuments properly align with celestial bodies, or how megaliths took part in organizing the world of prehistoric people. These theories tend to be pseudoarchaeological in nature, and usually do not rely on data that is both verifiable and reproducible. That is not to say that archaeologists don’t find themselves on the wrong side of the scientific tracks. Pseudoarchaeology is not limited to people without scientific backgrounds. However, it does appear to occur more often in the work of people outside the discipline than within it. One of the major reasons why this happens less within a scientific community is because Archaeologists and archaeoastronomers have to submit their findings to peer review before publishing. After the review, they are still open to criticism once they are published. This framework tends to make researchers look for inconsistencies within their own work a lot more stridently.

The theoretical concerns outlined above do not cover all of the different perspectives on the construction of monumental architecture or provide a full view of the history of these inquiries. However, they do present a starting point towards understanding the intricate and complicated questions that arise when investigating into the motivations of prehistoric man. Were the monuments of Northern Europe a large part of the ideological structure in prehistory? Do they represent ritual activity? Do they align to astronomical movements? If so, how precise were they? These questions cannot be fully answered as of yet, but that doesn’t mean that they never will be. 



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