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Megalithic monuments had an astronomical purpose

Posted in Archaeology, Astronomy, Famous landmarks, Prehistory, Space on Saturday, 15 February 2014

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This edited article about Prehistoric astronomy first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 553 published on 19 August 1972.

Carnac,  picture, image, illustration

Original arrangement of stones at Carnac, Bretagne

It seems that Neolithic Man, who inhabited Europe about 3,500 years ago, was not the simple farming type that the history books would have us believe. Recent scientific research has shown that these people went to extraordinary lengths to solve the complex problem of the Moon’s motion and had an astonishing knowledge of astronomy and geometry.

Surveys carried out on Megalithic monuments in Scotland and France show that what seemed to be just geometrical patterns of stones were in fact observatories that were used for determining the Moon’s motion. From there findings it has been found these people had a far greater understanding of lunar astronomy than any of their descendants were to have for the next 3,000 years!

In the 18th century it was realised that Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, was aligned with the mid-summer sunrise and was perhaps used on this day for religious or mystical rites. More recently one expert has suggested that the way the stones are arranged at this famous monument made it possible to predict eclipses of the Sun, an event which would have had a special and awe-inspiring significance for these early peoples.

To understand just how great the problems of building these observatories were for Neolithic Man it is important to know something of the Moon’s complicated motion through the sky.

To observers in Prehistory the most striking fact would be that the rising and setting points of the Moon change rapidly from night to night. In the Outer Hebrides, where most of the important Megalithic sites are found, it is possible for the Moon to rise and set almost in the north one day, and then two weeks later it barely manages to rise above the southern horizon for more than a few hours. When it does rise, it appears at different heights in the sky and over a period of 18.61 years goes through a full cycle of different positions and setting and rising points.

Only by constant observations over decades and even centuries could these early stone circle builders establish the reference points needed to construct their observatories.

But why build them at all? It was the information that they were able to gain from these giant stone “calculators” that was important. Eclipses of the Sun and Moon played a great part in their lives. To these Neolithic farmers, an eclipse probably looked like a “great god trying to eat the Sun,” which was after all the giver of all life as far as they were concerned. Thus an eclipse of the Sun was an awe-inspiring and fearful phenomenon.

By using their giant “stone protractors” they were able to calculate and determine the paths the Moon would follow through the sky and where it would rise and set. From this they would then know when to expect the next eclipse; on which days mid-summer or mid-winter would fall, so they could divide up the year and find the most favourable times for planting and harvesting; and could work out when the highest and most dangerous tides would occur.

One of the most impressive Megalithic observatories is at Carnac, in Brittany, France. Here are found 12 rows of stones that seem to march solemnly across three miles of countryside. At the heart of this observatory is Le Grand Menhir Brise, a 67 foot-long stone weighing 340 tons. Quite how these early people managed to man-handle and position such a large stone accurately in the observatory is something of a mystery in itself.

Ringed around Le Grand Menhir are a series of stones and observation platforms, some of which are over 20 feet tall and over 10 miles distant.

Le Grand Menhir acts as a sort of foresight or focus for lunar observations and from here it has been found that the impressive rows of stones that lead away from it line up with the rising and setting points of the Moon on the horizon.

From this evidence and the findings relating to 400 other sites examined in Britain it seems that Neolithic Man was a much cleverer ancestor than archaeologists have previously acknowledged.

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