A SUPPOSITION that the earliest standing stone monuments of Britain were constructed in line with the movements of the sun and moon has finally been statistically proven.
Archaeologist Dr Gail Higginbottom, the project leader and University of Adelaide Visiting Research Fellow, used a 3D Landscaping Model software package developed in South Australia to prove that the stone monuments to not only align with the sun and moon but also the shapes on the horizon.
“Nobody before this has ever statistically determined that a single stone circle was constructed with astronomical phenomena in mind,” said Dr Higginbottom.
Archaeologists have long believed that megaliths, such as the famous Stonehenge site which attracts people from all over the world during the summer solstice, were intentionally placed to align with the rising and setting points of the sun and the moon.
Using the unique software package which generates 3D images of the megalithic sites Dr Higginbottom has found the megalith phenomena is much more complex than these basic astronomical alignments.
“What we’ve discovered is that when people place their monuments in the landscape they have already spent years discovering not only where the sun and moon rise and set, but they also want the sun and moon to set and rise out of very particular points in the horizon shape,” she said.
Examining the oldest great stone circles built in Scotland (Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis, and Stenness, Isle of Orkney ─ both predating Stonehenge’s standing stones by about 500 years), the researchers found a great concentration of alignments towards the sun and moon at different times of their cycles. And 2000 years later in Scotland, much simpler monuments were still being built that had at least one of the same astronomical alignments found at the great circles.
“This research is finally proof that the ancient Britons connected the Earth to the sky with their earliest standing stones, and that this practice continued in the same way for 2000 years."
Horizon shapes can be thought of as the silhouettes formed at the maximum distance the human eye can see, by mountains, water bodies and flat plains.
The ancient people placed the megaliths in locations that shared similar attributes, such as a body of water in the south, a close northern horizon, and a hilly horizon from which the sun and moon would rise and set.
“They really walked around the island looking for very specific horizon shapes,” Dr Higginbottom said.
Dr Higginbottom believes people would gather at megalithic sites during the important summer or winter solstice and observe the sun rising in an artistically placed point on the horizon.
She said the prehistoric people saw the sun and moon setting and rising points as a continuation of the landscape they lived in.
The ancient people would artistically place monuments to point to beautiful and significant alignments with the horizon.
Dr Higginbottom described what a midsummer celebration would look like for prehistoric people 4000 years ago who would gather to watch the significant event.
“You have to look at a particular direction for the sun rising and you know the sun is going to rise behind a special hill, so you wait for that,” Dr Higginbottom said.
“You’re probably a bit apprehensive. You watch it rise and travel, so you turn your body and look up, watching the sun go around on the longest day.
“You face where the sun is setting, westerly, and watch it drop below the other specially-marked mountain.
“As it drops down the moon starts rising behind you so you would turn around and find that your monument is aligned to that, so you stand inline with the stone facing the moon rising above the hill.
“You have this golden glow coming up over the hill and the horizons are still lit up.”
Dr Higginbottom was able to make this discovery through collaboration with the University of Adelaide astronomer and astrophysicist Dr Andrew Smith.
Dr Smith created the 3D Landscaping Model software package for Dr Higginbottom’s megalith project, to fill the gap in software catered specifically to archaeoastronomers.
“I’ve developed software which uses mapping data for the landscape and the GPS position of the site, and it draws up a 3D view of what the landscape looks like,” Dr Smith said.
“Initially it was for this project. We were trying to think how we could analyse 276 alignments without visiting them all. Gradually over the years it has become more and more complex, and I now have a lot of other people interested in using it.”
Dr Smith will be working with famous archaeologist emeritus professor Clive Ruggles in Hawaii to examine monuments using the 3D Landscaping Model.
What separates Dr Smith’s software package from others out there is its accurate measurement of both landscape and astronomy, while most packages that exist are dedicated to one or the other.
Dr Higginbottom and Dr Smith have been working together for the past 15 years, offering a unique perspective to the megalith project by combining their expertise in different fields.
“Gail and I complement each other. She doesn’t have a lot of astronomy or computing background, and I don’t have the archaeology background, so we’ve been collaborating ever since,” Dr Smith said.
Dr Higginbottom began her study of astronomy in ancient monuments during her Masters Qualifying, at a time when she had no previous experience in such topics of science.
She was invited to China along with Emer Prof Ruggles to examine Chinese scripts carved into megalithic stones which are believed to point to astronomical alignments.