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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 9 September Equinox 1993

Beyond Alignments
by Ron Hicks, Ball State University, Muncie Indiana

Earlier essays in this newsletter have commented on the importance going beyond alignments to question the role of astronomical knowledge in the society of the builders. Related to this is a set of still broader questions.

In recent years, one of the most important shifts in interpretation has been a growing acceptance of the idea that alignments were primarily symbolic. In many (if not most) cultures, the development of the science, astronomy, was an outgrowth of religion,. Religious concerns were, therefore, the dominant concerns for the builders of the early sites we are studying, and it is important to consider not just a sites alignments and their implied astronomical knowledge but the possible religious symbolism. Most importantly, we must not let our focus on astronomy lead us to forget that this symbolism undoubtedly involved the whole site, not just the portions relating to alignments.

The prehistoric temples and shrines of Ireland on which my own work has focused can be used to illustrate my point. As I have become cognizant of the beliefs and stories, both ancient and modern, concerning these sites, I have become convinced that pre-Christian mythology, and the agricultural year are intimately linked to them. This is, of course, expected of a society at the level of development of those who constructed the monuments. The idea is not at all new; both Sir Norman Lockyear and Admiral Boyle Somerville expressed similar opinions at the turn of the century. The implication, however, is that the symbolism is confined neither to the alignments nor, in the case of stone circles for example, to the overall circular shape of the monument, which on one level is probably representative of the sun or moon. The shapes of the stones themselves are significant. Any variations in spacing, or deviations from a circular arrangement were not by chance. The placement of special types of stones -- of quartz or with a quartz vein, for example -- was deliberate. Petroglyphs on the stones tell part of the story.

One tale, apparently dating to the tenth century, claims that a now- vanished stone circle at Magh Slecht in Ireland was still in use at the time of St. Patrick, one stone representing the chief deity, sheathed in an image of the god made of gold and silver while the other stones were covered by copper representations of lesser deities. Although the historicity of this particular account has been questioned, I feel that there is much evidence to support the idea that at least some stones represented specific characters in mythology. Since the mythology, as recorded, is much younger than most of the sites, this approach immediately raises questions about the extent to which we can assume survival of folk traditions over long periods of time. While there was undoubtedly change and reinterpretation, as long as there is a significant degree of continuity in the local occupation, the important role played by such monuments will assure survival of at least some meaningful fragments within the traditions long after the time that the sites were in active use.

In sum, attempts to interpret sites incorporating astronomical alignments should not be narrowly focused on just one aspect of the site. Nor should they be limited to trying to understand the role of astronomy in society. If we are to understand a site and its place in the culture that built it, we must look at all the available evidence, including its location, every aspect of its design, and interpretations in local traditional and historical documents. We must also look at the current and historical culture of the surrounding region. If, as seems probable, the astronomical aspects of sites reflect their role as a seasonal sundial or calendrical device linked to the ritual year, then the significant alignments are likely to be revealed by a study of the dates that are or were important in the culture. When are festivals celebrated? What other aspects of the cultures are these related to? (The fact that the current dominant religion is an imported one does not negate the importance of this information since all proselytizing religions are notable for the amount of local syncretism found within them -- blending of the old and new to win acceptance.) From this information, we generate more complete interpretive hypotheses involving not only the astronomical use of the site, but also the meaning of the site to its builders. Thus, study of the patterns evident in site design, in conjunction with study of recorded ancient beliefs and current or recent traditions associated with the sites, the calendar, or the sky, aid us in interpreting both the archaeological remains and the ancient mythology.

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