Skyscapes and Landscapes in Prehistoric Scotland

ML1 Glengorm 1b, Mull. Image: Higginbottom/Whitley

ML1 Glengorm 1b, Mull. Image: Higginbottom/Whitley

Dr Gail Higginbottom
I am a Visiting Research Fellow of the Australian National University and The University of Adelaide as well as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. As a cultural landscape archaeologist and theorist, I study astronomy, monuments, landscapes, and the belief systems of prehistoric peoples. In more recent years my research program has incorporated major interpretive analysis through the examination of phenomenology and ideas about materiality.
Dr Gail Higginbottom

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If we regard the routines of life as being structured through movement (from place to place)… it is pertinent to ask why this particular part of the landscape became integrated into the appropriation of the spiritual resources.” Metaphorical journeys: landscape, monuments, and the body in a Scottish Neolithic. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society Issue 70, 129 – 151.


Focusing on the earliest periods of intensive monument building in prehistoric Scotland (3000–1000BC ), this study identifies how humans chose and made places that were important to them. It examines how megalithic monuments, especially the smaller ones, and the natural environment were used to create landscapes embedded with cultural meaning and remembrance.

Introduction

It has been argued that most of the contacts that led to the spread of farming and other practices that may have derived from the European continent, such as the construction of earthen monuments, likely arrived soon after 4000 BC in southern Britain. Others have argued that between 4300 and 3900 BC the first megalithic monuments, in the form of tombs, appeared in the north-west, on the western Scottish mainland and islands of the Clyde and Inner Hebrides, south of the Great Glen. Together these first major continental influxes, regardless of how and when they came, define much of the Neolithic in Britain.

The earliest confirmed dates for standing-stone monuments in Britain are late Neolithic (c. 3000 BC) located in northern and western Scotland and it is clear from a number of studies on these monuments that, from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, the two most common elements associated with standing stones in Scotland were that of the dead (usually cremated remains at the base or next to the standing stone or remains found within a circle or tombs or cists nearby) and astronomical phenomena.

During the Bronze Age there is continuing and intensifying traditions for the use of standing stones, carved stones, and cremations, as well as the introduction of individual cist burials, and a variety of cairn styles. As well as building new sites, like the Neolithic before it, the Bronze Age reused sites by modifying their structure, and with this emerged the closing of older, formally open-plan monuments (southwest circle at Templewood) or the creation of megalithic open-enclosures around the initial cairns or platforms (eg Tomnaverie). Effectively, this maintains and expands the tradition of associating standing stones and megaliths with the dead. It is clear that some form of continuity is at stake despite the great variety of monument form as well as geographical and chronological distances.


Through a statistical re-assessment of the works of Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, Clive Ruggles and his colleagues, our new research built on the previously acknowledged orientations and alignments.


Sky and landscape contexts

Across the Western Scottish islands of Mull, Coll, Tiree as well as Argyll on the mainland, a greater number of standing stones than previously thought were deliberately orientated to either the Sun or the Moon at specific astronomical events, and those findings were later extended to the islands of Islay and Jura. Further, sites in areas like Kintyre, Uist and Lewis also appear to contain these same phenomena. The range of dates for the linear settings of pairs or rows in particular is the mid-late Bronze Age (e.g. Ardnacross (pair of stone rows), Mull: 1250 and 900 cal BC; Ballymeanoch (stone row), Argyll: 1370-1040 cal BC.

The survey expanded the geographical or landscape area of Ruggles’ work to include all visible landscapes around every single site as viewed from each monument or site by incorporating Ordnance Survey elevation data for the entire area of western Scotland (Fig. 14).

This innovative approach allowed the construction and use of a two-dimensional (2-D) horizon profile program which generated horizon profiles for every single site. As a consequence, this work digitally contextualises each standing stone within its landscape surroundings. These horizons were then compared using statistical analysis of features, with a selection of random horizons for each region. Three interwoven qualities for the entire horizon shape (distance, direction and altitude) were not random; the entire horizon shape for sites were deliberately chosen.


Apart from the ability to analyse large areas and sites it clearly acknowledges that a contextual consideration of monuments is exceptionally beneficial. The logical conclusion was to extend and deepen the investigation with the use of 3-D landscape visuals designed by Andrew G. K. Smith of the University of Adelaide. These visuals showed us, although deceptively simple in design, standing stone structures are one of the most complexly situated and considered monuments in the prehistory of Scotland.


3

A stereotypical example from Mull, Uluvult, indicates what the coloured lines mean on the 3D landscape.

The 3D horizon landscapes

Through the qualities of location, alignment and horizon shape the indication of where to look and in which direction is ‘built into’ the standing stone. A stereotypical example from Mull, Uluvult, indicates what the coloured lines mean on the 3D landscape. This site is stereotypical on Coll, Tiree and Mull in relation to its basic horizon shape that correlates with specific astronomical events. Importantly, it is the relative shape and height of specific compass directions in relation to other directions that is relevant.


Examining six sites at Coll and Tiree in detail we found that the landscape and astronomical cues at the monuments are the following:

1. Horizon distances: close northern horizons and distant southerly horizons.
2. A large amount of water is in sight in the south.
3. The majority of sites form an alignment internally and/or with another monument to the extent that an orientation on the Moon at a point in its 18.6 year cycle would occur. These are associated with the major lunar standstills (MajLS). Three sites are oriented upon the setting southern phenomena (CT2 on Coll; CT7 and CT9 on Tiree) and two within about 5° of the rising northern phenomena: CT8 is within 5° of the actual orientation and CT3 to the edge of the range out of which the Moon rises and is just over 5° towards the north from the ‘point’.
4. The relationship between water and astronomical phenomena is distinctive in several ways, including: both the solstitial Suns and the MajLS and MinLS Moons travel over water to set on the other side; only at Breachacha, (CT3) is the midwinter Sun seen to rise out of, and set into, the sea.
(b) The Sun in midwinter travels close to the water with the rising and setting often flanking the water in the south.
(c) The Moon at the southern MajLS would do the same, the time of year is not set however, unless we link it to a particular lunar phase (which is discussed in detail in the JARM paper).
5. Viewing north, the northern astronomical phenomena all set into, or close to, the dominant range in the west for 3/3 sites on Coll and 2/3 sites on Tiree. At Barrapol (CT8) the MajLSS sets into a small ‘bump’ on the horizon and the remaining phenomena set into a flat horizon. On Coll, the majority of the phenomena rise out of the same dominant range in the east but out of a flat horizon on Tiree. This is summer for the Sun and any time for the Moon.
6. Viewing south, the Sun and the Moon rise out of or over and/or set into hilly horizons. These rising and setting areas are usually formed by the dominant range or chain in the southeast and southwest or just obviously higher ground, the exception being Breachacha (CT3) again. This is in winter for the Sun and any time for the Moon.


To enhance the constructional choices for the monuments on Coll and Tiree, the landscapes have been grouped according to orientation pattern (Fig. 31). It can be seen that each island must have at least one site oriented to the Moon as it sets at its most southern position in its 18.6-year cycle (Totronald CT 2, Hough CT7 and Balinoe CT9) and at least one oriented as it rises at its most northern position (Breachacha CT3 and Barrapol CT8). Furthermore, Coll has one site (Loch nan Cinneachan CT 1) that is oriented on the mid-point between all northern risings and settings, i.e. midday, and Totronald, with the orientation of CT2ba, is closely centered on midnight if it retains its association with the Moon. It is hypothesised that there is probably a similar pattern of midday and midnight orientations on Tiree as well because there are other sites not included in this analysis.

Fig. 31 - Map of all surveyed sites, with inset of Coll and Tiree.(CT) and the sites CT2 Totronald Blades; CT8 Barrapol  McLachlan; CT9 Balinoe Blades.  Images: Higginbottom/Whitley

Fig. 31 – Map of all surveyed sites, with inset of Coll and Tiree.(CT) and the sites CT2 Totronald Blades; CT8 Barrapol McLachlan; CT9 Balinoe Blades. Images: Higginbottom/Whitley

Contextual reconstruction of past experience

The 3-D models have indicated the kinds of events and landscapes that are intricately connected to the place where the monuments stand. However, the models are in affect layered photographic ‘stills,’ displaying a number of possible interactive astronomical-landscape events that occur at different times in particular sequences. They do not show how in real time these events appeared to people at these sites. To understand how these events could actually appear to people we had to choose specific events that we knew could be combined and seen in the past. Specifically, we have assumed that the Moon is full and near the major Lunar standstill. Since there are alignments towards the major standstill position it would seem reasonable to assume that this time was somehow important to the builders of the monuments. We considered a full Moon in the south around the southern major standstill, this can only occur at the summer solstice.


By creating The Experience of the Living: a narrative reconstruction of the events at the Summer Solstice on Tiree in real time, for our paper in JARM, we ‘observed’ many powerful celestial and landscape interactions and came to understand how many celestial events could come together and create an amazing land- and sky- scape show. Through this approach, we found a visual litany of events that are so intertwined and dramatic as to be quite over-coming and too many to list here, however, they include:

(i) a continual view of the horizons for 24 hours surrounding the sites, due to the unusual amount of twilight at the summer solstice;
(ii) a shadowed horizon just east of the hills of Carnan Mor and Ben Hynish to watch for the coming of the 18.6 year full, Maj LS Moon, which will appear as the solar twilight initially begins to fade;
(iii) as dusk of the next night approaches, people could be watching the horizons around the slopes of Hough to see if the Sun is going to set a little south of its solstitial setting, and in doing so, prove that the turning of the Sun has begun, returning once more to its winter home in the south.


Monument conclusions and interpretation

Every site observes and contains specific landscape and astronomical variables and they share many of these to a statistically significant level. From the events described above, it was clearly demonstrated that, regardless of monument type (single standing stones or stone slabs, stone pairs or stone circles), they were considered for a similar purpose at some point in time. Whilst it is agreed that the meanings embedded in these places may have altered overtime or that a site may have been reworked, at the time of their original construction, the monuments held some clear relationship with each other, the location they were in and thus possibly their meanings. At the minimum, even if the locations were already known for their shared complex arrangement and systematic associations, they then all had standing stones placed at them.

Even if singularly, they served some individual purpose, such as the lunar alignment of the stone pair CT2ba or the possible burial cairn at CT1 or CT7, their locations were demonstrated to be chosen in relation to each other, such as in the cases of CT2 and CT3 as well as CT7 and CT8 (and the same can be said for Mull and Argyll). Furthermore, not every single site has been examined on the islands of Coll and Tiree, and it is plausible that there will be more interrelationships between them. The final piece of arguable evidence for inter-site connection generally comes from Higginbottom (2003). The results of this earlier work demonstrates that all other prehistoric sites on the islands clustered about the case-study sites, specifically between the monuments and their horizons in specific directions: CT1 (5 sites: p<0.049), C2 (20 sites: p<0.0001), CT3 (21 sites: p<0.0001), CT7 (27 sites: p<0.0001) and CT9 (7 sites; p=0.0024). More accurately, the tests have shown that there is non-random clustering about the six sites, the directions of which are still being more thoroughly investigated.

Horizon maps.

Fig 14. – Horizon maps.

Social meanings

We argue that the builders of the monuments saw their world as a pattern of opposition and a mirroring marked by, and comprising, liminal forces and places and that they set up their monuments in a particular way to reflect this understanding and belief. Issues of liminality and transformations are expressed by the lighting (eg twilight), the solstices (the time prior to the turning of the Sun), the lunastices (the time prior to the turning of the Moon), risings and settings, the transformed dead (cremated) and their alliance with the stones oriented towards the liminal times, waters’ edges, and most importantly, the horizons themselves upon which most of these transformations occur.

Speculatively, we have also argued that through the juxtaposition of the stones and the dead, and the dead’s associations with the Moon, that stones have become witnesses of these spectacular celestial landscape events. The stones were given the power to see what the living could, and perhaps it was believed that through the stones the entombed or buried dead could see this as well. The stones became the living and the beginning of things, with the power or representation of the dead, representing the endings. Naturally, an ending is not The End, but a state or a moment in time that occurs before regeneration. Together, they were empowered by the cyclic forces of the celestial bodies and were witnesses of the cycle of life and of the universe.

Conclusion

The review of standing stones seems to indicate that the interest in astronomical events did not simply emerge in the Bronze Age and it is possible that what we have seen here has a longer Neolithic compass (Higginbottom in preparation) and perhaps even one stretching back into the Mesolithic in this region.

Nevertheless, for the Bronze Age, we can say that there is a clear understanding of the Universe based on the notion of, and recognized actuality of, opposition. These ‘oppositions’ are not seen as separate occurrences or are they linear ideas facing each other across a divide; rather, they are a whole system and are cyclical.

All were engineered by Bronze Age peoples to be experienced together from the purview of the standing stones. It is argued that such experiences create a world and a world vision, illustrating how the world is seen, or should be seen, and known by the community. As part of this, the monuments are not just markers or representations of the events that occur in the landscape or indeed just representations of this cosmic system. The stones are seen as an element of the cosmic system and gain social power and relevance through a shared communal significance.

Header Image: ML1 Glengorm 1b, Mull.  Image: Higginbottom/Whitley


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