• Pathways to the Cosmos: The alignment of megalithic tombs in Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe

This publication is the outcome of a conference organized for the National Monuments Service, Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, by Archaeology Ireland and the Office of Public Works and held in Dublin Castle in September 2018. The conference marked a recognition of the importance of the monumental legacy that is a feature of the prehistoric archaeology of northwest Europe in particular and, in that context, it was seen as an appropriate Irish contribution to the European Year of Cultural Heritage, celebrated in 2018. 

The particular focus of the conference and of this volume is on the alignment of megalithic tombs in Ireland and Atlantic Europe. This has long been a topic of antiquarian and archaeological interest and research but the framework for interpreting and understanding this phenomenon has changed quite dramatically over time. Up to quite recently there was a considerable emphasis on seeking a level of astronomical precision that perhaps said more about the researchers and our modern western views of time and accuracy than it did about the under-standing and beliefs of prehistoric people living in very different cultural contexts. Now it is recognized generally that the construction and alignment of such monuments have to be seen and understood as part of a wider set of cultural and cosmological beliefs.

Taking a step back, the idea for the conference can be traced to an article in Archaeology Ireland (Winter 2017) in which Frank Prendergast, Muiris O’Sullivan, Ken Williams and I wrote about the solstitial alignment of passage tombs. Frank Prendergast followed this up with the Archaeology Ireland Heritage Guide (82) on Solar Alignment and the Irish Passage Tomb Tradition, published with the autumn 2018 issue of the magazine. We were keen to demonstrate that the alignment to the winter solstice sunrise of the very substantial passage tomb at Newgrange was the real deal, as discussed by Ken Williams in a recent paper in Archaeology Ireland (Winter 2019). And on the other hand that, while Newgrange is the best-known example of a deliberate solstitial alignment of an Irish passage tomb, it is precisely that; only one example of a recurring feature of the Irish passage tomb tradition, that of intentional alignment, which reached its high point in the construction of the tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in Brú na Bóinne around 3000 BC. 

Every passage tomb in Ireland that can be shown to be deliberately designed in this manner illustrates this phenomenon in a distinctive way. We can think of people in specific locations working actively within, and literally building locally to, a set of wider guiding principles or set of rules. I think the most apt way of describing those principles is in religious or cosmological terms, that is, as a framework that helped people to understand their worlds. And, of course, we know from wider prehistory that there are a number of ways and media in which prehistoric people expressed this regard for the cosmos, particularly the sun. However, as a celebration of European cultural heritage, it seemed appropriate to draw attention to, and discuss, the deliberate alignment of megalithic tombs in Atlantic or western Europe to capture key astronomical events, such as sunrise or sunset at particular times of the year. This also helps to put the alignment of megalithic tombs in Ireland into a wider cultural context.

There are at least 20,000 surviving megalithic tombs in this wider area; monuments that celebrate the lives and beliefs of early farming communities, built from well before 4000 BC down to beyond 2000 BC. The question of their deliberate alignment is an important and relevant topic to discuss in considering prehistoric monumentality and the meaning of those monuments for the people who built them, for research today and for their management, protection and presentation into the future. We are delighted that this theme struck a chord with international colleagues. At the conference and in the papers that followed, leading authorities in the field showed the connections between archaeology and cultural astronomy, linking the material evidence and more intangible aspects such as the cultural ideas, beliefs and ceremonies of Neolithic and Bronze Age societies, with a focus on the landscape and the skyscape.

Thinking of these linkages between material evidence and intangible aspects and going back to the concept of a codified set of rules, Rappaport (1999) and Ross and Davidson (2006) helpfully set out a series of features to help us identify when ritual practices had a religious, cosmological basis. This basis can be identified when the ritual is repeated and linked to specific times and specialized places, reflecting formal or stylized behaviour. People are actively involved in terms of performance by leading actors and participation as the audience. Messages are conveyed that give a sense of the involvement of the supernatural (see discussion in Whitley 2014, 1234). This seems to give a very strong flavour of why such an emphasis was placed on the deliberate alignment of megalithic tombs by people in prehistoric societies, what was involved and why it is appropriate to use the metaphor of those alignments as being ‘pathways to the cosmos’. 

As you will read in this book, it is an exciting time for the study of this phenomenon given the convergence of the research and interests of archaeologists, astronomers, photographers, artists and others around the idea of alignment being grounded in cosmological conventions and concerns. This convergence is expressed in two UNESCO thematic initiatives on the Heritage of Religious Interest (2010) and on Astronomy and World Heritage (2016). 

A UNESCO International Expert Meeting held in May 2018 in Gran Canaria discussed how these initiatives might best be integrated. The Recommendation (UNESCO 2018) from the meeting stressed that we should think of the sky as the common heritage of humanity, a source of inspiration, respected and held in awe by people across the world now and in the past. It emphasized that understanding the physical laws that govern the cosmos and the abiding human fascination with astronomy and the observation of the sky provides us with the insights necessary to interpret and empathize with how people in very different cultural and historical settings understood the universe. This seems like a good place to start on the path to understanding the alignment of megalithic tombs in western Europe.

Text: Peigín Doyle based on presentations by, and in consultation with:
Richard Bradley,
Jane Downes,
Muiris O’Sullivan,
Frank Prendergast,
Clive Ruggles,
Chris Scarre,
Fabio Silva,
Clare Tuffy,
and Ken Williams
Academic and consulting editor: Gabriel Cooney
Commissioning editor: Una MacConville
Author Peigin Doyle

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Pathways to the Cosmos: The alignment of megalithic tombs in Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe

  • ISBN: 978-1-9162912-5-6
  • Author(s): Peigin Doyle
  • Availability: In Stock
  • €10.00

Tags: Megalithic tombs, celestial alignment, equinox