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Prehistoric Britain

Cosmic Link to Stone Circles

by Helen Briggs, 9 April 2003. Updated 16 August 2017

Stone Age people in Ireland built tombs which in terms of their alignment appear to have been based on a detailed knowledge of how the sun moves across the sky during the year.

Tombs aligned to the sun and the moon

Tombs at the archaeological site of Loughcrew in County Meath align with the rising sun at the spring and autumn equinoxes. The inside of the chambers are spectacularly illuminated by a shaft of sunlight at dawn on these days, a fact which was confirmed by Frank Prendergast of the Dublin Institute of Technology.

It suggests that settlers in the area some five to six thousand years ago knew the yearly cycle of the sun and perhaps centred their lives around it.

Tombs found elsewhere in Ireland have been found to point towards the rising sun at the summer and winter solstices.

At these times, the sun reaches its most northerly and southerly points in the sky, which can easily be observed from any place on Earth.

The equinoxes - in late March and late September - are not so obvious and can only be pinpointed by tracking the passage of the sun across the entire year.

Why tomb builders wished to do this remains a mystery but it suggests that the sun was at the heart of the ritual and ceremonial practices of Neolithic people.

Archaeology now has a substantial body of evidence which would indicate a very sophisticated and advanced agrarian society at this time, according to Frank Prendergast.

They would have attached a sense of sacredness to their landscape and the sky and they would have achieved that by building their monuments in the way in which they actually did build them; decorating them with forms of rock art; and associating some of those monuments with key astronomical events in their lives such as a significant annual rising and setting points for both the moon and the sun.

Window to the past

The findings were to be presented at the UK/Ireland National Astronomy Meeting in Dublin in 2003.

Details were also to be revealed of how Bronze Age stone circles in Ulster relate to both the sun and the moon.

Archaeologists believed that there could have been separate lunar and solar traditions, possibly at different times in history.

The sun's path
  • Spring/autumn equinox - day and night are each 12 hours long and the sun is at the midpoint in the sky
  • Summer solstice - the longest day of the year, when the sun is at its most northerly point in the sky
  • Winter solstice - the shortest day of the year, when the sun is at its most southerly point

But Professor Clive Ruggles, of the University of Leicester, said great care was needed in interpreting them.

In his opinion, just because a monument is aligned in a direction which we would be tempted to interpret as being astronomically significant, such as the direction of the sunrise or sunset on one of the solstices, this may not have been intentional.

He believed that the study of astronomical alignments provides an insight into how people comprehended the world in the past.

The builders were not 'astronomers' in the sense that we would mean it today, but celestial objects and cycles were important to them in keeping their own lives in harmony with their world.



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