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24 May 2010
Sophisticated prehistoric astronomers in Scotland

Douglas Scott has recently confirmed the complexity and sophistication of the astronomical observations that could be made from megalithic constructions at the Temple Wood and Nether Largie complex in Kilmartin Glen, Argyll in Scotland.  
     Temple Wood is a site with two adjacent stone circles dating to the fourth millennium or possibly the early Bronze Age. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the southern circle was used for burial in the mid-to-late Bronze Age. Three stones of the southern circle are carved with different symbols including cupmarks, a double spiral and concentric circles. The centre of the two circles forms a north east to south west axis along which the southern circle's burials align.
     300m south east of Temple Wood, and probably broadly contemporary with it, lie the standing stones of Nether Largie. Two pairs of stones 35m north east and south west of a central stone form an X-shaped or rectangular setting and all but two of the stones have cupmarks. One stone (S1) also has cups with ring marks as well as cup marks connected to others by grooves on its south west side.
     Scott reviewed the work of previous scholars who have tried to identify astronomical uses of the complex and also surveyed the sightlines and made his own direct observations during the major lunar standstill of 2006-2007. He noted that several major solar and lunar events seemed significant at the site, with lunar events being more connected with Nether Largie.
     From the northern circle, the midwinter sunset would have been visible in line with the southern circle, possibly symbolized by the concentric rings and double spirals on stones 12 and 10 respectively. There would also have been an alignment of the winter solstice sunrise in the northern circle, visible from the southern circle, and a midwinter sunrise marked by an alignment of two of the Nether Largie stones (S4 and S5). On the spring and autumn equinoxes the sunset would also be visible from S1 to S7.
     Lunar events such as the rising major standstill midwinter full moon, and the setting southern major standstill moon are marked by the north east orientation of the Temple Wood circles and the long axis of the southern circle and Nether Largie stone S7. The burial cairns in the southern circle have false portals which orient to the southern major standstill moonrise. Other alignments allow observation of the rising and setting moon. Some alignments also allowed for predictions of events such as lunar eclipses. Using computer software, he worked out that there may have been over 2,700 potential occasions of use in the 1,000 years that the Nether Largie stones and Temple Wood co-existed.
     Scott points out that these alignments are similar to those found at other Scottish sites in Mull and Argyll, and doubts that they could be haphazard or derive from single observations. Rather he suggests that the complexity of solar and lunar observations used in combination "suggests an equally complex context of commemoration or prediction" and that the association of standing stones with carved symbols and burials and aligments may indicate "some connection with ancestors and the spirit world."
     The Temple Wood and Nether Largie complex "demonstrate alignments of astronomical significance that are among the most sophisticated of any so far claimed in Scotland."

Source: Antiquity (June 2010)

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