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11 June 2014
Celestial and landscape interactions of megalithic sites in Scotland

New research by Dr Gail Higginbottom and her colleagues builds on the work of Clive Ruggles, Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, and his colleagues.
     Dr Higginbottom is a Visiting Research Fellow of the Australian National University and The University of Adelaide, and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. She is a cultural landscape archaeologist and theorist, studying astronomy, monuments, landscapes, and belief systems.
     Focusing on the earliest periods of intensive monument building in prehistoric Scotland (3000-1000 BCE), the new study sought to identify how humans chose and made places that were important to them, examining how megalithic monuments and the natural environment were used to create landscapes embedded with cultural meaning.
     The earliest confirmed dates for standing stone monuments in Britain are late Neolithic (circa 3000 BCE) in northern and western Scotland, and from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, the two most common elements associated with standing stones in Scotland were human burials, and astronomical phenomena.
     During the Bronze Age there are continuing and intensifying traditions for the use of standing stones, carved stones, and cremations, as well as the introduction of individual burials, and a variety of cairn styles. In addition to building new sites, Bronze Age people reused sites by modifying their structure, maintaining and expanding the association of standing stones and megaliths with the dead. It is clear that there is some form of continuity, despite the great variety of forms, geographical distribution, and time frame.
     Across the Western Scottish islands, as well as 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. The range of dates for linear settings in particular is the middle to late Bronze Age.
     Expanding the area of Ruggles' work, the team generated 2-D horizon profiles for every site, which were compared using statistical analysis of features. Extending their study into 3-D revealed that standing stones are among the most complexly situated monuments in the prehistory of Scotland.
     The 3-D models indicated the kinds of events connected to the places where the monuments stand. To understand how these could have appeared to people at the time, the researchers chose specific events they knew could be seen in the past. One was a full moon near the southern major standstill, which can only occur at the summer solstice.
     Computer reconstructions of such events revealed many celestial and landscape interactions. Every site contains specific landscape and astronomical variables, and they share many of these to a statistically significant level. At the time of their original construction, the monuments held some clear relationship with each other.
     The review of standing stones seems to indicate that the interest in astronomical events did not simply emerge in the Bronze Age.

Edited from Past Horizons (June 2014)

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