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A Recreation of Visual Engagement and the Revelation of World Views in Bronze Age Scotland

Abstract

Focussing on the earliest periods of intensive monument building in prehistoric Scotland (3000–1000 bc), this study identifies how humans chose and made places that were important to them. It examines how monuments and the natural environment were used to create landscapes embedded with cultural meaning and remembrance. This project addresses a gap in knowledge about prehistoric Scotland, namely the lack of understanding of the place that many hundreds of free-standing stones (F-SS) in circles, rows, pairs or on their own, had for their creators, especially the smaller monuments. This work with its special focus on the islands of Coll and Tiree goes some way to rediscover the perceptions and decisions made by people in the past about their monumental landscape.

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Notes

  1. The Scottish Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF) is an updatable framework developed in partnership with Historic Scotland. Expert panels were assembled to identify current research strengths and future research themes for particular aspects of Scottish archaeology, and an invitation was sent out to all those involved in the archaeology of Scotland to provide feedback.

  2. Notably, such placement of a central standing stone within a circle occurs elsewhere across the Hebridian Islands and in southwest Scotland (see Wright's 2007 discussion in her first chapter).

  3. This date range is inferred through the combination of the order or sequence of erection events at Callanish 1 and the 16 radiocarbon-dated samples (RCD) from excavation (qv Ashmore 1999, p. 129 and Canmore internet database Canmore ID 4156, Site Number NB23SW 1, which lists the RCDs along with their archaeological context). For example: sample ID AA-24964; date 2890–2600 cal bc; OxCal 3.10. Sample description: a single piece of birch charcoal from the layer of green clay on which rested the base layer of the cairn. Presumably contemporary with erection of cairn, though maybe residual. Should provide a TPQ. Current author's explanation: therefore as this chambered cairn (there also exists a non-chambered cairn) was inserted into the circle incorporating the central pillar within the line of its kerb on the west and two of the stones of the circle on the east (Canmore, 25 June 1969), it is clear that the circle and SSS were in position prior to 2890–2600 cal bc. Sample ID AA-24965; date 3330–2890 cal bc, OxCal 3.10. Sample description: a single piece of hazel charcoal related to a seeming activity layer and precedes the soils of F615, F622 and F643, which may be late in development.

  4. There is much discussion over the interpretation of this ‘dolmen’ alone, and, unfortunately, the possible archaeological evidence to settle the disputes has been destroyed (Burl 2000, p. 32). Burl suggests that the three stones in this position resembled those found at the end of stalled cairns and are thus associated with the rites of the dead (Burl 2000, pp. 32, 212–213). This non-chambered cairn at Callanish ‘has been an oval of 18′ by 14′; it is reduced to ground-level and the outline can just be traced, Canmore ID 4156. Thus this cairn is not to be confused with the Bronze Age chambered cairn inserted inside the eastern face of circle at a later date and probably replacing the light structure that was built between the eastern face of the circle and the central stone mentioned above (Armit 1996: 83). This order of construction is indicated by a layer of new soil that formed before the construction of the this tomb (Ashmore 1980: 32). The RCAHMs, through Canmore, describe the chambered cairn as follows ‘The chambered cairn is set eccentrically within the circle, incorporating the central pillar within the line of its kerb on the west and two of the stones of the circle on the east.’

  5. Its fuller complexity lies in the fact that a bank and ditch henge was constructed several centuries later, between twenty-first and twenty-third centuries bc, inside the timber circle but surrounding the cemetery. For more details, see Noble and Brophy 2011a,b.

  6. Newgrange,in Brú na Bóinne, has very particular structural features that allow for the Sun to enter the tomb's passage at the winter solstice.

  7. Note that all houses at Barnhouse appeared to have two flanking stones at their entrances, but not a long row nor as dominating as Structure 8.

  8. Assuming that all RSCs are indeed BA as so far determined by Bradley's, Arrowsmith's, Ball's, Phillips', and excavations in Bradley 2005.

  9. Interestingly, Burl (1982) argues that during the very Late Neolithic there is a possible shift in interest for major tombs from the east to the west, like that found at Maeshowe with its SW focus on the midwinter sunset (p. 146).

  10. Also the dates of O–C monuments are not secure as they are so broad-ranging. We have radiocarbon dates from four Orkney–Cromarty passage graves that were originally beneath round cairns that subsequently had their external appearance altered through additional architecture (three in Caithness and one in Sutherland): the dates for their initial construction and use is the first half of the fourth millennium bc (Davidson and Henshall 1991, p. 83). Otherwise, we only have uncalibrated dates from Canmore for Blackhammer, an Orkney–Cromarty Stalled Cairn on Rousay (http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/c14/?numlink=2645&nmrsname=Rousay%2C+Blackhammer&sample_id=UB-6419): sample description -- ox terminal phalage from upper layer of deposits in cell 1 or cell 2 of chambered cairn: uncalibrated date bp +/− error 3520 bp +/− 34; uncalibrated date ad/bc +/− error 1570 bc +/− 34.

  11. Henley (2005) The Outer Hebrides and the Hebridean World during the Neolithic: An island history. PhD thesis. School of History and Archaeology. University of Wales Cardiff. Wright, J. (2007). The standing stones of the western isles of Scotland: Changing Perceptions. PhD thesis submitted to the University of Manchester.

  12. The stone arrangement appears to be a semi-circle of standing stones open to the N–NNE within the henge and 2 SS opposite in this direction outside of the henge (Bradley 2011, p. 35, Fig. 1.35).

  13. A lunar standstill is the most northern or southern extreme positions that it reaches on the horizon every 18.6 years. The Moon has an 18.6-year cycle compared to the Sun's single year.

  14. Thom and Thom (1973, 1975, 1977) examined the ‘Ring of Brogar (sic)’ and its cairns assigning exacting deliberate lunar orientations created by alignments between the surrounding mounds and hills, as well as the ring and mound or using a hill (like Hellia) as a foresight. However, this work has been re- evaluated (Burl 2000, pp. 210–213), and a variety of Ruggles' initial works critique these alignments on a number of valid grounds and clarify many methodological issues of Thom's (1981, 1983) work as a whole. The Moon's movements are complex, see ‘Understanding the Sun and Moon’s Declination’. Regardless this is a point that the Moon only arrives at roughly every 18.6 years.

  15. It is likely that as the Loch of Yarrows (Battle Moss) is the only site not within the possible astronomical orientation band that Brophy et al. 2013 concluded that this stone fan at least (and by inference others?) was more likely to be constructed in relation to the five-phase ring cairn than for any astronomical reasons. This ring cairn was 100 m north of the stone fan, with the latter oriented roughly north–south. Nevertheless, we still have the connection of SS and cremations, with one bone sample dated to 1600 bc.

  16. Only inter-site alignments for the SC were examined and created with a second monument if it was inter-visible. Intrasite alignments were considered too statistically complex at the time and, with the number of stones in a circle increases the likelihood of chance astronomical alignments (Ruggles 1984). See §3.3, 62-3 for a detailed discussion on the classes of monuments.

  17. Gerardi et al. (1982) Proceedings of COMPSTAT 82, Physica-Varlag, (Vienna IASC), 111. In Elton, S. D. (1989) A search for celestial sources of very high gamma-ray emission using the Cerenkov technique. Ph.D. thesis, University of Adelaide.

  18. The smaller regions were included in the larger by Ruggles and were done so in this study to obtain a more direct comparison with his work.

  19. The obliquity of the ecliptic, which determines maximum northerly and southerly excursion at midsummer and midwinter respectively, varies only slightly over timescales of millennia. The positions of the equinoxes do not change. Hence, the epoch chosen is not critical to this investigation.

  20. See Smith, A. G. K. Overview of the Landscape Rendering Software used in the Archaeoastronomical Investigations, in preparation.

  21. Closer towards land this part of the coastal bay is called Cûl Sgáthain.

  22. Higginbottom and Tonner (submitted) ‘The co-performance of the material and the communal across Bronze Age western Scotland’ (Mull).

  23. Higginbottom and Smith (in preparation) ‘Perception creates worlds’ (Argyll).

  24. Generally speaking, someone who was skilled in sky watching and with a good memory (or aided by a detailed set of notes/sketches or symbols) should be able to determine the date (any date) to within plus or minus a few days by observing the position of the Sun in the zodiac. The zodiac is a series of constellations along the Sun's apparent annual path around the celestial sphere (the ecliptic). The Sun's position along the ecliptic on a given day of the year is consistent from one year to the next, so to somebody with the appropriate knowledge and observational skills, the position of the Sun relative to the stars that make up the zodiacal constellations could be used as a sort of calendar. The observations would have to be made just before Sunrise or just after Sunset in order to be able to see the background stars for reference. If the observer is especially good they might also be able to use the positions of some of the other constellations at Sunrise/Sunset. At the summer solstice in 2000 bc, the Sun would have been in the constellation known as Cancer in the Greek astronomical/astrological tradition. While the star patterns we see today are essentially identical to those that were visible in 2000 bc, the peoples of prehistoric Britain's conception of these groups of bright stars no doubt differed from that of the ancient Greeks; here, we use the groupings and names derived from the Greek tradition for the sake of familiarity.

  25. If not the day after the solstice, then certainly it could be easily noticed by the third day depending on the convolutions or sloping of horizons.

  26. The New Moon can only be seen at night except around dusk and dawn as a ghostly circle and slim bright crescent; it may also be seen during the day as a ghostly white circle with darker, smudgy patches of ‘clouds’, which are the surface features of the moon.

  27. Significantly for us, whilst astronomical associations look alluringly possible in the creation of landscape ‘structures’ in the Mesolithic they have yet to be widely verified or statistically supported (e.g. pit alignments; Smith and Higginbottom, 2008, unpublished report, held in the archives of Historic Scotland; Murray et al. 2009). However, we will show how these Mesolithic landscapes appear to be connected across place and time in Higginbottom and Smith (forthcoming) ‘Cosmic order from the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age: tying together people, land and sky across time’.

  28. Quoting but somewhat changing the sense of Barnes and Gregory.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thanks our colleagues in the British Isles to whom we made a few long-distance queries and from whom we gained beneficial replies: these were Kathleen Milne of Stornaway Library, Jo Wright of the British Library, Trevor Hoey of the University of Glasgow and Rod McCullagh of Historic Scotland. We are very appreciative of the use of a Patrick Ashmore's modified plan of Callanish I originally from D. Tait (1978) and information about his findings at Callanish I. The same can be said for the generosity of Douglas Scott, Stephen Whitehead, Ru Griffiths, Paul Blades, Paul Griffiths and Roger McLachlan for permission to use their personal photographs, taken far more attractively than our own. We are indebted to Ian D'Souza and Philip Verhagen for their editorial comments, and Ru Griffiths' assistance in preparing the final document. Naturally, any errors herein remain our own. Thank you, too, Alison Sheridan, Kenneth Brophy, Paul Duffy, Andrew Baines and Richard Schulting, for swift responses to our late night emails. As always the anonymous reviewers' comments were very beneficial in creating a cleaner, cohesive piece.

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Higginbottom, G., Smith, A.G.K. & Tonner, P. A Recreation of Visual Engagement and the Revelation of World Views in Bronze Age Scotland. J Archaeol Method Theory 22, 584–645 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-013-9182-7

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Keywords

  • Megaliths
  • Scotland
  • 3D GIS
  • Landscape
  • Astronomy
  • Interpretative archaeology