Archaeo-Astronomy at North Hill Village Hall
In cosmic terms, the 1980’s were barely yesterday. Yet, so much has changed in the last few decades – and as much of it for the better as the worse – that it is often surprising to realise that many of the things we take for granted today are actually quite recent ideas.
Finding astronomical alignments at megalithic sites, let alone taking them to be deliberate and carefully engineered constructs, would have seemed almost science fiction just a few short decades ago. The meticulous work of Professor Alexander Thom, following in the footsteps of Sir Norman Lockyer, and providing the conceptual platform for Professor Gerald Hawkins’ work that led to the publication of the seminal Stonehenge Decoded, might all have been considered a flight of fantasy when I was a 40-something novice dowser.
However, today just about every serious, professional, died-in-the-wool archaeologist at least accepts the existence of such phenomena – even if the jury is still out as to just how much of it was intentional, and which aspects were painstakingly measured, as opposed to those manifested into the landscape through native intuition.
Brian Sheen (of the Roseland Observatory, now based in St Austell) and Carolyn Kennett from Helston are two of a gradually growing tendency of astronomers who are coming to similar conclusions albeit from very much the other end of the same debate.
As late as the 1960’s, the renowned Professor Richard Atkinson, the leading light in the field in his day, who researched Stonehenge and elsewhere, appeared still to be regarding the ancient Britons as pre-civilised grunting savages who happened – for some inexplicable, and presumably ritualistic, reason – to choose to lug dozens of enormous lumps of rock on to Salisbury Plain, and to set them up in an architecturally groundbreaking formation. The bit about the sun rising over the Hele Stone was always a bit odd, but he was able still to take the view that if you have enough big stones and enough potential straight lines, then you could argue that at least some of them are bound to match up with a celestial event at some stage. How times change.
Brian and Carolyn, hotfoot from a clearly very successful presentation to the Society for the History of Astronomy Conference in Cambridge, were able to run through a whole series of demonstrable astronomical alignments at pre-historic sites across the country, including many from the far south west. Brian took an active part in the recent archaeological project at The Hurlers, and it was there that some of us first met up with him.
Not only has he pointed out some of the alignments inherent in the circles as they appear to the passing public, but he has developed an understanding of how other features in the vicinity relate to the three rings. He showed us the relationship of the The Pipers (a pair of standing stones to the west of the circle complex) as a potential gateway or portal to the other megaliths – and he also has a theory about the original purpose of the ‘crystal pathway’. This enigmatic feature appears to link two of the circles, but it is incomplete, and was certainly composed of shards of quartz that were always too sharp and uneven to ever have formed the surface of a footway. Was it a representation of the Milky Way? As above, so below, and all that.
He was also able to describe the relationship of other local archaeological features in the wider complex of the Hurlers, such as the largely recumbent (and sometimes difficult to find in the bracken!) stone circle on Craddock Moor, the menhir to the south west, known as Long Tom, and the Iron Age settlement at the Cheesewring.
Astronomers, dowsers and archaeologists are very much at one with regards to the latest excavation of the site, which sought to ‘rediscover’ a fourth ring to the north of the observable three. While there was much anticipation that this would provide another ‘long lost’ circle, we all came to the conclusion that this was not the case. What we also agreed on was that one stone – the most northerly – was indeed of great significance. It provides astronomical context, but also dowsed as being accurately located in relation to numerous earth energy features.
Carolyn was able to add the sky-watchers input to other Cornish locations, such as the subterranean alleyways, known as fogous, mainly found in Penwith, and the positioning of places of reverence and/or astronomical significance, to other smaller ‘cheeswrings’, all of which are geological pillars of rock. In this context, their work provides supportive evidence for that of Peter Knight, who also seeks to indicate how ancient peoples may have regarded the natural landscape around them, and positioned their own sacred sites accordingly. This idea of using geology and geographical elements to create a cultural understanding of the surrounding environment also strikes a chord with the emerging appreciation of the Australasian aboriginal song-lines and the associated dreamtime narrative.
In a rapidly changing world, a rapidly changing worldview is unfolding almost as I write. While some of it can appear quite troubling, other aspects are surprisingly positive, and many downright enlightening. The dovetailing of emerging outlooks in astronomy, archaeology and, of course dowsing, is just plain exciting!
Many thanks to Carolyn and Brian for taking the time out to come to talk to us and, as ever, to all those who helped to put on this well-attended and much appreciated talk.
Tamar Dowsers June 2018
Celestial Stone Circles of West Cornwall: Reflections of the Sky in an Ancient Landscape – by Carolyn Kennett was published in January 2018