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Megaliths, Myths and Men
An Introduction to Astro-Archaeology
By Peter Lancaster Brown
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1976 Peter Lancaster Brown
All rights reserved.
Before the Megaliths
The archaeological record shows that in the immediate prehistoric period, civilizations developed in several centres. We can say that several societies can be recognized at this period: Sumer, Egypt, Anatolia, the Indus Valley, Shang China, Middle America and Peru. In this context civilization is accepted within the definition that a community has at least two of three things: towns of more than 5,000 inhabitants, the possession of a system of writing, and complex ceremonial centres. In the so-called Megalithic period of North-West Europe only the last ingredient is known to have been present. Certainly there were no towns of the order of 5,000 or more inhabitants, and as far as we can tell, writing was unknown. Yet if we interpret the nature and purpose of the complex British (and French) stone-built ceremonial centres correctly, we have civilized communities at work whose level of intellectual ability was little different from that of more contemporary societies.
The story of the British Megalithic culture begins with the first colonization of Britain by the Neolithic (stone-using) farmers before - 4000. Until recently it has always been fashionable for prehistorians to write about our Neolithic forebears as barbarians and savages. Gordon Childe, the great European prehistorian, always referred to pre-Roman northern and western Europeans as barbarians—perpetuating the myth put out by the imperialist Roman propagandists who chose to ignore the rich and complex native Iron-Age culture. This same blinkered view was adopted by European settlers in both the New World of the Americas and the New New World of the Antipodes.
The Neolithic farmers who colonized Britain in the fifth millennium were relatively sophisticated products of a long evolution of genus Homo dating back at least three million years. Richard Leakey's find of the so-called '1470' man and the finds of the joint French-American expedition in Northern Ethiopia carry man back in time long before the onset of the Pleistocene Ice Age.
The Pleistocene epoch, through which man evolved in his Paleolithic Stone-Age culture, marked a period in the Earth's geological history when at least four great ice sheets in turn advanced and then retreated. At times these ice sheets covered almost a third of the present land area of the Earth. In the late Pleistocene, during the last ice advance in Europe, the culture of Stone-Age man flowered as never before. This advanced Upper Paleolithic culture reached its peak between – 30,000 to – 10,000 and contains the earliest known art of prehistoric man. While a great deal is missing from the record of the prehistoric past, its art—with its classical simplicity and beauty—provides a firm past-to-present cultural bridge for Homo sapiens to seek out his roots.
During the nineteenth century the chronology of man's prehistoric past was based on a simple three-age system of stone, bronze and iron, taking into account the successive utilization of these materials for weapons and tools. The stone period was subdivided into the tripartite division of Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic, or the Old, Middle and New Stone Ages. From late Victorian times, when the Upper Paleolithic became accepted for inclusion as part of the overall reckoning of prehistory, these cultural divisions provided convenient chronological datum pegs to which ideas and theories might be related.
The Upper Paleolithic in Britain is generally assumed to range from c. – 50—30,000 to c. – 12,000; the Mesolithic from c. – 12,000 to – 4000 and the Neolithic c. – 4000 to c. – 2000. Elsewhere the demarcation between the Mesolithic/Neolithic may go back several millenniums earlier.
However, with the advance of archaeology this simplistic picture of culture sequences could not be maintained. Subsequently the three-age system has been subdivided and elaborated into a complicated and interrelated chronology which obscures a sharp, in-focus panorama of European prehistory. Fortunately for the purpose of establishing a relative chronology we can still fall back on an unobscured, broad-outline picture of the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic cultures based on a sequence established in caves and rock shelters in South-Western France (below).
An even simpler history of man is the two-frame picture of man first as a hunter and food gatherer, and then from c. – 10,000 man as a pastoralist and food-crop raiser. These two periods are sometimes referred to as the Paleolithic food-gathering stage and the Neolithic food-raising stage. The change-over from hunting and gathering to agriculture has considerable significance for astro-archaeological studies. It was the adoption of farming and crop raising that stimulated a requirement for accurate calendrical devices in order that man might know when to sow and harvest his crops to best advantage.
The question has often been raised whether the proto-hominids possessed the innate ability to make use of celestial bodies in orientation in a similar way to that observed in several animal species which have been studied.
Some species of birds are uncanny masters of celestial orientation, but this innate ability seems motivated by evolutionary factors dictated by breeding and seasonal food supply. Some birds make journeys of several thousand kilometers, some even from the subarctic regions to subantarctic regions, and back again. Pigeons have been shown to have an innate ability in both directional and destination (target) orientation, and they may choose either the stars of the night sky, the Sun or the lines of magnetic force of the Earth—depending on which mechanism is most convenient in a given situation.
Orientation in its biological sense is of course a necessary feature with all creatures. Among the hominids, however, there appears to be little evolutionary stimulus to develop abilities to navigate long distances as occurred with birds, fish and sea mammals, since hominoid migrations are more limited in geographical range. Modern man generally needs a sextant, almanac and compass to find his way, but man in the primitive does possess high abilities in direction finding (see note 1).
Studies of neoprimitive societies such as the Australian Aborigines, and in particular the Polynesians, have revealed how these peoples made use of the Sun, Moon and stars for practical purposes. The Polynesians, without writing, instruments or charts, evolved an elaborate pre-scientific system of navigation which was superior to that of the Europeans who first encountered them. However, this was in no way an instinctive orientation art, but one learnt by the process of trial and error and applied to transoceanic navigation since their ancestors first set out on their Pacific voyages at the beginning of the first millennium BC.
Captain Cook, no mean navigator himself, was astonished at their skill and wrote in his Journal: 'These people sail in those seas from Island to Island for several hundred Leagues, the Sun serving them for a compass by day and the Moon and Stars by night; all the stars of which they distinguished separately by name and they know in what part of the heavens they will appear in their horizons; they also know the time of their annual appearance and disappearing with more precision than will readily be believed by any European astronomers.'
It is well to bear in mind this kind of proved achievement for neoprimitive man and be alerted to the probabilities that European Neolithic societies (and even earlier Upper Paleolithic societies) likely made good use of the Sun, Moon and stars.
Whether Homo sapiens has retained a biological vestige of a lunar-tidal rhythm inherited from his distant fish ancestors is conjectural. The rotation of the Earth in relation to the Moon occurs once in 24 hrs 50 mins; the Moon revolves round the Earth providing variable light and tidal conditions in 29·5 days; while the Earth and Moon revolve round the Sun in about 3651/4 days. Because of these fluxional influences, the evolution of man and animals has been disciplined by the diurnal and seasonal (short-and long-term) changes brought about, and biologically man was adapted to these rhythmic cosmic influences long before he was able to take the first steps to intellectualize them.
It seems more than coincidence that the female menstrual cycle, on average, follows the monthly interval of the lunar cycle. It is true, however, that this menstrual range is now extended either side of the interval (in extremes of 20 to 120 days), and the female cycle as such does not any longer follow the phases of the Moon, but this in no way invalidates its likely evolutionary time-structured origins.
Several species of marine creature depend on the tidal rhythm and variable nocturnal light for successful breeding. The females of the Atlantic fire-worm (Odontosyllis) shed their eggs, and the males rush in to fertilize them in an 18-hour lunar-dictated, time-factored slot. This occurs once a month on the night before the Last Quarter of the Moon. The ever-observant Aristotle noted the swelling of the sea urchins' ovaries at time of Full Moon. Among land animals, hares, long associated with the Moon in mythology, have a sexual cycle closely regulated to the phases of the Moon. The work of Soviet biologists has shown that if the period of the New Moon (dark nights) coincides with the innate sexual cycles in hares, it may radically upset the sexual process and appreciably increase sterility.
That man, albeit psychotic man, retains some affinity with the periodic swing of the Moon is still reflected by the influx of patients to psychiatric hospitals at time of Full Moon. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, medical discourses were sometimes written at great length about relationship of illness to lunar changes. A discourse by a certain Richard Mead 'Concerning the Action of the Sun and the Moon on Animal Bodies' was typical of the genre in which actual cases were described in vivid style: '... The Girl, who was lusty full Habit of Body, continued well for a few days, but was at Full Moon again seized with a most violent Fit, after which, the Disease kept its Periods constant and regular with the tides; She lay always speechless during the whole Time of Flood, and recovered upon the Ebb....'
Although archaeologists and astronomers would agree in principle with Pope's dictum that the proper study of mankind involves man, in archaeology, the reconstruction of a society begins with artefacts. These are the basic materials, but with artefacts there is the inherent danger in reading into them evidence beyond what is actually shown or what was intended to be shown. Indeed, speculative interpretation of artefacts is frequently the cause of a sharp division of opinion between those seeking proto-scientific-cum-notational content and those who only see in the same artefact ritualistic or abstract symbolism or other more mundane, pragmatic socio-economic information.
The earliest artefacts that might conceivably record cyclic processes in nature—recorded by man—date back to the Upper Paleolithic, to the period when cave art blossomed in several locales including North-West Europe. Many scholars have looked closely at Upper Paleolithic art for mythological and seasonal representations. Two kinds of art have been widely recognized: representational and non-representational. Representational art is considered unambiguous and easily recognizable for what it is. In cave art, animals are well represented: bulls, mammoths, rhinoceroses, lions, horses, goats, deer, bears, whales, fish, snakes, and birds frequently occur. In addition there are flowers, trees and plants. Non-representational art poses more difficult problems of interpretation, particularly the mystical Pan-like anthropomorphic figures and the various so-called signs and 'decorative' symbols. In addition to the representative cave and wall art we also have what their nineteenth-century discoverers lumped together and called 'fertility' symbols, which are represented characteristically by the buxom Venus goddess figurines of the Upper Paleolithic. These are generally agreed to be the proto-type sky—earth-mother or nurse goddesses of later archaeological periods.
Animal depictions have been widely attributed to cults involving hunting magic and fertility, but plant depictions may also involve fertility. Species identification by morphological detail provides an interesting guessing game for specialists, but this activity does not generally lead to a more significant understanding of Upper Paleolithic man, except that when a species is included in a seasonal representation, it provides clues to the parts of the year significant in the calendar—particularly so when known migratory species are cited.
The study and interpretation of Upper Paleolithic art is important in its possible influence in astronomical and mythological 'art' of later periods—shown in the seals of Sumeria, and so-called boundary stones (kudurra) of Babylonia, and the polychrome mosaics and vases depicting legend and mythology in the Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations. The Çatal Hüyük, Cretan and Mithraic bulls and the Egyptian Cow-goddess Hathor most likely derive from their Upper Paleolithic proto-types represented in the magnificent cave paintings of Lascaux. These paintings, discovered in 1940, are among the best publicized, and rightly so, since they represent the supreme height of Upper Paleolithic art in the representational form of 'seasonal hunting magic'. These animal depictions in cave and wall paintings of the Upper Paleolithic, particularly the bulls and bisons, may also represent the proto-type celestial images that later blossomed in Near Eastern zodiacs. Perhaps even more significant are the reindeer antler bone batons.
The reindeer horn batons have always been puzzling artefacts and subject to much speculation. No one has ever quite decided whether their prime function was practical or ceremonial. Over the years many theories have been put forward about them. Among suggestions ideas run to handles of slings, maces, tent pegs, dress fasteners, check-pieces of horse bits, instruments for dressing skins, magic sceptres or staves for ceremonial or sorcery, and shaft or arrow straighteners. For a long time they have been known in archaeological literature as 'bâtons de commandement'. It is probably significant that the perforation of the holes in the reindeer horn has generally been the last operation in the manufacture of the artefact, since it frequently mutilates some of the overall decoration pattern.
As a possible dress fastener they appear to be much too clumsy. If they were non-practical and ceremonial in purpose, a great many seem to be broken at one end. Indeed, the suggestion that they were employed as some kind of shaft or arrow straightening tool is more likely, for the perforated holes show distinct frictional wear. This idea is strengthened by comparison with analogous artefacts employed by modern Eskimoes to straighten arrow shafts.
One of the most interesting compositions engraved on a broken baton is from Lorthet (Hautes-Pyrénées). This composition is made up of three deer, two of which are stags crossing a river in which several fish are leaping. The image has been interpreted as seasonal and probably intended to show the time of summer or autumnal salmon run and the time (in the summer) when stags leave the hinds. But the most intriguing part of the composition are the lozenge-shaped objects depicted above the back of one stag (Fig. 4).
It has been generally agreed that both are schematic representations; but what they are intended to represent is another matter. Opinion has ranged from the Sun and Moon—'the two eyes of the sky'—to various stellar-solar combinations and fertility symbols in the form of schematic representations of a vulva or the breasts of a mother goddess.
To an observational astronomer, symbolism of this kind could easily represent a configuration of two bright stars in close proximity (or two planets in conjunction). Such a stellar example is provided by the celestial Twins Castor and Pollux (Alpha and Beta Geminorum) possibly setting in the summer evening during the period in question. The choice of Castor and Pollux would not be without connections with fertility symbols in the ancient world, for twins have long been associated with this idea. On later Babylonian boundary stones celestial 'Twins' are frequently depicted, and in earlier times the twin stars were often considered 'the eyes of the night' as opposed to the Sun and the Moon 'the eyes of the day'. However, these ideas are no more than speculations; astronomically speaking they might also represent the flight of two brilliant meteors or fireballs; on a more mundane level they might perhaps be no more than a hunter-artist's representation of crude, flint-headed spears or arrows. Star asterisms, nevertheless, do seem to be depicted unambiguously at La Lileta in Spain—and again at Fratel in Portugal as a pair (Fig. 5). There is an unmistakable solar representation at Los Buitres containing symbolic images (human or plants?) within the solar disc, and at Pala Pinta de Carlao, two suns are set on a starry background.
Excerpted from Megaliths, Myths and Men by Peter Lancaster Brown. Copyright © 1976 Peter Lancaster Brown. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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