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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Standing Stones and Megalithic navigation

This is the latest from The Times -- about the research of Peter Davidson between 1970 and 1990.  Not sure why Norman Hammond should have chosen to write this up now, since there is nothing new here -- but the info about Peter's work has recently been put onto a new web site, so I suppose that creates a justification for flagging it up and pretending that it is ground-breaking stuff.  I have had a look at some of the info on the site, and it seems pretty obvious, for the most part.  Clearly, if people were putting up stones in Neolithic or Bronze Age times they might have had ritual or sacred purposes, or maybe they were just memorials to dead ancestors, or maybe they were way marks or navigational guides (for travellers on land or sea) or maybe they were cattle scratching posts.........

Where I do have problems is where statistical analyses come into the frame, with "significance" being looked for -- and found -- on the basis of a highly incomplete record.  How many standing stones are there in an area?  How many WERE there?  And I'm very worried too about the tendency in the PD work for alignments to be looked for (as at Gors Fawr), and then given compass bearings, and then for those compass bearings to be applied to the bearings between point A on the coast and point B on another part of the coast.  With that sort of thinking you can prove whatever you want to prove -- conveniently omitting any reference to everything inconvenient.

Megalithic stones ‘were navigational aids’

Norman Hammond, Archaeology Correspondent
The Times, December 1 2010 12:01AM

Along the Atlantic coast of western Europe, from Spain to Ireland, England and Scotland, megalithic standing stones are among the more striking features of the historic landscape. Although most megaliths lie inland, and many form part of impressive monuments such as Stonehenge and Avebury, or the Neolithic passage graves of Brittany and the Boyne Valley, a surprising number can be seen from the sea.
A new website has been set up to stimulate discussion of the notion that such standing stones acted as prehistoric navigational aids. It follows two decades of study between 1970 and 1990 by Peter Davidson, a retired engineer whose hitherto unpublished papers on “Megalithic Aids to Navigation” are now available on the site.
While some noted groupings of megaliths, such as Stonehenge, have been plausibly linked to astronomical observation, “what is more difficult is to show how it could have been an important enough part of the lives of the stone-arrangers to justify the often very large investment”, David, Iain, and Peter Davidson note in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.
The patterns of settlement, monuments and artefacts from prehistoric sites on both sides of the Channel and the Irish Sea have long indicated that there were strong and frequent seaborne connections. Peter Davidson proposed that, given the social and economic cost of finding, hauling and erecting the monoliths — some, like the 71ft, 347tonne Grand Menhir Brisé at Locmariaquer in Brittany, of colossal size — some were related to a major regular hazardous activity.
He suggested that acting as navigational markers to steer ships into safe anchorages would have been just such a function, and that the markers “could be used to establish a dead-reckoning for navigation from one sandy beach to another”. Davidson also looked for stone alignments that did not have obvious or plausible solar or lunar correlations.
He found after inspecting a number of sites on the ground that “in many instances they could be used to indicate key landfalls from a local departure-point”. Overall, the results of artefact and megalithic site distributions “seem to show a picture of routine marine transport over the Atlantic seaboard from Carnac (Brittnay) in the south to Callanish (in the Outer Hebrides) in the north, with a high level of statistical support. This could have a profound impact on our thinking about how Neolithic society organised itself, and the importance of travel to their way of life”.

Visit: International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 39: 433-435


Kosta Dean said...

Brian, it occurred to me that ancient navigators also used the Gibraltar Rock as a 'navigation marker'. Could it be that this Rock was placed there by ancient people for that purpose?


BRIAN JOHN said...

I suspect that the Rock of Gibraltar was in position long before puny little human beings appeared on the scene.......

Robert Langdon said...

Oh Brian!

When an engineer spends 30 years of his life surveying and measuring these sights you need to give him some respect.

He has identified that the stones are markers to other monuments and Neolithic ports, surely even a blinkered but intelligent man like yourself can see 'a good and practical reason' to spend 10's of thousand of hours constructing these monuments?

Neolithic people , just like us, don't do something without a very good reason - do you??

When was the last time, you, I or anyone our families built something that could last 2, 5 or even 10,000 years?? That being the case, history can only conclude that these so called 'primitives' were a lot more intelligent or had a far greater ability than you or I.

So if that is the case - the chances that they had the ability to place markers to other places of occupation must be quite high. But rest assured, this is a good thing as they are the beginning of our gene pool - so don't put them down, for you and I are part of this great civilisation that sailed in boats 5,000 years before the Egyptians and Greeks (sorry Costa!).

One thing is for sure - the stones would have been transported there by boat ;-) and the hunter/gather myth is further diminished.


BRIAN JOHN said...

You misunderstand me, Robert. I said I'm perfectly happy to accept that some of the standing stones in coastal areas are waymarks or markers that could be used by coastal voyagers. But not all of them! Standing stones that are not even in sight of the sea must clearly have been used for other purposes.

You accuse me of failing to give our friend due respect -- can I suggest -- ever so gently -- that your theory of the Mesolithic inundation fails to give due respect to hundreds of eminent academics from many disciplines who have brought forward evidence over many years which shows that Mesolithic sea level was LOWER than it is today, and that Mesolithic tribes moved about in areas that would be -- in your theory -- under hundreds of feet of sea water?

Kosta Dean said...

Robert, you write

“... this is a good thing as they are the beginning of our gene pool - so don't put them down, for you and I are part of this great civilisation that sailed in boats 5,000 years before the Egyptians and Greeks (sorry Costa!).”

I have great admiration of all human achievements, no matter where they are found and by which “gene pool”. But we do not honor our great human ancestors by creating myths about them and levitating them above the harsh ground that they walked and lived on. To do so is to diminish their pain and suffering and their resilience and endurance to live through conditions that we could never imagine or survive. I find that more ennobling than all the myths created about supernatural capabilities and 'lost civilizations'. About ancestors that sailed great ships and placed elaborate navigational markers yet used deer antlers to dig ditches and left no writing behind.

We do better to commit to a common search for Truth than to a “gene pool”.

Be that as it may, I do enjoy your posts (and Brian's too) and find your 'inundated theory' rather interesting and partly true! But I want to know, what are your points of argument in support of your theory? Perhaps then Brian may list his counter-arguments to each.

Let's have a good conversation about Stonehenge!


TONY said...

As a young man, in the late 1960s I managed to locate for myself the Yelland Stone Rows in the Taw estuary of North Devon (incidentally, not very far from Fremington site of glacial deposits mentioned in Chapter 7 of your Bluestone Enigma book, Brian).I had learnt of this pair of parallel stone rows,113 feet long and 6 feet apart, from pre-eminent field archaeologist Leslie Grinsell. I believe that, whilst comparing them with the Dartmoor stone rows, Grinsell did surmise that they could also have served as navigational aids in the Bronze Age.
It was a great "eureka" moment when I perceived them for myself, after a long time seeking them out! They are marked on O.S.maps at SS: 495329.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, there are a number of very prominent standing stones in coastal locations in Pembs too -- one of the best is on Skomer Island, on the slope leading down into North Haven. I have always wondered whether that was a marker stone indicating where the entrance to the safe landing place was. But these stones are generally assumed to be Bronze Age rather than Neolithic or Mesolithic -- and there seems to be a consensus that in the Bronze Age there was rather more sea traffic about.

Kosta Dean said...


My understanding of the many stone alignments found in Brittany (and elsewhere) is that they are generally well inland nearly parallel and nearly linear and are aligned generally in the same direction (mainly from NNW to SSE for those in Brittany). If that is so, what 'navigational value' would they have beyond that of any other atural landmark? To attribute these to human design just flies in the face of facts on the ground.


Robert Langdon said...

The interesting aspect of this 'conversation' is that we ALL accept that standing stones and therefore stone circles are direction indicators.

The other major fact we all seem to agree on is that prehistoric man used boats - according to our history books this was not a possibility until the Iron age - which these monuments clearly prove is wrong!

At Stonehenge the three moated stones (sorry Brian...ditches) point to other harbours (Opps again... sites) and on the way on either side of these 'phantom' waterways are 'Long Barrows' that actually 'point' the way to go - more details in the book!

Avebury, Durrington Walls and Old Sarum - if we accept 'stone pointers' then we should all accept these are pathways via (barrow)markers.

If thats the case, all I just need to do is persuade Brian it was a lot wetter in the past - and we're there.


BRIAN JOHN said...

I don't think we do accept that standing stones and circles are direction indicators -- all I said was that some standing stones might be, and others probably aren't.

Long barrows pointing the way to go? I don't think so...

You don't just have to persuade me about it being "wetter in the past", Robert. You are talking about 100m or more of Mesolithic submergence, for which I have not seen a single scrap of evidence thus far. In fact, the evidence shows conclusively that there was no such thing. Belief is not a substitute for evidence.

Kosta Dean said...

Robert you write,

“The interesting aspect of this 'conversation' is that we ALL accept that standing stones and therefore stone circles are direction indicators.”

I for one absolutely disagree with that! I think Brian does too. Please don't try to put words in our mouths in seeking to persuade the naïve reader.

For my explanation of stone alignments and stone circles please read my paper “The un-Henging of Stonehenge”. There I make a clear and convincing argument how these were built and what purpose they may have served. And it is nothing of what you like us to believe.

Furthermore, my explanation does not require 'superior' capabilities of prehistoric Britons or navigational markers invented by them before their ability to write.

Constantinos Ragazas