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Sunday, 15 June 2014

What was Callanish for?



The Callanish No 1 stone settings, seen from the air

How about this for an hypothesis? "If you draw a straight line from stone 2 to stone 5 of the Callanish Circle, it hits the horizon at the precise location of the brightest star in the constellation Magnus Minor on the 5th day of February every 54th year. This suggests that the builders of the circle were technically very advanced, with a detailed knowledge of the heavens, and that the tribal groups involved performed certain rituals on every occasion that this auspicious event occurred. It also suggests that the movements of the stars, and not the sun, were the events that governed the key ceremonies of the tribal year."

OK -- that's all a bit far-fetched, but it's not all that far removed from the most popular hypothesis relating to the PURPOSE of Callanish.

According to at least some of the literature, Callanish is where it is, and is designed as it is, because the moon skims especially low over the southern the horizon once every 18.6 years, "dancing along the distant hills like a great god visiting the earth." So, the theory goes, those who were blessed with the knowledge of this event (the proto-astronomers) were invested with earthly authority by simple folks whose daily lives were governed by the great cycles of the tides, the seasons, the movements of the sun and the moon and the stars. As fas as romantic twaddle goes, this is almost as delightful as the Magnus Minor hypothesis.

So let's get real here. The stone setting as we see it today consists of the following elements:

1. A circle that is not quite circular or symmetrical, with irregularly spaced stones of many different heights, and a large central monolith that is not quite in the centre of the ring.

2. A southern stone row with irregularly spaced monoliths which is almost aligned N-S, but which is actually slightly curved.

3. An avenue consisting of 19 stones on the northern side of the "circle" -- with two rows that are not parallel. They are actually converging towards the circle. Again, the spacing of the stones is quite irregular. There are considerable gaps in these rows -- have the missing stones been removed, or were they never put up in the first place?

4. Two short alignments of stones roughly at right angles to the avenue, one to the west of the circle and one to the east. They are not truly aligned E-W, and the one is not lined up with the other. They are actually a little to the south of the centre of the circle, and so the big central stone is not on an alignment of either the western arm or the eastern one. Again the spacing of stones in these arms is irregular, and there appear to be gaps.

5. There are two eccentric stones to the south of the stone circle, one to the west of the southern row and the other to the east of it.

The Callanish stone "circle", seen from the centre of the avenue

Some of the stones of the "circle", with the tallest central stone left of centre.  The ruins of the chambered cairn are irrelevant to the present discussion.

The magnificent central stone and some of the others of the circle.  Here we also see the ruins of the chambered cairn.

The stones are mightily impressive, but if truth be told the settings are a bit of a shambles, and one has to do a great deal of stretching of credibility to see any precise geometrical arrangements at Callanish, let alone any attempt on the part of the builders to align their stones with auspicious heavenly happenings.

So what was Callanish for?  I can understand why Colin Richards now says that the final form of the monument was not important in places like Callanish --  indeed, why would lots of clever people want to build a stone monument in which nothing quite fits, and in which the circle is not circular, and the lines are all curved and wobbly?  One would have to conclude that they were either careless or incompetent, or even plain stupid. So if you want to maintain a belief in the cleverness of your Neolithic tribesmen, you might well argue instead, as Colin has done, that the final form was immaterial and that the REAL reason for Callanish lies in the skillful quarrying of the stones from auspicious places and the transportation of said stones to a single place where they could be used as status symbols or for ritual purposes.  The ACTIVITIES themselves were the things that mattered, creating social coherence and demonstrating the organizational abilities of the leaders and the technical skills of the workers.

Hmmm.  Don't like any of that either.  It's almost as fanciful as the Magnus Minor hypothesis. Colin is shifting the centre of attention from the stone settings in the ground to the quarries.  That means he has to find quarries by hook or by crook............ even if there aren't any........

So here's my theory.  The Callanish stone settings are where they are because that is where the stones were.  A lot of STONE GATHERING went on (I use that term quite deliberately, instead of the term "quarrying", since the latter implies a degree of technical skill and organization that I currently see no sign of).  The broad ridge to the north of the glaciated rocky knoll called Cnoc an Tursa was relatively dry and stable, with sediments thick enough for stone sockets.  There was also a good solid surface for dragging and arranging the stones into the positions chosen for the stone settings.  I think the builders were attracted by patterns and not alignments, although there may have been some desire to align the axis of the monument  with the highest point reached by the sun in the middle of summer, with the avenue directed roughly towards the darkest part of the winter sky.  The cross arms might have been deliberately pointed roughly towards the equinox sunset and sunrise. The emphasis is on the word "roughly" -- and I do not think that the builders were especially bothered about accuracy.

Given that a lot of human effort was expended here at Callanish, what was it for?  We may never know the answer to that, and we can speculate till the Highland cattle come home about rituals, but I think Callanish was all about status -- built by people who simply wanted to impress their neighbours.  A grand folly, just like all the other grand follies that continue to be built by arrogant (and even mad) people to this day.

The stones are mightily impressive, but if truth be told the settings are a bit of a shambles, and one has to do a great deal of stretching of credibility to see any precise geometrical arrangements at Callanish, let alone any attempt on the part of the builders to align their stones with auspicious heavenly happenings.

So what was Callanish for? I can understand why Colin Richards now says that the final form of the monument was not important in places like Callanish -- indeed, why would lots of clever people want to build a stone monument in which nothing quite fits, and in which the circle is not circular, and the lines are all curved and wobbly? One would have to conclude that they were either careless or incompetent, or even plain stupid. So if you want to maintain a belief in the cleverness of your Neolithic tribesmen, you might well argue instead, as Colin has done, that the final form was immaterial and that the REAL reason for Callanish lies in the skillful quarrying of the stones from auspicious places and the transportation of said stones to a single place where they could be used as status symbols or for ritual purposes. The ACTIVITIES themselves were the things that mattered, creating social coherence and demonstrating the organizational abilities of the leaders and the technical skills of the workers.

Hmmm. Don't like any of that either. It's almost as fanciful as the Magnus Minor hypothesis. Colin is shifting the centre of attention from the stone settings in the ground to the quarries. That means he has to find quarries by hook or by crook............ even if there aren't any........

So here's my theory. The Callanish stone settings are where they are because that is where the stones were. A lot of STONE GATHERING went on (I use that term quite deliberately, instead of the term "quarrying", since the latter implies a degree of technical skill and organization that I currently see no sign of). The broad ridge to the north of the glaciated rocky knoll called Cnoc an Tursa was relatively dry and stable, with sediments thick enough for stone sockets. There was also a good solid surface for dragging and arranging the stones into the positions chosen for the stone settings. I think the builders were attracted by patterns and not alignments, although there may have been some desire to align the axis of the monument with the highest point reached by the sun in the middle of summer, with the avenue directed roughly towards the darkest part of the winter sky. The cross arms might have been deliberately pointed roughly towards the equinox sunset and sunrise. The emphasis is on the word "roughly" -- and I do not think that the builders were especially bothered about accuracy.

Given that a lot of human effort was expended here at Callanish, what was it for? We may never know the answer to that, and we can speculate till the Highland cattle come home about rituals, but I think Callanish was all about status -- built by people who simply wanted to impress their neighbours. A grand folly, just like all the other grand follies that continue to be built by arrogant (and even mad) people to this day.

Watch this space -- now that I have stopped travelling, I'll soon put up another post about the geology and landscape of Callanish, with some further thoughts on the purpose of the stone settings.

34 comments:

Myris of Alexandria said...

Colin's splendid book has led me along by own road to Damascus (praise be to blessed ISIS, but must not go overboard and loose my head here).
The Devonian Sst of the Altar Stone is lithlgically identical to the Stones of Stenness and very similar to the Devonian Ssts of the Ring of Brogar.
The AS is a unique lithology within SH and has been largely ignored and has even been dismissed as a spare orthostat picked up along the way.
BUT this slighted? stone, this elephant in the circle, is the reason for SH and also pivotal in the siting of SH. Enough of the Lourdes rubbish, ancient hot springs,frozen circular traps, being at the correct latitude, the AS and indeed SH are a direct 'omage to the Orkney Islands, the Altar Stone represents the earlier circles and Salisbury Plain has the same boring treeless landscape as central Mainland Orkney.
But why bring the bluestones stones from Welsh speaking west Wales.
One word explains it all Hiraeth.
SH wrapped up and totally explained in a single word.
Lucky they did not know Heimat-that would have been a journey.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Of course the famous Lewisian Gneiss macehead now in the Salisbury Museum and found close to SH (I think)is a rememberance of the Lewisian Gneiss orthostats of Callanais.
It is all fitting together.
It is the seventh dsay I shall rest now.
M

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,
The central pillar megalith is especially impressive and fantastical. What is that grayish streak at the upper right corner of the aerial photo in your post? Is there a river or stream flowing near the site? And does the Callanish Circle sit on top of a natural mount? Looks like in the aerial.

Kostas

TonyH said...

Thank you Myris for returning with some of the juiciest bits from "Colin's [Richards'] splendid book roughly titled from memory "The Great Stone Circles of the North of Britain".
Bt 'eck, we certainly would not wish to see you go overboard and/ or for your head to become loosened!
This contribution, Myris my old Egyptian bean [incidentally, now available from Waitrose at knock - down prices, according to their resident Liverpool Poet, Roger McGough]', makes maritime transportation, or, at any rate, maritime prehistoric travel from North Britain to Mid - Wiltshire, or at any rate its nearest prehistoric port, somewhat more credible.
Those Good Old Boys, in the words of their descendants, the Beach Boys, could say with some pride "I Get [pronounced 'Git'] Around". I bet the Gals loved them!
Looks like Colin's Good Ol' Buddy from the Stonehenge Riverside Project, MPP, knew more than he was letting on when he offered his Unification of Our Islands hypothesis in his Stonehenge 2012 book. Geology (provided you completely ignore even the notion of Geomorphology and Glaciology) Rules OK!!*!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- that's a roadway. There is also a path which runs round the whole site, and the idea is that people should walk on it rather than pottering about amongst the stones. But there is free access to the stones at present -- long may it continue......

chris johnson said...

This is extraordinary news - for me at least, although it seems Tony knew all along.

I wonder how specific the provenance of the AS is? As a layman I can imagine that volcanic rocks such as the bluestones can have fingerprints but sandstones seem less individual. Perhaps a stupid question, but if Myris or Brian could help my education then I would be delighted.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- I suspect that Myris is winding you up. Never believe the things that people tell you when using pseudonyms. Myris -- in another guise -- has already told us that the Altar Stone comes from Carmarthenshire, unless I am very much mistaken......

BRIAN JOHN said...

That having been said, there is Ailsa Craig rock on many of the beachs of Pembrokeshire, and White Limestone from Antrim in Somerset -- so more things are possible than the archaeologists would have us believe.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Ah sorry I was sloppy.
I meant that both the AS and a major stone from he Stones of Stenness are exactly the same rock type NOT are from the same outcrop.
One is Orcadian and the other Welsh in origin.
The exactitude is a coincidence but I do think Orcadian circles, Rinyo-Clactonian, AS. The middle term shows my antiquity credentials.
Brian may be correct ein klein Windupette.

TonyH said...

Brian and Chris, I will give my interpretation of what Myris appears to be stating as to the geology of the Altar Stone, etc.

Is he suggesting that, although "the Devonian Sandstone of the Altar Stone is lithigically (?) identical to the Stones of Stenness and very similar to the Devonian Sssts of the Ring of Brodgar", that nevertheless he still accepts its provenance is Carmarthenshire?

Myris, are you suggesting that our ancient prehistoric forebears RECOGNISED THE SIMILARITY of the Altar Stone to those they knew about/ had seen in the Northern extremities of Britain? And, therefore, were keen to incorporate it into the design of the Stonehenge monument? Or is this, as Brian suggests, all just a wind - up?

TonyH said...

I might be persuaded to re - write the lyrics to Paul Simon's poignant and nostalgic "Homeward Bound" song, with haunting references to Callanais, Orkney, and South West Wales whilst "Sitting at a Railway Station" somewhere on Salisbury Plain during WW1 surrounded by primeval mist, etc, etc.

those NOT wishing me to do so should, of course, forward their cheques in brown paper envelopes to my Stonehenge Box Office, c/o English Heritage.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Yes I am throwing that suggestion-they searched for a match- into the mix whilst singing "brown stone in the ring true tralalala", "light my fire"
So perhaps a windup perhaps the new Great truth,I shall let history decide.
Or is it just a cosmic koan.
Myris.

BRIAN JOHN said...

So did the builders of the various monuments search for sandstones as their "special" stones in their stone settings? What's the evidence for that? OK -- the Altar Stone is "different" but so -- apparently -- are two other Stonehenge monoliths in non-significant locations..... more info awaited on those. And there are no sandstones in the Callanish settings, so far as I know. Where are these special sandstones at Stenness and in other places? Nah -- Myris is winding up again. The stones built into the monuments were always the stones readily to hand, with some selection based on size, stone texture and colour. Simple.

t said...

No prehistoric Maritime adventurers along the Western seaboard of what was to become Great Britain, then, just a 21st Century Wind - Up Merchant of many guises.

Myris Elastos said...

No at no time did I mention stones in boat trips my vews on that are very well expressed in 'waiting by the river', that fantasy is totally of your own making not mine.

But but just maybe the idea of sst monoliths being special did travel down the western seaboard, after all Rinyo-Clacton, albeit unfashionable and partly submerged(correct term is Grooved Ware set)is not a random juxtaposition of places names but a 20th cent idea.
Better Brogdar than Lourdes I say.
Otherwise we are left with the unlikely senario of a huge sst block being transported by Jack.
Just the one!!
M

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Myris of the plaid talk,

The AS is the reason for SH?! Does MPP know that? Or you are keeping it from him!

I think, therefore, I understand you! And your reluctance to reveal plainly what you know. But you are so tempted and so tempting!

No need for sampling … it spells trouble!

Kostas

BRIAN JOHN said...

Don't buy the idea of sandstone blocks being special -- they are, on the whole, utterly boring, because they are not really very interesting colour-wise, and from the point of view of texture they are boring too. And they are common-or-garden too -- and therefore virtually valueless. I might buy the idea of spotted dolerite being special, or even Lewisian gneiss, since they are actually quite attractive to look at.
As for transport, ever heard of a glacier, Myris? Just the one sandstone block at Stonehenge? That's not what you have been telling us...... not that that matters. There's just the one chunk of White Limestone in the till in Somerset, so far as we know, and nobody bothers about that. The Altar stone is an erratic, just like all the other monoliths that have come from the west.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

Sure the AS is an erratic! But Myris is hinting it is an erratic that started it all! I think I know what he means. Even as I know why he can't say so himself! Thus his plaid talk. And why he is no longer interested in sampling the stumps!

Kostas

TonyH said...

I think Myris, whose altar - ego (get it?) has after all got archaeological training and qualifications, would be very pleased if we all went away for a bit and looked up 'Rinyo - Clacton', and then applied this to the social geography of prehistoric Britain.

BRIAN JOHN said...

I'll leave Clacton on Sea for others to discuss. Kostas, I think you are being unfair on Myris -- he can answer for himself, but I'm pretty sure he would love to get his hands on samples from every one of the standing stones and the stumps. It's English Heritage you need to blame for the lack of geological research activity.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

Here is what puzzles me about Myris. Though MPP will be doing excavations at Stonehenge soon, Myris has not even asked to include in this effort some simple surgical samples of the buried candidate stumps, SH32d/e.

I have hard time justifying that. Or if he has asked, to insist sampling these. Arguing the need for the scientific integrity of his work.

How did the CRF rhyolite gravel got to be at SH? We must not sweep this dirt under the debitage!

Kostas

chris johnson said...

The pottery story points to a lot of communication and tendency to cultural conformity. I cannot think of any other scenario for people using the same style and designs over big distances.

Here in Netherlands we find fine stone arrow heads attributed to the Beaker folk. They are practically the same as arrow heads found in UK and Poland from approximately the same time. Occam would suggest that there was a shared culture. (The same designs are found around Stonehenge).

I find it easy to imagine that stone age people did attribute value to different types of stone and would recognise the source or identity. Myris observation is significant, I feel. However the stones were transported, the arrangement in the monument was not random.

Myris of Alexandria said...

I am able to speak on behalf of Dr Ixer, he would drill and sample all unsampled above and below ground orthostats. However that is unlikely to happen.
M.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- I wouldn't argue against cultural contacts on a pretty wide basis. Traded goods, weapon styles, even styles of tomb building point towards cultural "regions" and tribal territories. But I still think sandstones are boring! And of course a "fashion" for building stone monuments out of whatever stones were at hand, for prestige purposes or just for fun, might also have been widely disseminated and subscribed to by people all over the British Isles....

Myris of Alexandria said...

Kostas you have arcane knowledge denied to we lesser folk. Amongst MPP's many new projects excavating in Stonehenge does not appear.
Were I EH I would want the monographs of all the 2008 excavations published before allowing more ground breaking
work.
I seriously doubt Dr Ixer would think Kostas a suitable confident in the careful negotiations regarding access to all things at Stonehenge. It would be a breach for him to suggest otherwise.
The only gravel at Stonehenge is the deep tenor voice of Dr Ixer repeating Stonehenge gravel, Stonehenge nonsense.
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

Quite so. Six years is a very long time for dig results to be properly published. Two generations of doctorate students have come and gone! A degree of sympathy for EH, and a few pokes to the archaeologists who need to get themselves organized.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- comment rejected. Lay off, please. Enough of conspiracy theories.

TonyH said...

Well said, Chris, in your comment of 16 June 21.41.This is where the Rinyo - Clacton style and its geographically wide distribution is key.

TonyH said...

Archaeologists are notoriously slow in publishing their final results of excavation and analysis. Richard Atkinson is the example par excellence as regards Stonehenge, and has in recent years, ironically enough, been posthumously taken to task over this by the SRP Folk. Yet we still await much of their own findings, apart from what has mostly come via National Geographic and other sponsors. We still await peer -reviewed results.

TonyH said...

Myris I think is again winding us up in his claim that about the "famous Lewisian Gneiss macehead now in Salisbury Museum and found close to SH".[15 June 2014 11.13]

My research via the Internet, admittedly, indicates the gneiss has its provenance in Breton.

Myris or any of your altar egos' could you please clarify. Thank you.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Peer-reviewed results? I wonder how many relevant journals rally use peer review these days? It seems to me that a lot of "evidence" appears in the pages of books these days without going through any peer review process. Which archaeo journals use peer review? Does anybody know?

Myris of Alexandria said...

PPS, JAS, have very rigorous peer reviewing;Antiquity even peer review their book reviews. Arch n Wales peer review, the Inst. Of Arch. London even peer review their annual institute publication. Other journals have editorial boards.
I am sure it is the same in geography, smaller local journals probably do not.
Re the mace head lets hope the Breton suggested provenance and the newer Lewisian (not the one near Clacton) provenance are not best guesses of the same authority. Feet of clay set in shifting sands me hearties.
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Myris -- it's probably the same in most subjects. The bigger learned journals will peer review articles, the smaller ones (aimed at a general readership) won't. Mind you, peer reviewing is a far from perfect process. In some subjects, if an Editor is inclined to publish something controversial (or, more likely, something designed to reinforce the orthodox view of things) he will simply choose peer reviewers whom he can count on to deliver positive opinions. But many top-ranked journals now actually charge an author or an institution for publishing a paper -- a friend of mine was recently charged £2,000 for a paper of his to be published in a top journal. Fees like this get loaded onto the reasearch grant applications, and in the end they come from the taxpayer to line the pockets of Elsevier and the other big boys. Strange world....

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

”Strange world....”

All the more reason why voices like yours and blogs like yours are essential. Even with their shortcomings.

Kostas