The Bush Barrow is one of a number of spectacular burial mounds in the vicinity of Stonehenge in southern England, many of them clustering along the low ridges that surround the famous site itself. These round barrows, the burial places of prominent Bronze Age chieftains in the Wessex region, were built around 2000 b.c.e., several centuries after the main construction activity had ceased at Stonehenge. Few doubt that their position, at the boundary between the "lived-in" landscape and the low bowl of the sacred landscape centered upon the ancestral place of power, in clear sight of both, was in itself an expression of the power and influence of the dead chiefs.
Rich assemblages of grave goods accompanied the chieftains to the af-terworld. One of the most impressive was the Bush Barrow lozenge, a magnificent diamond-shaped plate of thin sheet gold 18 centimeters (7 inches) across. Finely decorated with distinctive patterns of incised lines, it is generally interpreted as an ornamental breast plate—an imposing mark of status. In the 1980s, Archie Thom and two colleagues claimed that the lozenge was a sophisticated astronomical observing instrument. By holding the plate horizontally and lining it up in the correct orientation, the various markings could have been used to indicate the sunrise and sunset positions on significant epoch dates in the "megalithic calendar" that Archie Thom's father, the Scottish engineer Alexander Thom, had proposed. It could be used in a similar manner to determine significant rising and setting points of the moon. The claim appeared to vindicate his father's theories.
But attractive as the idea seemed, problems emerged when it was examined in detail. For one thing, there would be various practical difficulties using such a device, not least in determining its correct orientation. The most serious problem, however, is that the directions supposedly marked by the patterns on the lozenge do not really fit very well. Several of the alignments actually fall between the markings, while many of the markings do not fit any of the alignments at all. The fact that the markings actually form a regular and symmetrical design (while the astronomical targets are not regular) argues strongly in favor of their being purely decorative rather than astronomically functional. And as if this were not enough, other lozenges exist in nearby burials with a similar form of decoration but different dimensions. Why should only this one function additionally as a calendrical device?
By the 1990s it had become clear that the other evidence supporting the idea of a "megalithic calendar" did not stand up to critical evaluation. However, the most direct blow to the calendrical interpretation of the Bush Barrow lozenge was delivered, ironically, when the historian John North attempted to interpret the lozenge independently as part of his own astronomical interpretations of prehistoric monuments and artifacts in southern England. Vehemently criticizing the existing astronomical interpretation, he proposed an equally complex but entirely different one of his own, thereby showing how easy it was to do so and in the process undermining confidence in both theories.
The example of the Bush Barrow lozenge demonstrates very clearly the dangers of trying to mould the evidence to fit a favored theory rather than letting the evidence speak for itself. Most likely the lozenge was simply a decorative artifact. It is impressive nonetheless and can be recognized as a considerable technological achievement without recourse to sophisticated calendars and astronomy.
"Megalithic" Calendar; Methodology; Thom, Alexander (1894-1985).
Nebra Disc; Stonehenge.
References and further reading
Darvill, Timothy, and Caroline Malone, eds. Megaliths from Antiquity, 347-348. York, UK: Antiquity Publications, 2003.
North, John D. Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos, 508-518. London: HarperCollins, 1996.
Ruggles, Clive. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 139-140. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
Souden, David. Stonehenge: Mysteries of the Stones and Landscape, 52-53. London: Collins and Brown/English Heritage, 1997.
Thom, Archibald S., J. M. D. Ker, and T. R. Burrows. "The Bush Barrow Gold Lozenge: Is It a Solar and Lunar Calendar for Stonehenge?" Antiquity 62 (1988), 492-502.
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