Callanish

In one of the most remote corners of Britain stands one of the country's most impressive megalithic monuments. The standing stones of Callanish (an an-glicization of the Gaelic name, Calanais) can be found on the western shores of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off western Scotland. They occupy a commanding situation overlooking what is now a stark landscape of heathery peat bogs and, to the west, the sea inlet of East Loch Roag. The site, dating to the third millennium B.C.E., consists of a ring of tall menhirs—the ring is 13 meters (43 feet) across and the stones vary from 3 meters (10 feet) to 4 meters (13 feet) in height—surrounding a small, chambered tomb. Rows of four or five stones radiate out to the east, west, and south. Northwards, but displaced by about ten degrees to the east, runs a longer double row or avenue. Several smaller stone circles and settings of standing stones are found in the vicinity.

The site first achieved astronomical notoriety when a survey was published by Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville in 1912. It included the first-ever suggestion that a megalithic monument might have been aligned upon the moon at an extreme rising or setting point in its 18.6-year cycle, known as the lunar node cycle. As Somerville pointed out, the avenue is aligned southwards in the direction of the most southerly possible setting point of the moon, which the moon can only reach every eighteenth or nineteenth year. This idea was elaborated in the 1960s and 1970s by Gerald Hawkins, the author of Stonehenge Decoded, and by the Scottish engineer Alexander Thom. The Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, writing in the first century b.c.e., referred to a sacred precinct or circular temple in the island of the Hyperboreans where the moon appeared close to the earth and the god returned every nineteen years, and it has been suggested by some people, including the British archaeologist Aubrey Burl, that Diodorus referred to

The standing stones of Callanish, Isle of Lewis, Scotland. (Corel Corp.)

Callanish rather than Stonehenge, as was more generally assumed. (Both interpretations are problematic.)

Thom proposed that Callanish was one of several "lunar observatories" marking significant lunar rising and setting points very precisely (down to a small fraction of the moon's diameter) using distant foresights—in this case, the mountain of Clisham on Harris, some 26 kilometers (16 miles) away. However, there is no clear view of Clisham from the avenue—it is obscured both by the taller stones of the central ring and by a small rocky outcrop just to the south of the site. Thom's high-precision "lunar observatories" in general have not stood the test of time.

However, the failure of mid-twentieth-century attempts to populate the prehistoric past with an intellectual or priestly elite prepossessed with high-precision astronomical observations should not blind us to the basic relationship with the moon that exists at the Callanish stones, or with what this might actually have meant to the Neolithic populations of this area. The full or nearly full moon scraping uncommonly low over the hills to the south and then—as viewed along the avenue—passing behind and setting among the stones of the circle, casting them into silhouette, would have been a truly spectacular sight, one that could only have been seen once or twice in a generation. If this was intentional from the outset, then it would certainly ex plain the skewing of the avenue away from the meridian. It would also have ensured that this location was charged with tremendous sacred power at these special times.

It has been suggested that the standing stones of Callanish and the various smaller megalithic monuments in the surrounding area incorporated numerous alignments upon prominent horizon features and extreme lunar rising and setting positions. The Callanish stones, it was proposed, stood at the heart of a complex that encapsulated a variety of relationships between built monuments, prominent natural features in the landscape, and the motions of the moon. The general idea is not implausible: indigenous societies commonly organize sacred space to reflect cosmic relationships perceived in the wider visual setting, and the visible environment included the sky. But in the absence of corroborating evidence, it is almost impossible to argue convincingly for any particular scheme. We have no way of knowing which relationships actually were perceived as significant in the past, and any choice that we make is ultimately subjective. Whether the Callanish stones really represent a temple whose significance related to the moon appearing in a special way in every nineteenth year remains an open question.

See also:

Cardinal Directions; Somerville, Boyle (1864-1936); Thom, Alexander (1894-1985).

Stonehenge.

Meridian; Moon, Motions of.

References and further reading

Ashmore, Patrick. Calanais: The Standing Stones. Stornoway, Scotland: Ur-ras nan Tursachan, 1995.

Burl, Aubrey. From Carnac to Callanish: The Prehistoric Stone Rows and Avenues of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, 63-65, 179-180. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

-. A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany,

148-152. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

-. The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, 202-207. New

Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Ruggles, Clive. Megalithic Astronomy: A New Archaeological and Statistical Study of 300 Western Scottish Sites, 75-98. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (British Series 123), 1984.

-. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 88-89, 134-136. New

Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

-, ed. Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s, 309-316. Loughborough, UK:

Group D Publications, 1993.

-, ed. Records in Stone: Papers in Memory of Alexander Thom,

426-431. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Ruggles, Clive, and Alasdair Whittle, eds. Astronomy and Society in Britain during the Period 4000-1500 BC, 63-110. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (British Series 88), 1981.

Thom, Alexander. Megalithic Lunar Observatories, 68-69. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

The Caracol at Chichen Itza, viewed from the west. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)
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