Monuments and Cosmology

The architecture of public monuments, great and small, can give the archaeologist important clues about the worldviews of those who built them. One reason is that their designs may reflect the perceived cosmos, revealing associations that existed in the minds of the builders, just as the solar alignment at the passage tomb of Newgrange in Ireland reveals a perceived connection between the sun and the ancestors. Monumental architecture may also reflect a ritually defined order of things that was relatively widespread and relatively stable, even where the nature of the society at the time was constantly changing in other ways. It is easy to see how existing monuments may have helped reinforce the perceived order of things, since they created an indelible mark on the landscape that was bound to have influenced future worldviews—if this is how the ancestors did things, people would surely have thought, then this is how we must do things too. Conversely, fundamental changes in ideology may indicate major social disruption.

This inherent stability of the perceived world order means that associations of ideological and cosmological significance have a greater chance of leaving their mark on the material record, and thus have a greater chance of being detectable by modern archaeologists, than many other, more volatile aspects of a past society. The reason is that we can expect them to be repeated over and over again. A single association, such as the solstitial alignment at Newgrange, may have meant nothing at all to the builders; it may have arisen entirely fortuitously. But if we see other, similar solstitial alignments repeated again and again, then the likelihood that they could have arisen fortuitously is rapidly diminished. Where we find significant numbers of monuments with similar designs, similar orientation, and even consistent patterns of astronomical alignment, we can be confident that common practices prevailed over a considerable area and time.

Throughout Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe we find discernible traditions of monument construction operating at various levels and scales. Some of these are remarkably widespread in space and time. In Britain, Ireland, and Brittany, for example, a propensity to build circular and linear ceremonial monuments resulted in the construction of many hundreds of stone circles and stone rows over as long as two millennia. Patterns of orientation tend to be more localized, and patterns of astronomical orientation more so still. For example, among the recumbent stone circles, a group of stone circles of a particular form found in northeastern Scotland, and among the short stone rows of southwestern Ireland, there appear to be more specific traditions of orientation upon prominent features in the landscape or rising or setting positions of the sun or moon than in the larger area.

See also:

Cosmology; Landscape.

Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland; Newgrange; Prehistoric Tombs and Temples in Europe; Recumbent Stone Circles; Short Stone Rows; Stone Circles.

References and further reading

Barrett, John, Richard Bradley, and Martin Green. Landscape, Monuments and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Bradley, Richard. Altering the Earth. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1993.

-. The Significance of Monuments. London: Routledge, 1998.

Scarre, Chris, ed. Monuments and Landscape in Atlantic Europe. London: Routledge, 2002.

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