Orientation

Many different factors might have influenced the orientation of an ancient dwelling house, sacred building, or tomb. Some would have had clear practical benefits. Thus anyone building a house in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere might well consider orienting its entrance southeastward so that the early rays of the sun enter the house and help warm it up in the mornings. Similarly, it would be beneficial to avoid having entrances facing into the prevailing wind. Tomb entrances might face downhill so that water would not run down into them and the interior stayed dry. The possibilities seem almost endless.

But studies of historical and indigenous peoples all over the world reveal a huge variety of less tangible considerations, such as orienting a temple upon a sacred mountain seen as the dwelling place of a god, or a tomb in the direction whence ancestors are believed to have come. This "intangible" category includes a range of astronomical considerations, such as aligning temples and tombs upon sunrise at one of the solstices or the rising point of a significant star or constellation.

A common reason for choosing particular orientations has to do with cosmology—people's understandings and beliefs concerning the nature of the world—and is motivated by a desire to keep human activity in harmony with the cosmos to ensure the continuity of life, good health, and so on. Thus one reason that the traditional earth lodges of the Pawnee face east is so that every time people enter their home, they do so in the same manner—

the same direction—as the stars enter the sky. To a Western mind this might amount to little more than superstition, but such considerations are often bound up inextricably with others that we might consider more pragmatic. Thus, while some archaeologists argue that the majority of Iron-Age roundhouses in Britain faced the rising sun for primarily cosmological reasons, there would also have been practical benefits in terms of warmth from the sun in the mornings and shelter from the prevailing wind. Indeed, to the minds of the time, the distinction we might make between pragmatism and religious or superstitious belief would not have been a meaningful one. All these different considerations served the common purpose of sustaining life.

Interpreting the orientations of archaeological structures can be highly problematic, especially if we only have the material evidence to go on. Quite simply, everything must point somewhere. The mere fact that something points at what we might consider a prominent topographic feature, or an important astronomical event, or anything else of apparent significance, does not mean that this was deliberate. One solution, where possible, is to seek groups of monuments or buildings that are culturally related and similar in form and structure (and hence, probably, purpose) and to look for common trends in their orientation. If a certain pattern emerges strongly enough, especially if we can obtain a suitable statistical verification, we can be reasonably confident that a certain set of orientations was deliberate. But even here there are a number of problems. For a start, we have to be careful about data selection. We delude ourselves, and invalidate any statistical results, if we include a sample of orientations that fit a desired pattern but exclude others that do not. Secondly, it is quite possible that more than one factor was important in determining an orientation, and that compromises may have been reached: consider a culture where the prevailing practice was to align a temple both upon a sacred mountain and upon the rising sun. Another problem is that only the most dominant and widespread common practices will be revealed in this way. People do not act like laws of physics: even when constrained by the strongest social traditions, people often do things in their own manner. According to a burial practice recorded among the Ashanti people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, for example, the dead are buried facing away from the village. However, a small percentage of people believe that the dead turn themselves around in the grave, so they bury their dead in exactly the opposite direction, facing toward the village. This would create a tricky problem for an archaeologist of the future trying to make sense of the orientations of Ashanti graves.

Despite all these difficulties, the approach of looking at groups of similar monuments has achieved some startling successes. Perhaps the best example of this is the orientations of later prehistoric tombs and temples in western Europe, no fewer than three thousand of which have been measured and analyzed by the British historian of astronomy Michael Hoskin. There are a multitude of local groups—distinctive types of stone monument built in different localities during some two millennia of prehistory—and in nearly every case the orientations are bunched, clearly intentionally, into a restricted range of directions forming a characteristic orientation signature. A variety of such orientation signatures is encountered. This shows that orientation was of near universal importance, although traditions and practices— just like other aspects of the design and construction of the monuments— varied considerably from place to place and time to time.

Even where we do have demonstrably strong and consistent trends such as these, we cannot always be confident about the motivation. For example, three quarters of the Early Neolithic long barrows on Cranborne Chase in southern England face southeast. These might be interpreted as alignments upon midwinter sunrise until it is realized that their orientation is constrained by the hill ridges along which the barrows are placed; these tend to run northwest-southeast as a result of the local geology. And even if we have few doubts about the intended target, we need to look beyond mere statis-tics—to the social context—in order to infer anything meaningful about their purpose and significance.

See also:

Cardinal Directions; Cosmology; Methodology; Solstitial Alignments; Statistical Analysis.

Church Orientations; Iron Age Roundhouses; Navajo Hogan; Pawnee Cosmology; Prehistoric Tombs and Temples in Europe.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Skywatchers, 217-222. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Hoskin, Michael. Tombs, Temples and Their Orientations, 7-20. Bognor Regis, UK: Ocarina Books, 2001.

Ruggles, Clive. "Megalithic Astronomy: The Last Five Years." Vistas in Astronomy 27 (1984), 231-289, pp. 271-283.

-. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 89-90. New Haven:

Yale University Press, 1999.

Ruggles, Clive, and Alasdair Whittle, eds. Astronomy and Society in Britain during the Period 4000-1500 B.C., 243-274. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (British Series 88), 1981.

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