Prehistoric Tombs and Temples in Europe

Scattered through western Europe from Scandinavia and Scotland down to the Mediterranean (and extending into North Africa) are a staggering variety of later prehistoric monuments that still remain conspicuous in today's landscape. Built in some areas as far back as the fourth millennium b.c.e. and even earlier, and in some places only a few centuries before the coming of the Roman empire, many hundreds of great constructions in stone have stood the test of time remarkably well. More modest examples, however, tend to be little known, and many remain under serious threat. Some were tombs, some undoubtedly functioned as temples where sacred rites took place, and some—like the great alignments of hundreds of standing stones at Carnac in Brittany, northwest France—seem to defy explanation. Within this broad custom of constructing monumental architecture were a wealth of local traditions, resulting in groups of monuments as diverse as the recumbent stone circles of eastern Scotland, Irish wedge tombs, Causse-type dolmens of south-central France, Portuguese antas, Sardinian nuraghi, Menorcan taulas, and many more.

Orientation is a basic and relatively uncontroversial aspect of most of

The Dolmen del Coll de Medas I near to Cantallops in Cataluña, northern Spain, close to the French border. From its location in the Pyrenean foothills it commands a stunning view to the south. In this region, eastern and western practices of tomb orientation were commingled. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

The Dolmen del Coll de Medas I near to Cantallops in Cataluña, northern Spain, close to the French border. From its location in the Pyrenean foothills it commands a stunning view to the south. In this region, eastern and western practices of tomb orientation were commingled. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

these monuments, in that they have an axis of symmetry and face in some direction. The study of the orientations of these monuments, and in particular of their possible astronomical associations, has been extensive in Britain, Ireland, and Brittany. Indeed Britain was the birthplace of modern ar-chaeoastronomy, which has resulted in a great deal of attention being lavished on sites such as Stonehenge. Yet, surprising as it seems, there was little or no interest in—let alone large-scale investigations of—monumental orientations in the remainder of western Europe until a systematic survey was undertaken by the British historian of astronomy Michael Hoskin during the 1990s. Hoskin measured and documented the orientations of over three thousand later prehistoric tombs and temples in Portugal, Spain, southern France, and the islands of the western Mediterranean. Within this considerable area and time span one can identify numerous local traditions resulting in characteristic types of monument broadly consistent in their design and methods of construction. Some occur in large numbers, like the Sardinian tombi di giganti ("tombs of giants"), of which over 250 remain; others con sist of only a handful of extant examples, such as the dolmenic hypogea of the Fontvieille region of southern France, of which there are only four.

The remarkable fact that emerges is that nearly every local group has a discernible orientation signature, as characteristic as the architectural design of the tomb or temple itself. The vast majority of the three thousand monuments faces broadly toward the east, southeast, or south. Some local groups cover the whole range from northeast to south, while others fall exclusively within a much narrower span. A few groups of monuments, on the other hand, face predominantly westerly or southwesterly. South-facing groups are rare and north-facing monuments are virtually unheard-of, there being only two examples in the whole set. This shows beyond any doubt that, throughout a significant area of the world and through three or more millennia of prehistory, the orientation of a monument was of almost universal importance—as important, evidently, as the materials used or the techniques of construction. At the same time, it is clear that dominant practices with regard to orientation varied from place to place and time to time just as much as those relating to design and construction. The orientation data give us some clues about how certain practices may have propagated from one region to another. West-facing tombs, for example, are rare in the Iberian peninsula and western and central France, but predominate in the Mediterranean coastal region of France. It seems likely that this practice developed in Provence or Languedoc, where it prevailed, spreading both east toward Italy and southwest toward Spain, but then (in both cases) became increasingly mixed with rival traditions.

It is much trickier to identify the targets that determined a set of orientations, let alone their meaning and significance to the people who built and used the monuments. However, one thing is clear: even the most modest local groups of similar monuments are scattered through a sufficiently large area, and placed in a sufficient variety of landscape situations, to rule out any suggestion that the determinant was topographic, or even that the orientations were due to factors such as the prevailing wind. We are forced to conclude that reference must have been made to the north-south line defined by the diurnal motion of the heavens. This demonstrates, at least at the most basic level, that reference was made to the skies.

How reliably particular targets, astronomical or otherwise, can be identified for particular groups is debatable. One of the clearest cases is that of the seven-stone antas (dolmens) of central Portugal, where the orientations of all 177 examples measured fall within the sunrise arc on the eastern horizon. A common orientation signature stretches from northeast round to due south, and Hoskin suggests that the motivation here was to orient monuments either in the direction of sunrise or of the sun climbing in the sky. Similarly, some of the westward-oriented groups correspond to the range of directions of sunset and/or sun descending in the sky. An exceptional group of monuments are the taulas of Menorca, whose orientations fall in a range centered upon the south. It is dangerous to try to fit stellar alignments in such a case, since there are many bright stars, and their positions shift significantly over the centuries, owing to precession. However, there is quite strong independent evidence to support the argument that the taulas were associated with particular stars, most notably the Southern Cross and Pointers.

Later prehistoric tombs and temples farther north, in Britain and Ireland, have been much more intensively studied. In some cases, more specific astronomical associations have been identified: for example, the Scottish recumbent stone circles appear to be related to the midsummer full moon. However, taking a broader European view it is clear that their general orientation signatures are very similar to those found elsewhere in western Europe. This implies that more detailed investigation of the monuments in continental Europe may have a great deal more to tell us.

See also:

"Green" Archaeoastronomy; Orientation.

Antas; Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland; Nuraghi; Recumbent Stone Circles; Stonehenge; Taulas; Wedge Tombs.

Diurnal Motion; Precession.

References and further reading

Belmonte, Juan Antonio, and Michael Hoskin. Reflejo del Cosmos. Madrid: Equipo Sirius, 2002. [In Spanish.]

Chapman, Robert. Emerging Complexity: The Later Prehistory of SouthEast Spain, Iberia and the West Mediterranean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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

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