Saroeak

Basque stone octagons are symmetrical arrangements of eight small stones found scattered across the northern coastal parts of the Iberian peninsula but concentrated mainly in the Basque country—a culturally and ethnically distinctive region spanning four provinces in northern Spain and extending into southwestern France. The stone octagons represent an enigmatic class of monument constructed, apparently, using well-defined astronomical and geometrical principles. Each was of similar size, with a diameter of about 320 meters (1050 feet), and the stones were placed accurately on the cardinal and intercardinal points. (Sometimes an additional eight stones were placed at points in between, making sixteen in all.) In the center was a distinctive stone known as an artamugarri. The term saroeak (the plural, in the Basque language, of saroe), refers to the area demarcated by these stone arrangements. One closely studied area surrounds the coastal town of Donostia (San Sebastian) and the villages of Hernani and Urnieta to the south. Even though it is an area of only about forty square kilometers (fifteen square miles), nearly forty saroeak have been identified in this locality alone.

Until the 1990s, saroeak had been of little interest to archaeologists, who believed them to be a relatively modern phenomenon. However, it was

The modest center stone at Akola saroe in the Basque Country, northern Spain. The distinctive carving on the top reflects the eightfold directional symmetry of the saroe itself. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

known that their distribution tended to coincide with places used for grazing by transhumant shepherding peoples as part of a strong pastoral tradition within the Basque Country. Then, during the 1980s and 1990s, regional cultural heritage projects combining documentary research and small-scale excavations revealed a quite remarkable continuity of material tradition extending over almost 2000 years. The historical documents showed the saroeak to be the material remnants of a system for organizing communal grazing lands dating back at least to the Early Medieval times—a system that, in some cases, remained in use until early in the twentieth century. The archaeological investigations showed that some center stones were constructed as far back as C.E. 200.

Some of the historical records actually specify the geometrical design of the saroeak and the methods that should be used in their construction, indicating that they were laid out using standard units of length, and confirming the importance of celestial orientation in relation to the cardinal and intercardinal directions. They also tell us that the saroeak could act as local seats of government and law and order; as meeting places; as safe grazing grounds; as farmstead boundaries; and as centers for religious rites. The im portance of reflecting the perceived cosmic order in their design perhaps comes as no surprise, then, especially in view of the last of these.

The archaeological evidence shows that the design principles underlying the saroeak had already remained relatively constant for many centuries before the earliest documents relating to them were written. Furthermore, the earliest saroeak respected even earlier megalithic tombs and dolmens, in that they never enclosed them, although such monuments are sometimes found just outside a saroe boundary. Some have interpreted this as evidence of an even longer continuity of tradition dating back to the Neolithic or Bronze Age. Support for this view has been sought from the fact that the Basque language is unique in western Europe in not belonging to the Indo-European linguistic family, suggesting that its roots are more localized and pre-date the spread of Indo-European languages across the continent. If such a long continuity of tradition did indeed exist in the Basque country, then the Basque saroeak could be relevant to interpretations of later prehistoric monuments all over western Europe, including the famous Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles of Britain and Ireland. This is because—despite efforts by some scholars to argue otherwise, for example in relation to the "megalithic" calendar—such interpretations are normally constrained by the fact that the only direct evidence available is archaeological.

Yet it is also possible that the earliest saroeak simply implemented sacred or symbolic principles that respected what were already, even by the early centuries C.E., conspicuous ancient features in the landscape, just as the Nahua (Aztecs)—in another continent and another millennium—respected the already ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan as works of the gods. However, if we become prepossessed by the possibility of even longer continuities of tradition, we divert attention away from the broader significance of the saroeak in a different respect. They demonstrate remarkably well that functions and meanings can vary considerably while a material tradition remains essentially unchanged. (Another, very different, example of this is the Mesoamerican cross-circle designs.) And they also provide an important case study concerning the ways in which this can happen in practice, over a period of nearly two millennia.

See also:

"Megalithic" Calendar.

Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland; Mesoamerican Cross-Circle Designs; Stone Circles.

References and further reading

Blot, Jacques. Montaña y Prehistoria Vasca. Donostia [San Sebastian], Spain: Elkar, 1988. [In Spanish.]

Jaschek, Carlos, and F. Atrio Barandela, eds. Actas del IV Congreso de la SEAC «Astronomía en la Cultura», 95-102. Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca, 1997. [Article is in English.]

Markey, T. L., and A. C. Greppin, eds. When Worlds Collide: The Indo-Eu-ropeans and Pre-Indo-Europeans, 115-150. Ann Arbor: Karoma, 1990.

Ott, Sandra. The Circle of Mountains: A Basque Shepherding Community (2nd ed.). Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1993.

Ruggles, Clive, ed. Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s, 77-91. Loughborough, UK: Group D Publications, 1993.

Walker, Christopher, ed. Astronomy before the Telescope, 15-27. London: British Museum Press, 1996.

Zaldua, Luix Mari. Saroeak Urnietan [Stone Octagons in Urnieta]. Urnieta, Spain: Kulturnieta, 1996. [In Basque, Spanish, and English.]

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