Short Stone Rows

Among the most enigmatic of all the different types of megalithic monuments in Britain and Ireland are the short rows of up to six standing stones that are found scattered around northern and western parts of the islands, as well as in northwest France. Well over 250 examples are known, and the dates that exist suggest that the majority of them were erected at a relatively late stage as far as megalithic monuments go: in the Early to Middle Bronze Age, well into the second millennium B.C.E. Typically, the stones are one to two meters (three to six feet) in height and placed a few meters (up to about fifteen feet) apart, although there are some spectacular exceptions, such as the three-stone row at Gurranes in County Cork, Ireland, where the slender stones rise to over four meters (thirteen feet). Most of the rows stand in apparent isolation, though some are associated with burials or other megalithic structures such as stone circles. Particular concentrations of short stone rows are found in western Scotland—in Argyll on the mainland and on inner Hebridean islands such as Mull—and in southwestern Ireland, in Counties Cork and Kerry.

The stone row at Gurranes, County Cork, Ireland. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

Unlike stone circles, stone rows do not enclose an area so cannot be interpreted as demarcating a central place or sacred space. They can, however, easily be envisaged as pointing at something, and hence have long evoked the interest of archaeoastronomers. Certain solstitially aligned rows have achieved considerable public notoriety, such as Gleninagh in Connemara, western Ireland. Alexander Thom certainly saw their potential as megalithic "observatories." He included many British examples in his lists of monuments aligned upon horizon features such as hilltops and notches that marked significant rising or setting positions of the sun, moon, and stars. The row at Ballochroy, on the west coast of the Kintyre peninsula in southern Argyll, Scotland, was one of his earliest published and most quoted solar observatory sites, but it also became one of the most important case studies in demonstrating why apparent astronomical alignments, and especially those of high precision, have to be treated with considerable care and caution.

Studies of repeated trends among regional groupings have provided the strongest evidence that many stone rows do have astronomical connections, though at a lower level of precision than that envisaged by Thom. In both of the strongest geographical concentrations, the clear consistency in the orientation of the rows is not a simple consequence of the local topography. It appears that the location of some of the monuments was carefully selected in order to follow the prevailing tradition of orientation (and the need for a dis tant view in certain directions) despite the general lie of the land. In southwestern Ireland there are just over fifty measurable rows, and their orientations are strongly clustered around northeast-southwest. The orientations of the western Scottish rows are just as consistent, but clustered around north-south. In both cases the evidence indicates a linkage with the moon, but for a stone row as opposed to a stone circle (the prime example being the Scottish recumbent stone circles), it is not obvious where in relation to the stones any moon-related ceremonials might have taken place. Only in the case of the handful of short stone rows on the northern part of the Isle of Mull in western Scotland does there seem to be a clearer answer to this question. These rows are all situated so that a prominent distant mountain is on the very limit of visibility—in other words, it is not clearly visible unless ones moves to one side of the row. This side, then, must be where any moon-related observances would have taken place. But this in itself doesn't help to explain why the rows should, in the first place, be so carefully located on the very limit of visibility.

In recent years, many archaeologists have started to question the assumption that, once farming spread to islands such as Britain and Ireland, marking the beginning of the Neolithic period, people settled into permanent villages, tending their crops and animals. Many peoples may have remained essentially mobile, with animal herders or perhaps whole communities following seasonal paths around the landscape. On an island such as Mull, where soils are poor and the agricultural potential is low, it is possible that few people lived there, even in the Bronze Age, and that they were essentially mobile. Could monuments such as the stone rows, then, mark places that were only visited occasionally? Or could they mark boundaries, social or symbolic? Such ideas do not imply that lunar alignments were not an integral part of these monuments but may suggest different ways in which they could be interpreted.

See also:

Thom, Alexander (1894-1985).

Ballochroy; Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland; Recumbent Stone Circles; Stone Circles.

References and further reading

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

Ruggles, Clive. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 102-124. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

0 0

Post a comment