HOW YOU CAN HELP
Calendar petroglyphs on kerbstone SW22 at Knowth © 1999 Anthony Murphy
WHAT'S THE STORY?|
The ecophilosopher Thomas Berry famously said "Humankind is in trouble right now because we don't have a good Story." We could say the same about the ancient Irish megalithic monuments. Their astronomical, spiritual and artistic dimensions continue to be neglected and sometimes inadvertently vandalised by the authorities responsible for their conservation because we in Ireland haven't got our story right. The original design and purpose of these works of art, tenuously transmitted in myth and folklore from the indigenous people who built them five or six thousand years ago, have generally been forgotten. Such cultural amnesia is, of course, not unique to Ireland: few "civilised" people know anything at all about the culture of their ancestors who walked this Earth during the 130 millennia or so of Homo sapiens sapiens' pre-history.
The received academic account of our megalithic heritage all but systematically ignores its astronomical dimension (1). This version of the Story is still taken as gospel truth by some on the Irish archaeological scene, despite many references to the subject in our mythology and folklore, the growing number of possible astronomical designs which are being discovered among the thousands of Neolithic sites in Ireland, and the various books documenting the latter which have been published in the past two decades (2).
Consider, for example, the great complex of Neolithic artworks at the Boyne Valley UNESCO World Heritage site, named after the ancient River-Goddess Bóann. This was constructed, according to Irish mythology, by the Pre-Indo-European Tuatha Dé Danaan (People of the Goddess Danu), and is archaeologically dated from 4,100 BCE to 2,900 BCE. The complex features over 70 monuments including the three large chambered passage mounds at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, dozens of smaller satellite passage mounds, unchambered cairns, tumuli, henges and standing stones, as well as the largest collection of petroglyphic art in Europe. Although the Irish archaeological establishment and the government's official literature do acknowledge the penetration of the sunbeam into the passage at Newgrange for 17 minutes during the Winter Solstice sunrise, they present this as if it were an unique stroke of genius in an otherwise non-astronomical culture. This seems odd, since the whole architecture, artistic design and topographical layout of this entire complex appears to be riddled with astronomical features such as the 40 or more known and/or suspected alignments shown on our Boyne Valley Map.
Other megalithic complexes exist at Loughcrew (approximately 30 passage mounds and cairns), Carrowmore (with 30 passage mounds still there and about 30 others destroyed since 1800), Carrowkeel, Knocknarea and Tara, as well as numerous court cairns and stone circles around the country.
Broadly speaking, the astronomical features of Irish megalithic sites would seem to include:
As the Irish Times Science Editor Dick Ahlstrom put it, "The Newgrange passage grave is of great astronomical significance because of its solar alignment." Yet despite the abundant evidence of astronomical design much of which has been published in books and on the World Wide Web the official Boyne Valley web site and related tourist literature still describe the entire complex as a "stone-age burial ground". Most of the recent books by Irish archaeologists also tend to ignore or downplay the celestial alignments of megalithic artworks (4). Archaeologists have the right to believe whatever they like, but any "reconstruction" of these extremely ancient works of art that physically damages and interferes with their astronomical design is surely vandalism, even thought it may be unintended and due to ignorance.
The most outrageous case of archaeological iconoclasm to date was perpetrated in 2000 at the 5,500 year old great cairn at Knowth (within the UNESCO World Heritage site in the Boyne Valley). Thought to be even older than Newgrange and described in mythology as sacred to the Goddess Bóann, this is Europe's most richly decorated and one of the largest chambered passage mounds surviving from Neolithic times. The Guardian newspaper describes it as being of "immense historical significance."
Like all megalithic sites in Ireland, the responsibility for the protection of Knowth has been entrusted to the National Monuments and Historic Properties Division of Dúchas / The Heritage Service, a department of the Ministry for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. The excavation and renovation work was funded by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), and carried out under the direction of Professor George Eogan.
Extraordinary as it may seem, these experts decided to permanently block the entrance to the 36-meter Eastern passage of the cairn with a slab of reinforced concrete! Not only does this sabotage the architectural, artistic and astronomical integrity of the monument, but it also precludes any further observation and research on the illumination of the passage by the sunbeam which would otherwise enter it at dawn around the Spring Equinox. It's an apt metaphor, like a symbolic chastity belt attached to the Goddess Bóann by some jealous lover to prevent the sun from entering her mound.
This effective embargo on further astronomical research is of particular concern to archaeologists, astronomers, anthropologists, art historians, and scholars from a number of different fields. Recent independent studies of the petroglyphs and kerbstone counts at Knowth suggest that this building may have been designed so as to enable early Irish astronomers to synchronise the Metonic and synodic cycles of the moon with the solar year, thereby possibly creating one of the world's earliest 365-day calendars in the fourth millennium BCE which raises fascinating questions about the origins of the scientific method. This extraordinary possibility surely merits rigorous scientific investigation, but it is seriously hampered by the outright dismissal of any astronomical considerations in the design of Knowth and the consequent blocking of its Eastern passage.
The official explanation which Dúchas gave for this disastrous "restoration" job at the main passage-mound at Knowth was their concern to restore a souterrain located within the cairn. But this important cubby-hole turns out to be a small and rather insignificant 5th century storage space, which was added to the mound by some squatters during the early Christian era, 4,000 years after the monument was built! Despite the fact that such souterrains are of little inherent interest and are common throughout Ireland, and that this particular one is in effect the result of prior vandalism upon a site that was then already older than the pyramids of Egypt are today, its restoration was considered important enough to destroy Europe's largest surviving Neolithic chambered passage mound, by installing a massive concrete slab which permanently blocks its Eastern entrance, thus damaging its astronomical function and making future observation and research of the illumination of the Eastern passage impossible. In addition, an important gnomon (standing stone sundial) in front of the Eastern entrance on the East side of the cairn has not yet been replaced in its original socket; if this is not done when Dúchas re-opens the site to the public, it will make it impossible to evaluate a key astronomical function of the site (since its counterparts in front of the Western passage of Knowth and the passage at Newgrange cast a shadow on the vertical marker of the petroglyphs on the respective entrance stones of those passages, announcing and confirming their astronomical alignments). But that is not all: there is no doubt that the rest of the "reconstruction" work was extremely and unnecessarily invasive. The archaeologists have inserted a visitor's centre inside the mound itself, and installed a steel footbridge which abuts the mound where the Eastern entrance should be, producing a jarring effect like a plastic handle attached to an antique wooden bowl (see photos). And instead of controlling the drainage within the cairn by restoring the ingenious original design of alternating layers of natural organic and inorganic building materials (sods of turf, brown clay, shale and pebbles) which kept the passage and chamber of Newgrange bone dry for five millennia, they used a combination of concrete, styrofoam and putty which are hardly appropriate for one of Europe's oldest sacred buildings, and which (perhaps due to inadequate testing) are alleged to result in Europe's largest collection of Neolithic petroglyphic art now being frequently soaked by rainwater.
Unfortunately, the Knowth fiasco is not an isolated case. The restoration of Newgrange itself, although very impressive with the reconstruction of its white quartz façade, involved a major alteration of the architecture of the entrance to the building, in order to maximise the number of tourist dollars from the hundreds of visitors who enter the passage every day. The major megalithic complex at Carrowmore in Co. Sligo is also subject to vandalism by Dúchas, which started "reconstruction" work in late 2000 to increase its revenue potential. This complex, which features 60 passage mounds (the largest concentration of such monuments in the world) has been radio-carbon dated by Professor Goran Burenhult of Stockholm University to 5,400 BCE, placing it two millennia earlier than the Boyne Valley complex, well into the Mesolithic era. According to an article published in the Irish Times on 15 February 2000:
Like Newgrange, the central passage-mound at Carrowmore, known as Listoghil, is oriented towards the Winter Solstice sunrise. But according to Dr. Bergh, the "restoration" has led to the cairn being sunk into a pit which now blocks the sun from entering its chamber on this date. It seems that standard practice, for Dúchas, is to drastically alter the appearance of megalithic monuments and ignore their astronomical dimension at their whim.
THE LOSS OF THE ASTRONOMICAL TRADITION
The origins of the "nothing-to-do-with-astronomy" version of our story go back to the 5th century CE, when St. Patrick and other Christian missionaries first arrived in Ireland. Although the original builders of the megaliths had by then long since disappeared into the mists of time, the Celtic people who now lived on the island had incorporated much of the ancient Tuatha Dé Danaan gods, mythology and astronomical knowledge into their own Druidic spiritual traditions, and considered the ancient monuments as their paramount sacred sites . Fifth century Irish Christian manuscripts include various accounts of Patrick's efforts to convert the Irish Kings, baptise the Druid shaman-priests, demonise their astronomical and spiritual traditions, and discourage further use of the megalithic sites. Although some of the spiritual traditions and major calendrical festivals of the Druids (including Samhain which became All Soul's Day or Hallow'een), were incorporated into Christian monastic traditions and church ritual (6), most of the ancient astronomical knowledge inherited from the People of the Goddess went into sharp decline and effectively petered out during the Middle Ages, especially after the Pope reclaimed authority over the wayward ways of the Celtic Church. The Norman and Saxon invasions of Ireland which took place from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries further repressed the Celtic culture through theft of land, plunder of property, large-scale deforestation, exorbitant rents, forced emigration of the old aristocracy, and suppression of the ancient Brehon laws, educational system, music, and the language itself. By the eighteenth century, Anglo-Irish antiquarian researchers were describing the megalithic artworks as "rude stone monuments" left behind by Viking marauders. Subsequent leading experts of the day went on to label them as early Christian settlements, Iron-age Celtic forts, and Bronze-age sepulchres.
In the 20th century, the archaeological investigation of Irish megalithic sites mostly took place within the confines of a narrow-minded academic paradigm which downplays astronomical considerations and only reluctantly admits the alignment of Newgrange as an exception which proves the rule. For example, when the archaeologist Michael J. O'Kelly removed the debris from the roofbox at Newgrange in 1969, and reported his discovery that the sunbeam penetrated the full length of the passage to the central chamber of the mound, other archaeologists first accused him of being a liar, and then of fraudulently re-orienting the stones to let in the light! This version of the story is exemplified in a remark made by Professor T. P. Ray (from the Department of Cosmic Physics at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies) after he "tested" the alignments at Knowth in 1997:
Although technically correct as a broad generalisation, this statement is is grossly misleading in the context of Irish megalithic monuments in general, and of Knowth in particular, because of (1) the fact that the alignments in question are not to any random day of the year but quite specifically to astronomically significant dates such as the Solstices and Equinoxes, (2) the internationally recognised astronomical alignment of the very similar passage mound at nearby Newgrange to the Winter Solstice, and (3) the numerous astronomical references in Irish mythology, folklore, and literature. Additional considerations in support of the astronomical design hypothesis include (4) Martin Brennan's documentation in 1980 of the sunbeam penetrating the Western passage of Knowth at sunset around the Autumn Equinox, (5) Anthony Murphy's photograph of the latter over the Autumn Equinox in 2000, (6) Brennan's discovery that Cairn T at Loughcrew is (like Knowth East) aligned to the sunrise at the Spring Equinox, (7) the apparent astronomical alignment of many other megalithic monuments from the Neolithic period in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Brittany, Holland, Greece, etc., and (8) the 40 known or suspected alignments identified on our map of the Boyne Valley area.
When viewed separately in a reductionistic type of scientific paradigm, these confirmed and/or suspected astronomical features may seem like nothing more than a set of isolated co-incidences. But when viewed from a whole systems perspective, the obvious pattern which emerges suggests that astronomical alignments are part of the basic design of many megalithic monuments in Ireland. Rather than denying this possibility from the start, we should acknowledge and investigate it with all the disciplines and tools available to modern science.
The earliest Irish myths and placename folklore, put into writing by Christian monks in the 5th century, contain no mention that the monuments are tombs, and often allude to their astronomical aspects. (Some of these texts are still in their original untranslated Old Irish and Middle Irish language versions, and seem a ripe area for mythological research on celestial alignments) We can trace this thread of the original story through the vast body of Irish folklore with its countless tales of the fairy folk who inhabit the ancient sites, and see it woven through the work of mythologists, writers, poets, mystics, astronomers and archaeologists often outside the bounds of Academe who made significant discoveries along the way. In recent centuries it shows up in reports by the military surveyor General Charles Vallancey published from 1782 to 1806, in poetry by A.E. (George Russell) in 1897, in anthropology by W.Y Evans-Wentz in 1909, in astronomy by Sir Norman Lockyer who confirmed the Winter Solstice sunrise alignment at Newgrange in 1909, in books by Alexander Thom and John Woods, by the archaeologist Michael J. O'Kelly in 1969 and 1982, by John Patrick in 1974, by John Michell (who coined the term "astro-archaeology") in 1989, by Tim O'Brien in 1992, and by the art historian Michael Dames in 1996. The most eloquent account was made by the artist Martin Brennan (assisted by the artist and amateur astronomer Jack Roberts), in his book The Stars and the Stones: Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland (Thames and Hudson, London, 1983).
THE ARCHAIC REVIVAL
Since then, a surge of popular interest in the megalithic sites has led hundreds of people to keep an eye out for their astronomical alignments. Thousands have trekked through bog and mire, over streams and up steep hillsides to visit the cairns and stone circles on remote mountain tops, often camping out overnight in order to observe a Solstice sunrise alignment or witness an Equinoctial light beam illuminating a solar petroglyph. Millions watched the sunbeam entering Newgrange on live TV around the Winter Solstice as part of Ireland's year 2000 millennium celebrations, and almost everyone in Ireland is now aware that many of our megalithic sites are astronomically oriented.
The archaic revival of interest in the indigenous cultures of the remote past is now a world-wide phenomenon. In Ireland, the related renaissance of effort to integrate astronomy with the theory and practice of megalithic archaeology took root in the Back-to-Nature movement of the 1960's and 70's, and has since been focalised through individual initiatives undertaken separately by a small but diverse group of people. Notable among these are the County Sligo-based megalithic tour guide Martin Byrne who runs the Sacred Island website; the journalist Anthony Murphy who maintains the Mythical Ireland website; Gillies McBain who has been researching the kerb counts at Knowth and Newgrange and publishes "The Pulse" newsletter from his base at Cranagh Castle; the American amateur astronomers Charlie Scribner and Josephine Coffey (whose paper Some Moon Rhythms makes a convincing case for the astronomical sophistication of Knowth); the American author Hank Harrison who worked with Martin Brennan on his research in the 1980s; and the Dutch Internet network designer and archaeocosmologist Victor Reijs who maintains a website called There is More Between Heaven and Earth which contains detailed information about the astronomical alignments of megalithic sites in Ireland, Scotland, Greece and Holland. The latter is also pioneering the use of tiny video cameras installed within the passage of the cairn at Maes Howe in Scotland to monitor its illumination by sunbeams during astronomically critical periods. Also to be noted is the Irish entrepreneur and impresario Gordon Campbell who led 200 people to plant the first of 7,000 oak trees at the Hill of Uisneach, the mythological centre of ancient Ireland and dwelling-place of the Mother Goddess Eriú, following a celebration at Halloween 2000. This action (which is now being completed by the Irish forests organisation Crann), was inspired by the German artist and Green Party co-founder Joseph Beuys, who predicted that "Ireland will become the most important country in the world in the year 2000!"
In July 2000, Victor Reijs wrote a letter to Dúchas with a proposal to modify the concrete slab at Knowth by adding a window which would allow the sunlight to penetrate the Eastern passage around the Equinoxes. Dúchas replied that they forwarded his letter to the architect in charge, but there has been no follow-up to date. In October Victor then set up the Irish-Stones email list which rapidly became a focal point for animated international discussions on the crisis in Irish archaeology. Within weeks, a consensus clearly emerged that the time has come to end the vandalism, and start integrating astronomy into the theory and practice of archaeology in Ireland. Letters and articles were first drafted and circulated amongst members of the group, before Martin Byrne wrote to the Irish Times, Gillies McBain wrote to UNESCO, and the journalist Paul Colgan published an article about the Knowth disaster ("Row as Irish experts block ancient tomb") in the Irish edition of the (London) Sunday Times.
I became involved soon afterwards when I invited members of the Irish-Stones group to collaborate in drafting the text for the Astroarchaeology in Ireland section of my Global Vision website. (That website is at www.global-vision.org, but all of its Astroarchaeology in Ireland pages may also be found in the context section of this website.) I designed this section in response to the crisis at Knowth, to provide an explanatory context for the Ancient Irish Monuments Appeal, an open letter to the Government of the Republic of Ireland requesting it to take a more serious approach to managing our megalithic heritage. We timed its publication to co-incide with the Sunday Times article on the 22nd of October 2000. By the end of January 2001, over 568 people in 22 countries had signed our Appeal, and our campaign had global support. In a Dúchas (Irish parliament) debate on March 2, 2001, John Perry, a TD (member of parliament) for Co. Sligo and Leitrim, criticised Dúchas for evading the proper application of the Irish National Monuments Acts in their restoration work at Carrowmore (8).
The Ancient Irish Monuments Appeal features a list of recommendations for action to be taken by the Irish Government, including their support for the setting up of a world-class International Institute of Astroarchaeology. Although I initially offered this a suggestion for the government to implement, the feedback I have been getting suggests that such an Institute would be more effective if was constituted as an independent body.
I have since devoted part of Global Vision's resources to explore this possibility. I registered the web domain name astroarchaeology.org , created this website as a catalyst to concentrate our thinking and develop our plan of action, and organised a meeting and dinner in Dublin on 4 February 2001 (co-incidentally this is the cross-quarter day of Imbolc) where Martin Byrne, Gordon Campbell, Winkie and Caroline Corballis, Toby Hall (who worked with Martin Brennan), Kevin Hayes of the Earth Wisdom Foundation, Mark Reynolds, the psychologist Thomas Moore, Victor Reijs, and half a dozen other people came together to see how we might move the project forward.
THE INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ASTROARCHAEOLOGY
We have now decided to go ahead and set up the Institute. As outlined in the Statement of Purpose its goals are: (1) to research and promote the knowledge and understanding of the astronomical, anthropological and artistic aspects of megalithic sites, by means of a whole systems transdisciplinary approach that can more effectively conserve and transmit this knowledge and the monuments themselves for the benefit of present and future generations; (2) to use the Irish megalithic sites as its primary research base; (3) to help integrate the astronomical, anthropological and artistic considerations into the management policy, investigation, excavation, interpretation, restoration and conservation of megalithic sites in Ireland; (4) to collaborate and provide consulting services and technological expertise to universities and other organisations engaged in the research, restoration and conservation of astronomically designed archaeological sites around the world; (5) to engage in educational activities including conferences, seminars, workshops, lectures and faculty training; to disseminate the results of its findings through publications, the world-wide web, and the mass media; (6) to become a world leader in the field of astroarchaeology. The Institute's first proposed research programmes are (a) astronomical alignments, (b) astronomical references in Irish mythology, (c) kerb counting, (d) geographical alignments and geomancy, and (e) acoustic properties of megalithic monuments.
GLOBAL VISION'S ROLE TO INCUBATE THE INSTITUTE
Global Vision Corporation is a non-profit educational organisation which I founded in 1982 (9). As an international Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) accredited to the United Nations, one of its functions is to encourage governments, corporations and citizens to implement solutions to global problems before it is too late. Over the past 19 years, most of our work has focused on positioning the concept of sustainability as a global goal. So why are we concerned with megalithic sites in Ireland?
First off, sustainability means using the Earth's resources to meet the needs of the present generation, without violating the right of future generations to meet their own needs. As Clive Ponting has shown in his excellent book "A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilisations", apart from the gradual extinction of a few species of megafauna such as the woolly mammoth and the sabre-toothed tiger, most pre-urban Indigenous Peoples lived in a harmonious relationship with Nature; they had to, because if their consumption of resources overstepped the carrying capacity of their local ecosystem, they would eventually be forced to move on or face extinction. Yes, the Neolithic farmers who built the Irish megalithic monuments did clear some forest for cultivation, but this was probably quite limited, since maps of Ireland as late as 1611 describe the island as being mostly forested. Although Indigenous Peoples generally lived in a sustainable relationship with nature throughout pre-history, since the development of the first urban centres, civilisations have always prospered by depleting the available resources in the local ecosystem, and then having to solve this problem by expanding their territory, from towns to city states, kingdoms, empires, and colonies, all the way to our transnational global corporate system which now enfolds the whole Earth.
We are thus the first generation in urban history to face the planetary limits of our unsustainable way of living. Although we now have the resources, technology and knowledge to develop a form of civilisation that can be ecologically sustainable at the global level, the needed solutions are not being implemented. Most governments, corporations and citizens still behave as if sustainability were some kind of sacrifice we can't afford, utterly failing to comprehend the magnitude of social, environmental and economic benefits which it can bring for all of Humankind. This is hardly surprising, because for the 50% of people who now live in cities, sustainability has never been part of their mythology, their history, or their experience. Sustainability doesn't make sense, unless one can step outside the thin layer of historical memory and see the current global crisis in its deeper evolutionary context of biological and cosmic time. Not only have the megalithic artworks built by the People of the Goddess Danu outlasted the rise and fall of all the world's great urban civilisations, they also seem intrinsically designed as sacred sites which can evoke the long-term view.
The Global Vision project was conceived during a midsummer night's astroarchaeological field trip to a 5,000 year-old cairn, on the summit of Tibradden overlooking Dublin Bay, in 1972. This ritual observation of a summer solstice sunrise was a life-changing experience for me. I am sure the indigenous people who built these artworks never intended them to be perceived through a reductionist analysis, or have their passages blocked up by slabs of concrete. These monuments are contexts of information that focus the viewer's attention on a particular aspect of our connection to the surrounding cosmos. The geometrical position of the stones subtly situates the human observer in relation to the movement of the stars and the passage of time. I think each one of them was designed as the locus for a transpersonal experience of the sacred. The experience depends on you. For me, it pointed to the sun as the source of everything that lives on Earth. In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce wrote "History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake!" Such realisations are good medicine that can help us see our current global crisis in the larger context of cosmic time, and awaken our personal responsibility for the Earth on which our survival depends.
This is where our story catches up with the present now. The architectural, artistic and astronomical integrity of many of our megalithic sacred sites continues to be sacrificed on the altar of the almighty tourist dollar. Despite the growing evidence of astronomical design, powerful figures within the Irish archaeological establishment would have us continue to believe that these artworks are merely tombs, and that they therefore have no living function any more. This will not stand up to professional scrutiny. Our megalithic heritage is a global treasure that speaks eloquently from the distant past. So please support the Institute's endeavour to research and protect the astronomical design of these monuments, in solidarity with our remote ancestors and future generations
The URL of this page is: www.astroarchaeology.org/story.html
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