10. Discussion

10.1 Difficulties

The alignment at Listoghil does not, as we have seen, accord with modern astronomical cross-quarter days. However, a closer look at sites like Newgrange and Maeshowe show 'solstice orientations' occurring over days and weeks. The contention that the chambers and passages of Newgrange and Maeshowe and others are built to receive the sunlight surely implies their use for this purpose occurring over a reasonable time period, even if later they are completely enclosed by a covering cairn, or if the passage is walled off. This is a basic difficulty; if the Listoghil chamber was built and immediately light-sealed, the play of the sun in the chamber may never have been witnessed. I have argued for the possibility of a pre-cairn interval at Listoghil, or that a passage may have existed. Repeat deposition at Tara and other passage tombs, including the Carrowmore satellites, might support this idea of re-use and re-visitation, notwithstanding the narrow spread of Neolithic dates from the area of the burial chamber. However, the coherence of the Neolithic AMS dates from Listoghil (Burenhult 1998b, 17) and the apparently small number of burials in the chamber may indicate only one funerary event there, or at least a relatively short period of deposition; again the degree of uncertainty in our dating methods cannot resolve the difference between, say, a four-year deposition period and a forty-year one.

While acknowledging a number of important elements of uncertainty in this regard, I balance this by returning to certain crucial pointers that tend to support the use of the Listoghil site for observation and for deliberate alignment.

  1. The coincidence between the alignment and light phenomenon recorded at the monument, important seasonal cusps, and notable landscape markers
  2. The likelihood that the Listoghil chamber was a free-standing dolmen prior to being cairned with stones
  3. The possibility, evidenced by anomalous dates in the chamber, and being called locally The Cave, that it once contained a passage, which, even if sealed, could have been re-opened at various stages
  4. The observed dates of the alignment/event, which coincide with recorded Gaelic traditions of kingship, death and renewal, and parallel events, independently arising, in agricultural societies at similar latitudes
  5. The coincidence in alignment and effect with one of the most famous sites associated with Samhain, also a passage tomb, which saw repeated if sporadic re-use from Neolithic to modern times; the Mound of the Hostages, Tara
  6. The hitherto unexplained focus on the site of Listoghil by monuments surrounding it in both the immediate and a regional context, combined with a small amount of evidence of pre-monument activity at Listoghil

Perhaps it is a mistake to make viability of later internal observation a prerequisite for intentional orientation on a seasonal transit. This excludes the possibility that alignments were arranged exclusively for the benefit of spirits, or for the dead, and that the sealing of the sun 'inside' cairns, like the placement of hidden art, was intentional. In ways reminiscent of the cosmology that informed the siting and orientation of, for example, Chinese monumental mortuary architecture (Eckfield 2011; Nan and Shi 1996), the form and contents of this early Irish passage tomb may have been intended to meet the posthumous needs of their occupants, which might include not only material things, such as weapons and food, but also their continuing engagement in matters heavenly. Alternatively, auspicious directionality may simply have been an end in itself. Such motivations would satisfactorily explain closure after only a brief interval of observation and monument building.

It should also be noted that the saddle foresight means the horizon event at Listoghil can still be witnessed from the site of a covered mound. Indeed, it can be argued that the duality identified in the Listoghil event reflects something of the belief system of the designers of passage tombs, which inspired them to design not one, but two distinct processes marking seasonal cusps. One such process may be intended to occur inside the monument, in terms of light/shadow play in the chamber, which may subsequently be sealed. This measure, as we have pointed out, renders the chamber event invisible to living people, it becomes a 'sundial in the dark'. In this way the act of sealing separates the events, which were previously joined by alignment and architecture. Inside the mound, the hidden sun may be envisaged to seasonally illuminate the world of the deceased occupants forever, but outside the monument, with the help of foresights, either natural or artificial, these events or celebrations can continue to be shared by the community in the world of the living. This notion of alignments as interventions in the spirit world is an area, I propose, for future research, and represents another possible way of looking at the data we have already accumulated regarding the orientation and design of Neolithic architecture.

Another possibility is that Listoghil is one of perhaps a set of sites directed 'sympathetically' in the eyes of adherents to new cosmologies in later eras, which may have been commandeered in the service of new owners. The re-alignment of C26 may be cited in support of this contention.

10.1.1 Another spoke

The wheel-like layout of the Carrowmore complex, with many satellite 'spokes' directed into the centre, holds potential for confusion and for chance orientation. Approaching from any random direction, a strong likelihood arises that one or more spokes will point towards the observer. This pattern tends to weaken the case for the placement of two or more monuments along a particular axis. But the apparent later siting of Listoghil at centre stage, with its face directed beyond the cosy 'home cluster' towards a distant horizon, still demands explanation.

Listoghil is an enigmatic monument. Whether it ever had a passage in prehistory, it has a passage now, like it or not. Listoghil lacks a cruciform chamber or corbelling. That the passage may never have existed in antiquity, and that its current scale and direction is the creation of modern-day architects and archaeologists, it must be acknowledged, adds a further layer of uncertainty (and this is why measurement and observation has concentrated on the chamber, a feature that remains substantially unaltered).

10.2 Approximate Seasonal Cusps

An intentional Newgrange alignment, one may suppose, could only arise from an earlier tradition of sky-watching. Many features of later passage tomb sites are present in Carrowmore; a cruciform chamber at C27, a similar artefact assemblage, a small amount of art, for example; it would not seem an inappropriate starting point in a search for signs of embryonic Neolithic astronomy. The progress of the sun across the Ballygawley Mountains (and perhaps across Knocknarea), and the progress of the shadow across the roof of the chamber is suggestive to me of a process, an extended ritual of observation. The modern definition of precise cross-quarter days is a mathematical and astronomical one. What may be being observed at prehistoric sites such as Listoghil and the Mound of the Hostages is the marking of approximate seasonal cusps as celebrated across temperate climes in many different settings.

The parallel development of seasonal festivals at great removes from each other in place and time is an encouraging sign, but here lies a quandary. The climate of the earth, and even more so the movement of heavenly bodies, are knowable and reconstructable. They lie within the scope of empirical calculation and scientific description. On the other hand, some commentators on ethnography emphasise the unpredictablity and individuality of human religious belief and practice (Geertz 1983). While it is suspected that the promptings of season and light may well have stirred a response in the inhabitants of Cúil Irra 300 or more generations ago, a great vacuum of uncertainty (and evidential support) encases this proposition. It is possible that Neolithic groups may have observed these transitional days, taking their cues from the behaviour of the animal and plant world, from climatic cues or even from sky watching. But these practices may not always have been constant or consistent: prehistoric 'Halloween', if it ever was marked, may have been forgotten and taken up again, perhaps many times, for example.

Although I argue that the observance of feasts in Early Neolithic and Iron Age Ireland may have arisen independently, we may be informed also by consideration of a different kind of memory; the durability of traditions associated with seasonal changes. Perhaps nudges from climate and seasonality were among the elements that enabled Irish traditions of assemblies, patrúns and pilgrimages tied to cross-quarter days (often at hilltop and, in particular, passage tomb sites, such as Sliabh na mBan in County Tipperary, or Carrowkeel in County Sligo) to survive Christianisation, and may serve to partially explain how even in an industrial and urban age, we still continue to observe these festivals.

10.3 Another kind of memory

I have argued that in grappling with the intentions of tomb builders we should be open to the phenomenology of place and the folklore and legend associated with monuments. It is possible to enter these realms without abandoning our critical faculties. The narrative of the cailleach, of Queen Meadhbh, of Brigid, of Lugh, the Shee etc. can provide a thread, a cultural context at least in the relatively recent past. These folkloric and mythic sources, as Holtorf has pointed out, can not be looked upon as independent sources or 'miraculous survivals' of pre-Enlightenment traditions (1999, 31). Folklore is another kind of reconstruction, albeit a mental one; a re-use, comparable to Bronze or Iron Age intrusions into Neolithic mounds. Holtorf suggests the deployment of folklore by archaeologists as a kind of ethnographic parallel for prehistoric thought (1999, 33).

This leads us to an important point about memory. The monuments and the mythologies that they embody have not waited passively in the past for archaeology to extend its reach to them. The physical durability of the stone-built architecture has meant that these sites have retained over time the power to remind, to fascinate and to generate new narratives. Like Jones' artefacts (2004), the hill cairns and dolmens have been active agents, working inside human heads.

If the monument is tied to key moments in the earth calendar, the durability of any legends attached to it must be enhanced. Shapes, songs and stories were probably among the means of storing ancient knowledge in the past. The well-rehearsed difficulty in disentangling modern and ancient threads within stories told today does not, in my opinion, devalue their usefulness.

10.4 Possibilities

There are a number of possibilities regarding the intentionality of the alignment of the Listoghil chamber.

10.5 More to do

Work remains to be done. Future scientific study might involve geology, including testing of the Carrowmore gneiss to establish its point of origin. The bones now curated in the National Museum of Ireland may still hold important data; in particular through isotope analysis from human teeth taken from the chamber of C51. Information regarding how and where the Listoghil dead lived their lives would enrich the context in which the astronomical possibilities there are developed. A worthwhile study could be devoted to the evidence of later re-use and re-visitation at Carrowmore, in particular in the Beaker, Bronze Age, Iron Age and medieval eras. In cultural terms, work such as that of Urton (2007), to investigate numerological relationships as possible tools for marking and storing calendrical information needs to be pursued, particularly in an Irish Neolithic context.

LiDAR mapping of the Carrowmore complex, paying particular attention to the level area to the east-southeast of Listoghil is likely to prove instructive. Further investigation of the Listoghil platform, remotely by geophysics, magnetometry or perhaps by test trenching, may yield useful data. Thermoluminescence techniques applied under undisturbed sections of the platform, kerb and unexcavated areas of the cairn may reveal more detail about the chronology of the original construction process. Further calibration and observation of the Listoghil horizon at the seasonal cusps is warranted. Further studies in archaeoastronomy at Listoghil might fruitfully focus on the occurrence of lunar or solar eclipses in prehistory, and on potential alignments therein. Away from Listoghil, perhaps new methodology may be developed to detect the orientation of passages in unopened 'focal' passage tombs such as Heapstown Cairn and Miosgán Meadbha.

In statistical/empirical terms, a gentle recalibration of targets may be advisable. It may be helpful to develop subsets of monuments, perhaps into such categories as suggested by Sheridan (1985) or Hensey (2010). A study in which more weight is given to the directionality of a focal monument in a complex than to those of its satellites would be useful. Not all passage tombs are astronomically orientated (Prendergast 2006), so in seeking seasonal cusp markers, only a small number of tombs are likely to qualify. The apparent alignment at Tara, in particular, needs more detailed attention than has been afforded here.

10.6 Our own responses

While admitting the difficulty in translating the way we 'see' the interaction of a Neolithic chamber, the sun and the horizon as they were five and a half thousand years ago, we can still look to our own senses and intuition. The play of the morning sun behind the Ballygawley Mountains and in the chamber of Listoghil has to be experienced; neither description, reconstruction, measurement nor calculation approaches the sense that attending the event in a landscape transformed by the first frosts of winter, or again at the time of the lengthening of the days, engenders. Some observers found the experience impressive and provocative, others, including the present author, experienced strong emotions. Even the roots of our own responses may sometimes prove elusive; was it the drama of an early winter morning, focussed? The anticipation and release as the sky gradually intensified behind the distinctive profile of the Ballygawley Mountains, culminating in the appearance of the first golden sliver of sun, framed? Was it the startling effect of the sudden illumination of the darkest stone surface in the chamber, the shadowy ceiling? Or was it the impression of an experience shared first-hand, with the makers of monuments?

An observer located either inside (if open or visible via a passage) or positioned in front or on top of Listoghil in 3500 BC could have seen the sunrise 'arrive' at the saddle near Aughamore Far at the time of the going underground of growth and light. The first quarter of winter for this observer is accompanied by the journey of the sun south across the Ballygawley hills to Cailleach a Bhérra's House. Midwinter standstill will eventually culminate with the start of a slowly accelerating return journey, back across the Ballygawleys to the saddle. They may have imagined this as a traverse across the body of a goddess, the sun touching her head (Figure 21), her breasts, her belly and thighs. The return of the sun to the saddle would mark the time for the festival in symmetrical opposition to that of the going underground of light. The viewer could observe the sun getting 'free' of the Ballygawley hills, and the defeat of death and of winter. But how do we know this ever actually took place? We do not. Is the saddle alignment then, an invention or is it a discovery?

Figure 21

Figure 21: Sunrise over Cailleach a Bhérra's House, 3 December 2008

The specialists referred to in the discussion of changing ways and weather worked from/to a story set. The story was retold by a people who were never more than a bad harvest or two away from devastation. Landscape and seasonality are likely to have influenced that story. And the effect of sunrise at two seasonal turning points from this particular location is a discovery, not an invention. It happened and will probably continue to happen (with gradual changes) as long as the sun and the landscape survive. The question is not whether the alignment exists, but whether Listoghil intentionally marks it. How likely is it that aspects of the 'horizon life' of the site of Listoghil that modern witnesses find engaging, escaped ancient story-workers?

The data-driven approach of some academics and statisticians runs the risk of being reductionist to the degree that adherents are blinded to common sense, and common senses. On the other side, the unfettered romance of the Thomsians tends to inspire fantastic journeys. Another polarity extends between advocates of determinist/collectivist epistemologies and those who tend towards a more arbitrary, individualist reading of the evidence. In both cases the attempt to interrogate the goals of Neolithic builders may benefit from syntheses pursued along trajectories connecting these extremes.

In that spirit it may be asserted that awareness that the focal monuments at two of Ireland's major prehistoric centres, the Tara and Carrowmore complexes (Cairn L at Loughcrew is also worthy of study, based on reports by Brennan (1983, 110) and Shee Twohig (1996, 75-6) and critiqued by McMann (1991, 225-65)), share the same directionality, ought to give us pause for thought. It is not possible to be definitive in our conclusions and it may never be so, but the coincidence is one, I find, that is not easily dismissed or forgotten.


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