9. Seeking Patterns

9.1 Legitimate horizon targets

Clive Ruggles, one of the most respected and rigorous authorities on archaeoastronomy, is cautious regarding claims for Neolithic architectural orientations other than those towards the winter and summer solstices (1999), despite his occasional conciliatory tone (as in his discussion of the Altar wedge tomb; 1999, 159). In drawing up his list of significant horizon events he omits the cross-quarter days. Even when he notes such alignments, such as at the early Neolithic complex near Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire, he is cautious not to jump to conclusions.

The axis of symmetry, marked by posts at both ends, is oriented towards sunrise on about 1 May and 1 August, and one might speculate that these were times of the year which may have been significant in the contemporary calendar, although it is dangerous indeed to extrapolate from isolated instances of alignments upon sunrise close to mid-quarter days in order to suggest that there was a continuity of tradition extending first to Thom's megalithic calendar, then to the Celtic calendar more than three thousand years later (1999, 128).

Solstice events are accepted as 'targets that might have been indicated with precision' in terms of possible ritual or practical significance by Ruggles on the basis of there being (a) a visual phenomenon to observe i.e. sunrise position at standstill and (b) because they receive recognition in a wide range of cultural contexts—the summer solstice, for example, is a time of first fruits and celebration (Ruggles 1999, 148).

It seems redundant to assert that modern astronomical terms and methods cannot sensibly be attributed to Neolithic architects or ritual practitioners. The solstice was felt and celebrated as the depth of winter, the turning point, before it was a phenomenon based on the sun standing still on the horizon, and certainly before any builder framed the sunrise. The act of construction flowed out of an earlier narrative. How may we filter out the smoke and sound emanating from the edifices of modern mathematics and language? Surely 'visual phenomena to observe' might equally be (a) a particular effect (perhaps unintentional) inside a chamber (of a monument or house); (b) the shadows cast by an alignment at some significant time, otherwise marked; or (c) the effect of sunrise at a distinctive landmark feature. Let us look more closely at Ruggles 'acceptable horizon targets' i.e. the solstices.

If we use the phenomenon of the sun appearing to stand still, as happens for nearly a fortnight at the solstices, as a hook on which to hang our case for Stone Age astronomer/builders, we need to consider how this phenomenon may have appeared to non-literate observers. Maeshowe, the passage tomb in west Orkney, has a number of apparent congruencies with Listoghil; a platform, which existed for an unknown time before the monument was built, the suggestion of an earlier monument, the apparent orientation on Ward Hill, and less nobly, the fact that the front section of the passage of this monument is yet another reconstruction (Richards 2005, 244). At Maeshowe the entry of the sun to the passage and chamber at the winter solstice sunset occurs over a period of 50 days or so (Thomas 2000, 549). It is not aligned to winter solstice sunset, but to the position of the sun approaching standstill. Nonetheless, Ruggles and Barclay would be inclined to accept '…the idea that the outer axis of Maeshowe was aligned to midwinter sunset to 'good' but not to 'calendrical' precision' (2000, 70).

Tom Ray calculates that at the time Newgrange was built, the sun would have entered the passage for up to 24 days either side of the winter solstice (Ray 1989). Even today, the effect of the sun shining through the roof-box and down the passage to the chamber floor operates for a week either side of the astronomical solstice. Only twelve days before and after the solstice does the difference approach a whole sun diameter (Ruggles 1999, 25). For Newgrange observers, was 11 December, or some date approximate to that, around the apparent stopping of the sun, the arrival at its destination (i.e. the start of the process of midwinter)? And, equally, what of the moment of departure? Was the moment when the sun no longer shone into the chamber another marker, perhaps equally as significant as the pin-point centre of the process? (Which, I grant, is accentuated by the effect of the restored 'light-box'.)

9.2 Seasonal oppositions: the first dramas?

On one day around 15,000 BC an unknown person carved a host of images on to the surface of a bone (sic)—a spawning salmon, a pair of seals, eels emerging from hibernation, flower buds, an invocation of spring (Mithen 2003, 112).

As discussed in Section 4, even a cursory look at astronomical calculations shows that the Listoghil/Tara 'event' does not accord precisely with a modern cross-quarter day. Technically, according to what is called the 'true sun' method, the first cross-quarter day in 2008 fell on February 2, and the autumn-winter one on November 8. At these times the sun rose at the foot of Aughamore Far, out of line with the chamber, which by then would be shadowed by the modern reconstruction. The line through Listoghil to the saddle does not fall precisely on the astronomical cross-quarter day today, nor was it so in 3550 BC.

But we have watched and marked the signs of seasonal change for a very long time. Marshack described the Magdalenian antler baton from Montgaudier, France, and lists several other Palaeolithic works of art with seasonally specific imagery, especially those of early spring (Marshack 1985, 139-40). Since the time of ancient Greece, of Hippocrates and Galen, parallels between seasonal changes and 'humours' in humans have been noted. Not only has it been observed that humans sharing the same climate tended to celebrate at the same times, but scholars have endeavoured to explain over-arching similarities in the rituals enacted at these seasonal cusps.

…certain rudimentary reactions to the rhythms of nature and the succession of the seasons characterize virtually all men everywhere and find expression in such similar terms that what appears in any one particular culture may often be elucidated by alignment with parallel phenomena elsewhere (Gaster 1961, 13)

In his thesis, Gaster places the rituals and myths associated with the theme of the seasonal pattern at the centre of the earliest and most universal dramas. A frequent concomitant of the seasonal ceremony is a feast of the dead, the spirits of departed ancestors re-joining their community at what Gaster calls moments of topocosmic crisis.

The idea of megalithic alignments on the four great 'Celtic' festivals is not novel. But its provenance lies along a route not for the faint-hearted. This is the territory of bold and maverick spirits such as MacKie (2009), Burl and even Thom (of the megalithic inch [1962]). Unfashionable names (in mainstream archaeology) like Lockyer (1906), Frazer and even Vallancey (1786, 444) have advocated 'Celtic' calendars. Can it be that mainstream archaeology has been too easily frightened away from these topics? It could be argued that culture historic and diffusionist explanations of, for example, common Indo-European threads in language were wrong answers in circumstances where it was no small achievement to get the questions right.

Similarly, the excesses of methodological collectivism and determinism from the last half of the 20th century ought not to blind us to the possibility of some common human threads of experience, enriched by the materialism and the individualism that processualists find so irritating. If you approach Listoghil (and similarly orientated monuments) from the position of the paradigm of seasonal transitions accorded the status of archetype; if we elevate the constant rhythm of the sun and moon, ever nudging humans and other life-forms to remind them of their place within this frame, then the choice of direction for the Listoghil chamber, and its orientation on the saddle seems less random and somehow less surprising.

9.3 The origin of cross-quarter days

The division of the year into four seasons originates from traditional divisions of time in temperate zones of the world; the conventions of the temperate climes that dominate the world calendar. The seasonal transitions are defined variously by meteorological or by astronomical criteria. In some definitions, the solstices mark the beginning point of summer and winter (Trenberth 1983). In others, the solstice is taken as the seasonal mid-point, and in this scheme, the summer months are May, June and July, the times of greatest solar radiation and longest days. By the same measure November, December and January represent solar winter. This reckoning places the seasonal boundaries approximately between the equinox and solstice. In this regard, the Gaelic and East Asian calendars coincide.

Because the curve of temperature and growth lags behind the curve of light, a phase lag of c. 27 days (Trenberth 1983), the seasons, reckoned meteorologically, are shifted forward by a month. Therefore, by modern international convention, meteorological seasons are defined as the three-month intervals centred on the typical occurrence of the warmest and coldest months of the year. Spring consists of the months of March to May. The warmest months of June to August constitute summer. Autumn is September to November and meteorological Winter occurs in the coldest months of December to February. In the calculations and surveys for this project, the solar calendar (called the 'farmer's calendar' in China), as opposed to the meteorological one, was used to establish the seasonal cusps. Although I was influenced in this regard by Gaelic, East Asian and other seasonal festival dates, the heliocentric emphases noted in Neolithic architecture and ethnographically in a variety of contexts (Aveni 2008; Tomlinson 2007) was a further stimulus. The review of festivals and feasts marking seasonal transitions that follows is more anecdotal than scientific.

Looking at evidence from China, it seems that the development of seasonal cusps such as cross-quarter days occurs in three phases. The first is as a seasonal transition, the exact date of which is movable, sometimes recorded in folklore by animal watching (e.g. animals coming out of hibernation, or seasonal visitors leaving at the end of summer): in that context it may be celebrated by a feast lasting perhaps five days or so. At this stage, it is more a process than a precise chronological moment. In the second phase calendars are being assembled, probably initially locally variable and imprecise calendars. The seasonal transition may be institutionalised in a variety of ways, animal watching, sky watching and counting (Aveni 2003; Cheng-Yih and Zezong 1993). This may include calculating devices such as counting days to the time of the full moon or perhaps by more particular arcane formulae related to counting and astronomy. The fixing of the Gaelic dates for their cross-quarter day festivals and of Easter by modern Christians follows a similar pattern.

Thirdly the seasonal celebration enters the realm of modern astronomy, relying on calculations derived from the actual movement of heavenly bodies. In the 17th century the 1645 Shãxiãn (Constant Conformity) calendar of the Qing dynasty was introduced in China. The true motion of the sun (its apparent astronomical position) was, from this point forward, used to calculate the monthly and seasonal intervals, rather than the division of time between the solstice and the equinox. The older method came to be called the mean sun method and the new one the true sun method. There can be variations of multiples of days between the two (Ross 2008). This might be said to be the origin point of the astronomical marking of the calendar.

The concept of 'true sun' leads to a new level of accuracy, down to minutes and seconds. But in the form of traditional and religious festivals in many and various parts of the world having temperate climates, cross-quarter days retain their original meaning: they mark the customary divisions of the seasons. For this reason I decided to avoid the term 'cross-quarter days' in the title of this article. It is the first standard, that of an approximate seasonal cusp which we ask our alignment to meet, or perhaps the point of transition from the first to the second. Cross-quarter days, when expressed not in a strict astronomical sense but as a seasonal hinge, have many seasonal festivals associated with them.

The four East Asian seasons, which parallel the western ones, are traditionally based on 24 periods known as solar terms, and begin at the midpoint of solstices and equinoxes, the cross-quarter days. This is known in China as 'the farmer's calendar', or 'the old calendar'; the Gregorian calendar is called 'the new calendar' (Ross 2008).

Lìchūn (end of winter), the first of the solar terms, is the East Asian equivalent to Imbolc. Lìdōng (pīnyīn) or Rittō (rōmaji) is the 'start of winter', equivalent to Samhain. Similar conventions are seen in a variety of cultures across the Northern hemisphere. The Latvian festivals equivalent to the Gaelic ones are Meteņi (Imbolc), Ūsiņi (Bealtaine), Māras (Lunasa) and Mārtiņi (Samhain). Diwali, in its many forms in India, is the festival of lights and spirits, also paralleling Samhain. In Babylonia in the 3rd millennium BC, the Sacred Mound festival at Nippur was celebrated after the seventeenth month, corresponding to our October (Aveni 2003, 128-29). The City of Ur held a festival to the deity Ninazu, roughly equivalent to Lunasa.

Roman Halloween took place on Lemuria, on three days called All Souls' Days. Aveni (2003, 130), quoting Ovid, says that at these times supplicants offered black beans to the 'shades' or spirits who haunted the night. Although not comprehensive, the foregoing examples from places remote from each other in time and place illustrate that the possibility exists that seasonal celebrations roughly corresponding to the astronomical cross-quarter days may arise independently, given similar longitudes and agricultural societies.

The noticeable marks of tangible change seen at such a critical juncture as, for example, the autumn-winter transition, would have been at least as important to a farming people as the stopping of the sun's progress along the horizon. Among a list of important changes that might have registered among communities living in Neolithic Ireland at the (approximate) time of Samhain are:

Samhain/winter-start was also a time to slaughter any cattle that pastoral communities could not afford to over-winter. Perhaps it was a time to assemble, and to build? If the harvest had been successful, stores were full. The weather was not yet too cold, or the days too short.

The possibility of independent development of feast days and calendrical markers at the times of seasonal transition furnishes us with a number of possible alternative models explaining the coincidence of alignments marking particular times at such important passage tomb sites as Listoghil, Carrowmore and the Mound of the Hostages, Tara. Seasonal cusps did not arise from a 'Celtic' calendar. But like the equivalent Chinese, Lithuanian and Babylonian festivals, the origin of the Gaelic feasts is the marking of seasonal cusps. An independent development model of seasonal festivals relieves us of the need for explanations involving diffusion, prodigiously long folk memory or time travel. This argument has a recursive quality. Perhaps, looking in the opposite direction, the alignment of certain chambers was the reason why the sites they occupied were chosen for re-visitation? Even if their directionality was originally a matter of chance or driven by some non-astronomical narrative, sites such as Listoghil and the Mound of the Hostages may have chosen themselves for later groups for whom these dates had attained significance.


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