The Sarobe: A Living Megalithic Tradition in Basque Spain

Swinside Circle

Swinside Large Stone Circle in Cumbria

The stone circles constructed by the peoples of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages are some of the most fascinating ancient monuments in Europe. Despite considerable work by archaeologists, it is still a mystery why they were built. One of the most popular theories, proposed by Alexander Thom, is that they were built as ancient astronomical observatories, marking out the rising and setting of the sun, moon and stars on particular days of the year. They thus also acted as monumental calendars. Thom’s theories were later revised by Aubrey Burl, who demolished some of the more far-fetched theories. Burl demonstrated that not all stone circles were aligned with the stars, and that the elaborate mathematical calculations to produce the type of calendars proposes by Thom were beyond the capability of the societies that built them. He also showed that some of the stars, which were presently aligned with some stone circles, had moved since the circles were first built due to precession of the equinoxes. They were not originally aligned with the circles when the ancient peoples first put them up. Burl did, however, also confirm that many of the circles were aligned with the sun and moon, particularly at the solstices.

Other research on stone circles and other, associated monuments and structures, has investigated them as sacred, ritual landscapes used for the great ceremonies performed by these ancient societies. They have been compared to cathedrals in Christian society. Mike Parker-Pearson, for example, has recently suggested that Stonehenge was constructed as part of a wider funerary landscape that included Durrington Walls, deliberately laid out as a series of ceremonial paths to mark the journey of the dead to their last resting peace and their transition from the living to the world of the ancestors.

The archaeologists investigating the astronomical functions of the stone circles looked for similar practices in other cultures around the world, particularly with the Maya of Mesoamerica. This has also been discredited due to the immense cultural differences between the historic Maya and the peoples of Neolithic Europe. Nevertheless, in the 1990s archaeologists found a possibly much closer parallel to these ancient monuments and their builders in the Basque sarobes. These are stone circles consisting of eight stones, used by nomadic shepherds in the far south of the Basque country. Clive Ruggles, in his chapter on ‘Astronomy in Ancient Europe’ in the book Astronomy Before the Telescope, describes them thus:

‘However, an analogy of great potential interest has emerged recently, from far south in the Basque country. Here there are many examples of what appear to be eight-stone rings. These sarobe were constructed by transhumant shepherding people in historic times, and in some cases they were still in use at the beginning of the twentieth century. This means that we have both first-hand accounts and extensive documentary evidence relating to their purpose and function. this evidence shows that the sarobe were actually perceived by the builders as stone octagons rather than stone rings. Legal records specify their design, construction and celestial orientation. Each site was laid out using standard units of length and aligned with the cardinal and inter-cardinal directions. Linked to the theme of cosmic order, it acted both a seat of government and a centre for religious rites. The sarobe functioned within a cosmological network of social practices and beliefs rather than merely at an instrumental level.

‘The sarobe are the material remnants of a system of the social organisation of space dating back to at least the early Middle Ages, and possibly much earlier. This system is also reflected in constructs and concepts in the Basque language. This language is pre-Indo-European, which provides evidence that Basque culture was not ruptured by the arrival of Indo-European speakers, so that a cultural continuity may be postulated right back to prehistoric times. In addition, it is interesting to note that the Basque standard unti of measurement relates to ancient units used to lay out traditional land holdings in France and possibly in many parts of the British Isles. These observations do not, of course, prove that cultural practice in the Basque Country in historic and modern times was in any way related to that in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles; they do, however, provide a strong motivation for studying the Basque Country further as useful analogy for ancient cultural practice elsewhere in Europe, and such investigations are well underway’. (p. 25).

The Basque sarobe’s also show that the stone circles probably had both an astronomical and religious functions. They thus give an insight into the type of religious and social ideas behind their construction, though without being exactly like those of the peoples, a kind of cultural ‘living fossil’, who built the megaliths in Britain and the rest of Europe.

Sources

Alex Gibson, ‘Introduction’, in Alex Gibson and Derek Simpson, eds., Prehistoric Ritual and Religion (Thrupp: Sutton Publishing 1998).

Clive Ruggles, ‘Archaeoastronomy in Europe’, in Christopher Walker, ed., Astronomy Before the Telescope (London: British Museum Press 1996).

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