Posts Tagged ‘Neolithic’

Archaeologists Find 4,000 year old Stone Sculptures in Orkney

December 14, 2019

A non-political story now, which fascinates me as an archaeologist. Tuesday’s edition of the I carried a story by Chris Green that archaeologists in Orkney had uncovered a number of roughly humanlike sculptures. The article ran

Nine human-like stone sculptures believed to be more than 4,000 years old have been discovered during the construction of a new electricity substation in Orkney.

Archaeologists working at the site near Finstown said that each of the “amazing” carvings, which are 50 cm tall, appeared to have shoulders, neck and what looks like a head.

While similar sculptures have been found in the area before, the discovery of so many in one place is unprecedented and may help shine a light on the prehistory of the islands.

Sean Bell, of Orca Archaeology, which made the discovery, said that whoever made the figures used a technique known as “pecking”, involving chipping away flakes of stone with a pointed tool. 

There have been suggestions that during the Neolithic and Bronze Age Orkney was an important religious centre for the British Isles. The discovery of these sculptures may reinforce this, as they could be representations of the gods or ancestors.

The sculptures themselves are quite rough, almost abstract in their depiction of the human body. Here’s my drawing of what they look like. The photograph in the paper is too small really to be reproduced.

Still, no matter how crude they look to our eyes, they are an important find for researchers of ancient art, and an important landmark in its development in the British Isles.

Jeremy Corbyn Suggests Capping Director’s Pay – Media Goes Ballistic

January 11, 2017

Mike yesterday put up a piece reporting on another good suggestion from Jeremy Corbyn, and the predictable response of outrage and sneering from the meejah. The Labour leader had said on an interview on Radio 4 yesterday morning that he believed that there should be a cap on the pay earned by company directors and senior execs. The media naturally responded by pointing out that Corbyn has an annual pay of £138,000 a year, and tried to draw him into giving a price figure for what the maximum amount earned should be.

The story got onto the One Show yesterday evening, where they did a brief survey of people in the street. Opinions were, as they say, mixed. One elderly objected to the cap on the grounds that it might take away the incentive for people rising to the top. Looking at the headlines on the various papers this morning, it was very clear that it had riled someone at the Torygraph, as this was the story they shoved on their front cover. Other newspapers, like Mail, led by claiming that Labour’s policy in immigration was ‘in disarray’. Mike’s also written another article this week showing that’s also rubbish.

Mike in his article makes the point that compared to some of the vast, bloated salaries awarded to company executives, Corbyn’s own salary appears very modest indeed. He suggests that it is stupid to try to lay down a particular set figure – it should be based on company turnover and the lowest wage earned by an employee at that company. He also makes the point that the casting of particular star actors can make a great difference to how well a movie does, and that when this happens, everyone else who worked on the movie should also enjoy the films’ financial awards.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/01/10/if-we-examine-who-is-complaining-about-corbyns-maximum-wage-idea-well-know-why/

This is all correct. And there’s something else that needs to be added:

Japan already has maximum wage legislation.

Yep, it’s true. Japan is one of the world’s five wealthy countries with a very capitalist economy. The centre right Liberal Democratic party has ruled the country almost uninterrupted since the Second World War. And it also has a cap on how much company directors may be paid. I think it’s set at about 20 times that of the lowest paid employee, but I am not sure.

And the limitation of wage differentials is not something that has been simply added on in the course of reform, but an integral part of the dominant, guiding vision of the nature of Japanese society. East Asian societies can be extremely collectivist, stressing group loyalty over individual opportunity or achievement. In Japan the goal was to create a harmonious, middle class society, where there would be no extremes in wealth or poverty. This isn’t quite the case, as the Burakami, an outcast group rather like the Dalits in India, and those of Korean descent are still subject to massive poverty and discrimination.

The Japanese have also tried to justify their collectivist outlook through racist pseudo-anthropology. One school textbook claimed that Japanese society was more collectivist and co-operative because the Japanese people were descended from agriculturalists, who had to forge strong links with each other in order to cultivate and harvest rice. We Westerners, however, were all isolated individualists because we’re all descended from hunter-gatherers.

As anthropology, it’s rubbish, of course. Some social historians have argued that agricultural societies are more prone to tyranny and absolute government, which would include the type of Asian absolute monarchies described by Western observers as ‘oriental despotism’. But all human societies were originally hunter-gatherers, including the Japanese. And European society has practised settled agriculture since the beginning of the Neolithic 6,000 years ago.

The origins of Japanese and East Asian collectivism probably lie more in the influence of Confucianism, which stressed the right relationships between the members of society, such as between the prince and the people, and between elders, parents and children, and the still powerful influence of feudalism in structuring social relationships. Instead of a samurai warrior giving his loyalty and service to a daimyo feudal lord, it’s now the sarariman – the corporate warrior – becoming part of the retinue of company employees under the lordship of the director.

And European individualism probably comes not from any vestiges of our hunter-gatherer deep past, but from the effect of Hobbesian Social Contract political theorising and the free trade economics of the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith. Hobbes has been described as the first, of one of the first philosophers of the emerging bourgeois society of the 17th century. This was the period which saw Cromwell sweep away the last vestiges of feudalism in England, and the emergence of modern capitalism. But Hobbes’ philosophy views people as social atoms, all competing against each other, as opposed to other views of society, which may stress the importance of collective or corporate identities and loyalties, such as family, feudal lordship or membership of trade and professional bodies. Similarly, the founders of the economic theories of modern capitalism, such as the Physiocrats in France and Adam Smith and in Scotland, also stressed unrestrained individual competition. They were also specifically arguing against the mercantilist system, in which the state regulated trade. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries the British government enacted a series of legislation governing trade with its emerging colonies, so as to tie them to the economy of the home country, which would benefit from their products. Modern Western individualism come from these theories of capitalist society and the perceived operation of its economy.

The collectivist nature of Japanese society also expresses itself in other ways in the structure and management of Japanese corporations. Singing the company song in the morning is one example. Management are also encouraged or required to share the same canteen as the workers on the shop floor. Both of these practices, and no doubt many others, are designed to foster group solidarity, so that management and workers work together for the good of the company.

This isn’t a perfect system, by any means. Apart from the immense pressure placed on individuals in a society that places such heavy emphasis on the value of hard work, that individuals actually keel over and die because of it when doing their jobs, it has also made Japanese society and corporations extremely resistant to change. Confucianism places great stress on respect for one’s elders and superiors. While respect for the older generation is an admirable virtue, and one which our society in many ways is sadly lacking, in Japan it has resulted in a mindset which resists change or apportioning due blame for historical crimes and atrocities.

At the corporate level, the slow down of the Japanese economy in the 1990s meant there was no longer such a pressing need for company staff to work such long hours. However, so great is the corporate inertia, that staff still feel that they have to keep working past six O’clock in the evening, even if there is little or no work to do, because they don’t want to be seen as breaking with the approved practices of previous generations of employees.

And at the national level, it has been suggested that the exaggerated respect for one’s elders and ancestors is the reason why Japan has had such immense difficulty confronting the atrocities their nation committed during the Second World War. Japanese school texts and official histories have been criticised because they’d don’t discuss the atrocities committed by the imperial Japanese army. One school textbook even talked about the army’s ‘advance’ through Asia, rather than its invasion. The reason for this failure to admit the existence of these crimes, and criticise those who perpetrated them, is that respect for one’s elders and social superiors is so engrained in Japanese society, that except for a few extremely courageous mavericks, casting shame on those responsible for such horrors and, by implication, the whole of society during this period, is unacceptable. Even though many over on this side of the Eurasian landmass would consider that a failure to confront the atrocities committed by one’s nation to be even more shameful.

Japanese and Asian collectivism is not, then, perfect. But a maximum wage cap certainly did not hinder Japan’s advance to become one of the world’s foremost industrial countries. And the goal of creating a harmonious, co-operative society where there is little disparity in wealth is a good one.

The title of Mike’s article on Corbyn’s suggestion for a maximum wage states that the identities of those complaining about it reveal why they’re doing so. Indeed. The proprietors and leading executives of newspaper companies, like the Barclay twins at the Torygraph, have awarded themselves immense salaries. They’re multimillionaires. This wealth is increasingly not being shared with the hacks, who do the actual work of putting the paper out. The Torygraph has been particularly struck with declining sales to the point that Private Eye’s ‘Street of Shame’ column regularly reported further job cuts. Many of the big newspaper companies depend on the work of unpaid interns, particularly the Groaniad. And even if they’re not being threatened with the sack, conditions for the paid staff are becoming increasingly Orwellian. For example, the Eye reported a few months ago that one of the managers at the Torygraph had tried to install motion detectors on the staff’s desks to prevent them moving around too much, just like the staff at call centres are also monitored. The hacks were so annoyed, however, that management had to back down and the motion detectors were removed.

As for the film industry, the presence of big name Hollywood stars can sink a movie simply through the sheer expense of paying. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger was paid $7 million for his appearance in the second Terminator movie. While that was a box office success, the presence of ‘A’ list celebrities in a movie does not guarantee that a film will be a success. One of the reasons why the film Ishtar became such a notorious flop in the 1990s was that the producers cast three major stars, who all commanded multi-million dollar salaries. This pushed the bill for the movie towards $20 million or so, even before the film had been shot. The film was thus under financial pressure from the start.

Apart from the Japanese, there are other, successful European nations that also deliberately avoid huge inequalities in wealth. One of these is Denmark. The newspapers have been full of articles analysing and celebrating the traditional Danish concept of ‘hygge’. This has been translated as ‘cosiness’, but it actually means much more than that. The way I’ve heard it explained by a Danish friend, it’s about being content with the homely necessities. I got the distinct impression that it was similar to the Swedish notion of ‘lagom’, which translates as ‘just enough’. You make just enough to satisfy your basic needs, but no more. And from what I’ve heard about Danish society, the social attitude there is that no-one should try to appear ostentatiously better off than anyone else. This is not to say that everyone has to do the same low-paid job, or that they should not earn more than anyone else. But it does mean that they should not be conspicuously more affluent.

This is the complete opposite from the values promoted and celebrated by Thatcher and the wretched ‘New Right’ of the 1980s. They demanded making conditions harsher for the poor, and giving ever larger salaries to management on the grounds that this would act as an incentive for others to do well and try to climb up the corporate and social ladder. The result has been the emergence of a tiny minority, who are massively wealthy – the 1%. Like the Barclay twins, Rupert Murdoch and just about every member of Theresa May’s cabinet. For everyone else, wages have stagnated to the point where a considerable number are finding it very difficult to make ends meet.

But wage caps and an attitude that discourages inequalities of wealth have not harmed Japan, nor Denmark and Sweden, which also have very strong economies and a very high standard of living.

The massive difference between the millions earned by the heads of the big corporations has been a scandal here in Britain, to the point where David Cameron and May made noises urging company directors to restrain their greed. Corbyn’s suggestion is eminently sensible, if Britain is to be a genuinely inclusive, prosperous society. The outrage shown by various media execs to it shows that the Tories are still committed to a policy of poverty for the many, riches for a very few. And all their concern at reining in executive pay is just platitudes to make it appear that they’re concerned when the issue becomes too embarrassing.

Vox Political: Youssef El-Gingihy on Western Imperialism in Iraq

August 21, 2016

Mike’s also put up an excellent piece by Youssef El-Gingihy, ‘Business as Usual in Iraq’. I think Mr Gingihy is a medical doctor. He’s certainly a very firm opponent of the privatisation of the NHS, and has written a book against it, How to Dismantle the NHS in 10 Easy Steps, published by Zero Books. I found a copy of this in the Cheltenham branch of Waterstones.

El-Gingihy makes the point that the Iraq invasion was not an aberration, but merely the continuation of American and British global imperialism. This isn’t about making the world safe for democracy, but in the forcible acquisition of other nation’s industries and resources. He points out that Tony Blair wasn’t Bush’s poodle, but took part in the invasion of Iraq perfectly willingly as part of the Atlantic Alliance. George Bush senior and Maggie Thatcher armed Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, and his gassing of the Kurds in 1988 aroused no condemnation from us. The US military-industrial complex was determined to invade Iraq, because its acquisition was estimated to be worth $100 billion to the American economy. This was only the latest in a series of coups that have overthrown popular elected leaders in countries around the world, so that America can get its hands on their countries’ valuable economic assets. This goes back to the overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran in the 1953, who had the audacity to nationalise the Persian oil industry, and Salvador Allende in Chile in 1975, who was ousted because he was a Marxist and wanted to break up the great estates to give land to the peasants.

He also sees Bush’s decision to disband the Ba’athist army, whose troops then joined the jihadists fighting against the occupation and the Shi’a and other factions, which supported or benefited from it, as part of the imperial tactics of divide et conquera. As a result of the invasion, Iraq has been transformed from a secular dictatorship into a breeding ground for terrorists. There were only a few thousand globally at the time of 9/11. Now that number has increased to about 100,000. The number of Iraqis, who’ve been killed may be as high as 600,000 +. America maintains its global dominance through a network of 800 bases worldwide. At the time of 9/11, the Americans drew up plans to invade seven countries, and El-Gingihy notes how the wars and destabilisation have spread to other countries, like Yemen. He makes the point that if we really wanted to stop terror, we should stop supporting countries that are funding and supporting it, like Saudi Arabia. But that isn’t going to happen, because Saudi Arabia is our ally.

He concludes

Tony Blair famously called on history to be his judge. That judgement will be one of eternal damnation. He has already attempted a spirited defence but, as with Lady Macbeth, not all the perfumes of Arabia can relieve the stench of blood on his hands.

See his article: https://thexrayfactor.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/the-iraq-war-was-simply-business-as-usual/

Mike’s reblog is at: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/08/20/the-iraq-war-business-as-usual-youssef-el-gingihy/

Everything Dr El-Gingihy has said is correct. The Iraq invasion was all about stealing the country’s oil and state industries. Iraq has the largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, and Aramco, the American-Saudi oil company, and the other oil magnates, desperately wanted to get their hands on it. The Americans also drafted legislation declaring that any rare crops still grown in Iraq were also automatically owned by American biotech companies. Iraq and the Fertile Crescent is the area where western agriculture started at the dawn of civilisation nearly 6,000 years ago. Then, Neolithic farmers began cultivating varieties of wheat, which have largely been superseded in the west, like emmer. These varieties may, however, have properties which have been lost in later varieties, and so are of intense interest to the biotechnology companies and agribusiness. A year or so ago there was even a feature about the renewed interest in emmer in farming in Britain on the Beeb’s farming interest show, Countryfile. The legislation cannot practically be enforced, but it means Iraqi peasant farmers in theory have to pay American biotech companies for the privilege of rearing crops they’ve been raising since literally the dawn of civilisation.

And the same goes with other parts of the economy, like industry. Halliburton and the rest of the big businesses pressing for war had Bush, who was deeply involved with them, pass legislation allowing them to acquire Iraqi businesses in recompense for possible damages they had sustained, even if, in fact, they had not suffered any damage. It’s a deeply iniquitous piece of legislation. Both of these laws were revealed in articles in Private Eye years ago. And it bears out what the Joseph Bronowski, the great scientist, broadcaster and Fabian Socialist said in The Descent of Man way back in the ’70s: War is theft by other means.

And the number of coups promoted by America is a long one, and getting longer all the time. William Blum in an edition of his Anti-Empire Report links to a complete list of them, since the 19th century, which stretches on and on. it includes the overthrow of Alfredo Benz’ regime in Guatemala in the 1950s, because Benz nationalised the estates of the American United Fruit Company, which, along with the other landlords, treated their peasant workers as slaves. Benz was a threat to American business, and dared pass legislation giving greater welfare rights and power to the peasants. So he had to go. And Shrillary Clinton has followed. A few years ago she made sure that the coup that toppled a democratically elected socialist president in Honduras was not called a ‘military coup’, so that Obama could keep funding the country’s new, military overlords. These are, as you can imagine, the usual right-wing tyrants ruling through terror, violence, assassination and imprisonment. But they have the support of Obama and Shrillary, who no doubt claim the coup was in America’s best interest.

And so we continue to see the agony of the world’s weaker nations, all for the profit of western, chiefly American, multinationals.

Remember the chanting of the anti-war protesters during Gulf War 1 back in 1990? ‘Gosh, no, we won’t go. We won’t die for Texaco’? It’s even more relevant now.

Poverty and Foodbanks in Bridgwater

December 15, 2014

Yesterday I put up a post about how my parents had heard a talk by a charity worker in Bristol about the immense growth in poverty in Bristol during the Christingle service, put on by the different churches in my part of Bristol. The speaker was from the Crisis Centre, which provides hot meals, a food bank and a refuge for abused women on Stapleton Road in Bristol’s inner city. The speaker stated that they were serving 600 hot meals a day. They had seen a thirty per cent rise in the people coming to them for food over the past two years. Two thirds of those were not unemployed, but people in work, but paid wages too low to support themselves or their families properly.

Yesterday we had relatives from Bridgwater round for Sunday lunch. Mum mentioned the talk by the charity worker at the Christingle service, and asked them what it was like down their neck of the woods.

The news was similarly not good.

They didn’t know much, only that demand for food was so high that the local food bank had run out. Mum seems to believe that this isn’t the first time it’s happened either.

Bridgwater’s a small but historic town in Somerset. It was the town where the rebels supporting the Duke of Monmouth stayed during, and were subsequently tried by Judge Jefferies for treason after the Battle of Sedgemoor during the ‘Pitchfork Rebellion’ of 1685. During the Middle Ages it and Dunster were two of the ports of the realm in Somerset. Archaeologists have found items and sites in the town dating back to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, and there was a Roman settlement in what was the site of the Gerber foods factory. It has, unfortunately, something of a reputation for urban blight. There used to be a cellophane factory just outside the town, which left a nasty stink hanging over it. More recently it was no. 45 in the book Crap Towns. Despite this, it is still a town that has a lot of potential.

The news about the immense demand on the food bank there shows just how far poverty has bitten into this part of rural Somerset. And if it’s affected Bridgwater, it’s also taken its toll on the other comparable towns round about.

There’s still a lot of anger in that part of Somerset about the flooding caused by government cutbacks to the flood defences around the Parrett.

Never mind Cameron’s promises of more money and increased funding to save Britain from further inundation, this is what the Tories really feel about poverty in rural England.

Conservative Apologies and Lies in Flooded Somerset

February 10, 2014

somersetfloods1

‘How do you know when a politician’s lying?’
‘His lips move.’

-Old Joke told on the Max Headroom Show circa 1986.

‘How do you know when David Cameron is lying?’
‘I refer the honourable gentleman/lady to the answer to the previous question.’

David Cameron will be touring the flooded areas of south-western England this morning trying to reassure the poor souls there that the government is doing its uttermost to combat the disaster and help the people recover their homes, land and livelihoods that are now drowned under the flood waters.

It’s a horrific disaster, as a brief glance at the pictures coming from the affected areas show. In Somerset people have had to be moved out of their houses, while farmer’s have lost crops as the floods covered their fields. One farmer was faced with the stark choice between selling or giving some of his cattle away, or sending them to be slaughtered as he had nowhere he could keep them, so hard was his farm hit by the floods.

During prehistory, and then in the early middle ages the Somerset levels was marshland, and some memory of the extend of the marsh environment is shown in area’s place names. The ‘ey’ in the names of places such as Muchelney, Athelney and so on comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ieg’, meaning an island. These villages were islands of dry land in the surrounding marsh. During the Neolithic the local people constructed the Sweet Track, a timber walkway through the marsh supported by poles as a way of getting across the marshy environment. Similar wooden tracks crossing the north German moors were built during the Iron Age.

The marshland was gradually reclaimed from the 13th century onwards, though by the end of the 17th century only about a 1/3 of the levels was dry land. The remaining land was reclaimed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Water management and drainage has continued to be vital to the maintenance of the Levels, as the area is criss-crossed by a series of ‘rhines’ and drainage channels, like the King’s Sedgemoor Drain. Historically it has suffered from terrible floods. One in the early 17th century, created through a combination of bad weather and a tidal surge up the Severn Estuary, drowned houses, fields and livestock with the flood waters advancing about eight miles from Glastonbury itself. One eyewitness to this inundation recalled seeing crows perching on floating sheep, until the sheep in their turn sank and drowned. Fortunately the modern floods aren’t that severe, but they’re harmful enough to the people down there, who’ve had to be moved out of their houses.

Cameron visited the area yesterday, promising the local people that there would be every effort to combat the floods and that £3 million had been allocated to do this. He also made other, predictable claims that the government was spending more on flood defences than the Labour government.

Cameron has been merely the latest in a line of politicians and public figures to come down to look at the disaster and speak to its victims. They included Chris Smith, the environment secretary, and Prince Charles. Smith’s response to the crisis had caused even more anger. The local Tory MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger, was furious at the way the environment agency had handled the disaster. He stated that when the area had suffered flooding a year ago, he spoke to Smith, who promised that suitable action would be taken. Nothing, however, was done. Speaking on the Andrew Marr show, Eric Pickles offered an unconditional apology to the people of Somerset for the way the government had mishandled it. Liddell-Grainger had gone even further, and demanded Smith’s resignation. Smith duly appeared on TV to say he had absolutely no intention of resigning, and was completely satisfied with his Agency’s actions. This had simply infuriated Mr Liddell-Grainger even more, and no doubt contributed to the apology offered by Pickles.

Cameron also acknowledged that mistakes had been made. He stated that the Agency had stopped dredging the Levels in the 1990s, and that this was a mistake.

Now the floods wreaking havoc throughout the country are a vital issue for Cameron and his administration. Not only are they a national disaster, but the areas affected are of crucial political importance for the Tory party. Like much of rural England, parts of Somerset are a Tory heartland. My parents have joked before now that in some of the villages, there used to be only two social clubs you could join when they were young: the Farmers’ Union and the Young Conservatives. With the Tories now suffering competition from UKIP, Cameron needs to show the Tories’ traditional constituents that he is indeed acting on their behalf.

Mixed in the with promises, however, are liberal amounts of the lies, which you can expect from a Tory leader. I’ve reblogged a piece from Mike over at Vox Political, on the way the way the BBC – surprisingly! – picked up the way the Tories had manipulated the graphs showing funding for the Environment Agency to suggest that it was actually much larger than it actually was. As for their claim that the Tories were now spending more on flood defences than Labour, this is may well be true. Now. After the floods had occurred, and demanded immediate action. I doubt very, very much this was the case before though. An administration dedicated to cutting government spending, and which reneged on its promises to preserve the NHS, is hardly likely to have left the Environment Agency untouched.

As for Cameron’s acknowledgement that they had stopped dredging in the 1990s, and this was a mistake, this occurred under the last Tory prime minister, John Major. During Major’s administration Private Eye ran a number of stories reporting the way government agencies and watchdogs regulating the environment and the utilities were increasingly downsized, with their powers restricted, in order to give greater freedom to industry. I’ve got a feeling that one of these was almost certainly the Environment Agency or its predecessor. Cameron’s government is similarly dedicated to minimising, if not removing altogether, government regulation and interference, and so I cannot see any long term changes occurring under Cameron. In fact, I can see the complete opposite. After the floods recede, what will probably happen is that, after a brief show of some token of increased funding or activity, the Environment Agency will go back to doing as little as possible as usual. Worse, it will probably be under pressure to cut services further to make savings to make up for the vast amount spent dealing with the floods. So despite Cameron’s grandiose claims, the people currently hit by the floods will be less protected afterwards than they were before.

What matters is not that permanent solutions are put in place to tackle the floods and prevent them occurring all over again. What matters is that Cameron is seen to be doing something, so that he can continue to cling to power and make further savings by slashing government expenditure. This is what his paymasters in the multinationals want. And the locals in Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Berkshire will be left to fend for themselves.

The Sarobe: A Living Megalithic Tradition in Basque Spain

December 26, 2013

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).