Back to Book Reviews

Prehistoric Stone Circles by AUBREY BURL
Shire Archaeology. 2005 (fourth edition). 64 pages, 43 photographs, 4 figures. ISBN 0-7478-0609-8. (£5.99)

Prehistoric Astronomy and Ritual by AUBREY BURL
Shire Archaeology. 2005 (second edition). 72 pages, 48 photographs/illustrations, 5 figures. ISBN 0-7478-0614-4. (£5.99)

If, like me, you tend to think of Shire Archaeology titles as the Ronseal products of archaeological publishing, giving you exactly what they say on the cover, you may have certain expectations of these two titles from Aubrey Burl. In new editions of books that were first published in 1979 and 1983 Burl brings his acknowledged expertise to subjects – Prehistoric Stone Circles and Prehistoric Astronomy and Ritual – on which he has written at greater length over a considerable period. However, both books contain an added ingredient that gives them a distinctive quality:- Burl himself, whose character, opinions and enthusiasms at times burst out of the pages, with the result that (at the risk of carrying the Ronseal analogy too far) the finished product may be a slightly richer mix than you expected. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage will be a matter of reader preference.

There is a clear overlap between the two subjects, as many of the megalithic alignments that are claimed to be of significance by the proponents of prehistoric astronomy are to be found at stone circles. There are good reasons, however, for dealing with them separately, not least the breadth of each subject. Given the more fanciful interpretations with which many of these monuments have become burdened over the centuries (and no less so today) Burl is able in one volume to provide a concise summary of the temporal and regional variants of stone circles, and in the other to deal critically with the thorny issue of archaeo-astronomy.

Stone circles are one of the iconic symbols of prehistoric Britain, not only representing the most widespread and durable legacy of our Neolithic and Bronze Age forebears, but also reflecting what seems to have been those societies’ enduring obsession with other-worldly concerns, an attribute that infuses these monuments with an irresistible aura of mystery and wonder. Yet, in Prehistoric Stone Circles, Burl provides a relatively straightforward chronological summary, with chapters on Early stone circles, The middle period and Late stone circles, covering the late Neolithic to middle Bronze Age, with additional chapters on The megalithic enclosures of Brittany and Stonehenge.

Burl says in his Introduction that, as the function of these sites will always remain elusive, we must be content with guesses based on their architecture and contents. Faced with a catalogue of monuments many of which little more is known, some might have struggled to create a narrative to engage the reader. Burl has no such problem, and indeed the Burl ingredient soon bubbles up to the surface. While coolly discussing The origins of stone circles, created by the early farming communities of the late fourth millennium BC, Burl suddenly shifts up a gear, announcing that it was a catastrophic climate change, possibly caused by a volcano in Greenland, that led the helpless Neolithic farmers, faced with sickening cattle, and desolate fields of unripened crops, to turn away from the ancestors they had revered and to construct stone circles within which they could plead in desperation with the dark, threatening heavens, and where strangers could find sanctuary from a seemingly never-ending calamity (this is the language he uses). A couple of paragraphs later, after this whirlwind of vividly descriptive speculation has blown itself out, he resumes his reasoned discourse on archaeological sites, radiocarbon dates, monument dimensions and statistics.

Such Burl esque interludes, which this reader found at times stimulating, amusing, but also, occasionally, slightly alarming, crop up unexpectedly through the text of both books. One can stop and argue with him, as I started to do, but to do so is to miss the point and spoil the fun. And it is, surely, Burl’s evident enthusiasm for the subject, mixed with his encyclopaedic knowledge, that has made his books so popular not only with archaeologists but also with the general reader.

In Prehistoric Astronomy and Ritual, Burl provides a refreshingly straightforward account of the claims and the realities of archaeo-astronomy, the technicalities of which can be, to the non-specialist or (like myself) the mathematically illiterate, beyond comprehension and therefore challenge. Throughout the book I found myself referring back to his brief explanation of solstices, azimuths and declinations in the chapter on Sun, moon and prehistoric people, as I struggled to overcome the instinctive ‘knowledge’ (probably shared by prehistoric ‘astronomers’) that both sun and moon go round the earth.

Burl is generally cautious and considered in his treatment of the subject, placing it, in his first two chapters – Introduction and Discovery and proof of prehistoric astronomy and ritual – within the context, at one end of the debate, of Gordon Childe’s influential rejection of the idea, and at the other, of its non-archaeologist proponents, such as the astronomer Gerald Hawkins and the engineer Alexander Thom, as well as of the archaeological research of Clive Ruggles. However, as always (if ever proof were needed), reference to Newgrange in Ireland is enough to demonstrate that, from the Neolithic, people could and did make precise observations of the sun’s movements and incorporate those alignments within their monuments. At the Newgrange passage tomb, the roof-box above tomb’s entrance admits the light of the winter solstice sunrise to illuminate the tomb’s chamber at the end of the long narrow passage.

The problem for archaeo-astronomy, and one dealt head on by Burl in Problems and some answers: Callanish and Ballochroy, is that Newgranges are thin on the ground, and that astronomical significances have been attributed to many far less securely demonstrable alignments. One such is the Bronze Age ‘observatory’ at Ballochroy, on the Kintyre peninsula, where a line of just three stone slabs purports to indicate the midwinter and midsummer sunsets, as well the northern moon rise. Burl, however, points out the imprecision of the alignments, and suggests that, if they existed, they may have had only general symbolic significance, related perhaps to the burial chamber in the adjacent cairn. As Burl warns, ‘because there is an alignment it does not follow that it was astronomical’.

Having set the parameters for the discussion to follow, Burl then examines Neolithic and Bronze Age sites within three general phases – The primitive phase: burial places, 4000-3000 BC, The developed phase: stone circles, 3000-2000 BC, which includes discussion of Stonehenge, and The local phase: standing stones, 2000-1250 BC. Within each phases, the alignments at some monuments, or classes of monuments, are more convincing than at others, while solar alignments are generally more convincing than those marking the subtle and complex orbits of the moon (which even gave Sir Isaac Newton a headache). It is difficult for the reader to make any judgements about the majority of the sites described, given the few ground plans provided – a shortcoming that applies equally to both books. While there are numerous colour photographs, they frequently do not illustrate the particular points that Burl is making in the text.

Burls ends with a close examination of one site, the recumbent stone circle at Balquhain, Aberdeenshire, which, he argues, incorporates all the elements that are to be found in monuments linked to the sun or the moon. Certainly, this now ruined monument must originally have been an impressive site, its massive recumbent slab at the south flanked by circle of possibly twelve standing stones of varying size, shape and colour, some bearing cup-marks, and with a 3m high outlier of white quartz standing some 6m to the south-east.

In quoting the Omar Khayyam in the title of this chapter, Balquhain: ‘the stone that put the stars to flight’, one is forewarned that Burl is again likely to wax lyrical, and indeed the quartz outlier resembles a ‘cowled and white-shrouded hag’. However, it was not the colourful language that caused me unease but the fact that, despite his earlier statement that ‘archaeo-astronomy demands discipline’ (p. 24), Burl declares that, in the siting of the cup-marked stones, ‘the connection with the moon is obvious’ (the chapter title refers in fact to the sun). Yet, despite the fact that a plan is provided to illustrate his point, I was unable to see the connection myself, nor could I discern the intellectual rigour which Burl says archaeo-astronomy demands. The three alignments shown – to the most southerly rising of the moon at 172° (shown as 174° on the plan), the major moon set at 190° (189° on the plan) and the minor moonset at 232° – run from the apparent centre of the circle (of which, however, only an arc of four stones and the recumbent stone remain in place) to the edges of the two surviving cup-marked stones (one of which has fallen over), and a hump in the middle of the recumbent stone. I have to say I was not convinced – if only the ‘white-shrouded hag’ had been aligned on something, but that, it seems, was no more than a marker to guide people approaching from a low-lying settlement!

In the final chapter, which looks to The future, Burl says ‘Archaeo-astronomy is no longer regarded as an activity of the lunatic fringe. It has become a respectable study. It now needs to become a respectable discipline’ (p. 66). And, in fairness, throughout the book Burl is at pains stress the ritual and symbolic nature of the astronomical alignments, and to warn against accidental and coincidental correlations. Moreover, without all the plans and the analyses which lies behind Burl’s statements, I am in no position to argue whether or not he is right, and it is in the nature of a slim Shire title that one has to take a certain amount on trust. Yet, after reading the chapter on Balquhain, I am left with the nagging doubt that even someone of Burl’s experience may be susceptible to a degree of wish-fulfilment in the attribution of astronomical significance to the apparent alignments of these stones.

However, if so, this would be nothing new, and in the end it does not detract from the wider value of these books, which is that they simultaneously inform, stimulate and entertain the reader.

Andrew B. Powell
Wessex Archaeology

Review Submitted: July 2005

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page