An exploration of astronomy at Knowth - Journal of Lithic Studies (University of Edinburgh)

I explore the evidence for astronomy at the Neolithic passage-grave of Knowth in the Journal of Lithic Studies (University of Edinburgh).

The article is here


Knowth has two passages with entrances at the east and west. In addition to analysing the available survey evidence, kerbstone engravings are interpreted as depicting astronomical cycles.

It is argued that, while Knowth’s passages function in relation to the equinoxes, they are not internally orientated to match exactly the equinoctial directions. Rather, it seems that they may have been constructed and used to facilitate the harmonisation of the solar and lunar cycles - much in the same way as does the equinoctial Judeo-Christian festival of Easter.

View the gallery of Knowth photos.


Houses of the Gods - my new book is published!


Debates about the role of astronomy at the Neolithic monuments of the British Isles have occupied academic and independent researchers for many years. My new book - Houses of the Gods, Neolithic monuments and astronomy at the Brú na Bóinne in Ireland and beyond - argues that the practice of astronomical observation had a deeply practical as well as symbolic role for early prehistoric societies negotiating the transition to an agricultural way of life.

The book is available on Amazon, via the website, here

It argues that all societies, from the hunter-gatherers of the Upper Palaeolithic to our current technologically-driven cultures, require sufficiently accurate forms of time-keeping. Where these have not been available, it has resulted in significant challenges relating to the coordination and synchronization of social or collective behaviour.

Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas

A fabulous exhibition at the Ashmolean - Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas - revealed some little-known secrets of the battles for supremacy in the southern Mediterranean during the Roman rise to ascendancy. 

IMG_4243Battles between Carthage and Rome were especially savage - and the Sicilian coast was on the front line.  IMG_4247

The exhibition displays the astonishing cast-metal rams bolted onto the front of warships, making for devastating weaponry, as well as detailing the superior Roman tactics at sea. 

Intriguing finds show just how precarious was life at sea - but also how far it was the bread and butter of ancient Mediterranean empires.


Finds from the seabed include flagons, pottery and coins. Intriguingly, it seems the Emperor Justinian, keen to win Rome back for the newly-established Eastern Empire, and an enthusiastic Christian, shipped the equivalent of 'flat-pack' churches to newly-forming Christian communities.



Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum

100_2294 A visit to the Forum in Rome as part of my research into winter solstice alignments in prehistory and early civilisations threw up a surprise: the temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum may be aligned on the winter solstice sunset! 

Here are some photos of the sun setting directly behind and to the right of the remains of the temple, before disappearing below the horizon. The photos were taken two days before the winter solstice, on 19th December 2015. 

It has long been known that Saturn was associated with the winter solstice, notably through the ancient and popular Saturnalia festival in the old Roman world. Here is yet further evidence of the association....



Avebury's Stones Selected Shaped Carved

West_KennettAt Avebury - the Neolithic monumental complex and World Heritage Site in Wiltshire - are Britain’s largest stone circle, longest stone avenue and finest megalithic long barrow. These great standing stones have repeatedly been described as unworked since they were first documented, but in a new book, Di Pattison finds abundant evidence to the contrary.

Pattison documents a remarkable corpus of over 170 large-scale three-dimensional carvings, including astonishing architectural installations in 4D, the principal motif of which is the human head. She convincingly demonstrates that the carvings and masonry were integral elements of each structure from the outset, certain types of stone being chosen to be worked and others to make tools. 

The book is the product of ten years research and has been peer-reviewed. It is introduced by Terence Meaden and Kate Prendergast. 

Further details are available here.

Prof Parker-Pearson showcases winter solstice ritual at Stonehenge on Channel 4

DSCN0334In 'Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons', broadcast on Channel 4 (10 March 2013) Professor Parker Pearson show-cases the evidence that finally proves Stonehenge was once the place for vast communal feasts on the winter solstice attended by thousands of people, with people coming from as far afield as highland Scotland to celebrate.

This evidence confirms earlier work where I have argued that Stonehenge, and nearby Durrington Walls, were both sites at which ritual was practiced at winter solstice, with people coming from all ends of the country to participate in this great festival.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson and his team have tested cattle and pig teeth found among 80,000 animal bones from the huge henge of Durrington Walls near Stonehenge and the film reveals that the animals were slaughtered in winter, nine months after their spring birth. This evidence points to the winter solstice as being a time for feasting on an unprecedented scale.

Mike and his team also prove through further isotope testing of the teeth of animals that people came with their animals to feast at Stonehenge from all corners of Britain - as far afield as highland Scotland. Therefore, Stonehenge attracted and unified people from all over the country - and maybe from further afield too.

Parker Pearson said: “Although we finished digging at Stonehenge in 2009, the most surprising results have come out only now because of the detailed and painstaking laboratory work that has taken years to complete. Even now, more still remains to be done and there will no doubt be future surprises in store. It’s a very exciting time for scientific developments in archaeology.”

Find out more here.

See my article in 3rd Stone here.


The Neolithic Monument of Newgrange in Ireland - a cosmic womb?

A collection of papers from a session on ‘Mother Earth’ sites presented at the Fourteenth Annual Conference of the European Association of Archaeologists in Valetta, Malta, September 2008. The papers discuss the various forms of evidence from a wide range of ‘Mother Earth’ sites.

My paper - The Neolithic Monument of Newgrange in Ireland: a Cosmic Womb? - brings together astronomical, architectural, artistic and mythological evidence to argue that Newgrange should be seen as a womb-like sanctuary where the cycles of birth, death and rebirth were - and still are - celebrated, according to complex but robust and residual social and ritual logic. 


BARThe papers are published in Archaeology of Mother Earth Sites and Sanctuaries Through the Ages: Rethinking symbols and images, art and artefacts from history and prehistory, Edited by G. Terence Meaden. Oxford BAR 2012. ISBN 9781407309811.

Download my article.

View photos of the winter solstice event at Newgrange here.

You can also see my article on Newgrange in Minerva magazine:


Drombeg stone circle, Co. Cork, Ireland, August 2012

Ireland 2012 010Drombeg stone circle is nestled on a steep slope overlooking the sea on Ireland's most south-westerly tip - the last bit of land before the vast swell of the Atlantic takes over.  The landscape is gentle, rainy and lush - in early August the hedges were full of scarlet fuschia, complemented by orange, purples and whites from the stunning array of wild flowers that have so loved all the rain this year.  Ireland 2012 008


Also known as the Druid's Altar, the stone circle is precisely built to faciltate accurate astronomical observations throughout the year and thus correctly observe the calendar. 

                                It also seems to have been a site where feasting took place. Ireland 2012 015There is evidence for a water channel, an industrial-scale hearth and a stone lined pit - which could have been used for storing shellfish and boiling food. One can only imagine the gourmet delights: seafood, venison, wild herbs and fruit, clear spring water...


Ireland 2012 012The megaliths at Drombeg are beautifully worked and show all the signs of a culture deeply interested in the movements of the sun and moon, stars and planets, and the properties and qualities of natural and worked stone. Like a perfectly cut egg,  the recumbent stone is an extraordinary stone, aligned as it is on a notch on the horizon where the winter solstice sun sets each year and on the portal stones which mark the rising sun at midsummer.

Again, we can only wonder at the offerings made at this altar....

Ireland 2012 025


See a full collection of photos from Drombeg here....

Knowth, Loughcrew and Tara - Irish Neolithic treasures

100_0275Knowth is one of three large passage-graves located at the Boyne valley in eastern Ireland - the others are Newgrange and Dowth. These pictures, taken in September 2010, reveal the astonishing nature of the rock art on the kerbstones at the site. As at Newgrange, it is likely many of these designs have astronomical properties. Kate Prendergast

The passage-graves on the hill summits at Loughcrew are earlier in date than Newgrange and Knowth. These photos show the presence of the double and tripal spiral motif, and the backstone at carin T may have been carved to represent a ram. Its east-west alignment - the entrance and passage is aligned on the rising sun at equinox - shows that an interest in astronomy - also reflected in the rock art - was well developed several hundred years before the huge Boyne sites were built.  

Past Actions: Present Woes, Future Potential: Rethinking History in the Light of Anthropogenic Climate Change

Co_levene_pastactions_20100731A model university syllabus for historians and other students of the past to engage with issues of anthropogenic climate change through the medium of history and related disciplines.

Developed for the Higher Education Academy by a small team associated with the Rescue!History network.

My contribution is Unit 2: Climate change and the emergence of human history: the development of agriculture in the Old World.

The ending of the last glacial period (The Pleistocene) and the onset and stabilisation of the current inter-glacial period (The Holocene) was a major factor in precipitating profound changes in humanity’s subsistence practices. This climatic change fundamentally influenced the transition from hunting and gathering to domesticated cereal production and animal husbandry in the Near East, the Nile valley and Mesopotamia, from where it eventually spread across Europe and elsewhere.

A focus on the ways in which agriculture was both an innovative response to a changing climate and the basis for irrevocable changes in human exploitation strategies may provide a historical basis for and a key comparator to our responses to climate change – enabling students to frame key questions about optimal responses to the sustainability crisis that we currently face.

The lost children of Carthage

100_0211 Archaeological evidence suggests an alternative explanation for infant remains found in the North African city of Carthage than those presented by classcial writers, I argue in the November-December 2010 issue of Minerva. You can read the article here100_0215

Carthage was subject to virulent negative Roman propaganda, and one of the charges levelled at the Carthaginians was that they sacrifced their children to the god Baal. However, the evidence from the ancient city's 'tophet' suggests they mourned the loss of infants, deposting their remains with care and dedicating them to Baal and his female consort, Tanit.

History at the End of the World?

Book_cover History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure

This collection of essays proposes that climate change means serious peril. Our argument, however, is not about the science per se. It is about us, our deep and more recent history, and how we arrived at this calamitous impasse. With contributions from academic activists and independent researchers, History at the End of the World challenges advocates of “˜business as usual” to think again. But in its wide-ranging assessment of how we transcend the current crisis, it also proposes that the human past could be our most powerful resource in the struggle for survival. Our approaches begin from archaeology, literature, religion, psychology, sociology, philosophy of science, engineering and sustainable development, as well as “˜straight” history.

My contribution focuses on the evidence from prehistory, and particular the transition from glacial to post-glacial conditions and the kick-start of Old World agriculture around 10,000BC.

The book is an attempt to understand how other human societies have responded to climatic changes - and how we might use those responses to help us in the massive effort that still faces us to successfully transition to a low-carbon and sustainable future.

Newgrange, winter solstice 2009

100e0132 Winter solstice at Newgrange this year was an extraordinary event. Snow, ice and below-zero temperatures gave the seasonal moment an added edge.

We were blessed with a picture-perfect sunrise on Sunday 20th December, and with the return of Martin Brennan to Ireland as keynote speaker at a conference at Newgrange Lodge.

The conference covered different aspects of the pioneering work of Brennan and his associates Jack Roberts and Toby Hall exploring the astronomy and related rock-art at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Speakers also discussed recent research into Mayan temples, western Irish Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments and evidence for precision astronomy and its recording at the Boyne sites.

100e0136Here are a series of photos of the solstice event at Newgrange on Sunday 20 December 2009. There are four sets: of the monument and horizon as the sun rises; of the shadow of the standing stone being cast towards the entrance to Newgrange; inside the monument shortly after the beam of light has left the inner chamber and the of the sun playing on the megaliths and rock art of the entrance kerbstone.

Photos © Kate Prendergast 2009

My article is available in the March-April edition of Minerva magazine.

Bluestones at Stonehenge

DSCN0385 The recent discovery of an original bluestone circle near Stonehenge adds yet another twist to the already complex story about the origin, use and meaning of the bluestones.

The general consensus is that the bluestones were moved from a site in the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire. There is good evidence for this claim. Only Aubrey Burl has questioned it, raising the relevant issue of how they were able to move the stones. Others have gone further in exploring ways in which the stones may have functioned within a wider cosmological landscape.

Ancient Venus rewrites history books


A 35,000-year-old prehistoric sculpture of a female form found in Germany could be one of our earliest artistic attempt to represent ourselves.

The Hohle Fels Venus, uncovered at a cave in the southwest province of Swabia, is a 6-centimetre long depiction of a woman carved from mammoth ivory. It is one of the earliest - and best - depictions of a woman from the hunter-gatherer groups that populated Europe during the last ice-age.

See the film on the Nature website. Paul Mellars notes in Nature that the "discovery of the sexually explicit figurine of a woman, dating to 35,000 years ago, provides striking evidence of the symbolic explosion that occurred in the earliest populations of Homo sapiens in Europe".

Photo: H. Jensen. Copyright: Universität Tübingen.

The Last Big Meltdown - how our ancestors survived climate change

256px-Saddle_Quern_and_Rubbing_StoneOur prehistoric ancestors survived rapid climate change and rising temperatures as extreme as those we face today. What can they tell us about global warming?

Most obvious is the degree to which they prove how adaptive we are as a species. Large climatic and environmental changes did not make them ‘give up and go home’; instead they adapted, survived – and lived to tell the tale. We might draw some comfort from this, and hope that, unless present-day global warming precipitates a mass extinction event, our descendants will be able to adapt to almost anything, even if the effects of our current actions are hugely destructive.

If we want to see our connection to our ancestors, the first agriculturalists, then our industrialized world lies at the tail end of a millennia-long process in which we have tamed and exploited the Earth and its resources. Indeed, it is these very processes that have caused global warming. But we can’t invoke such continuity without acknowledging the differences. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers and early farmers lived simply in the landscape and adapted to it by respecting and worshipping it. If we want to bequeath a stable environment to our descendants, we need to respect the values our ancestors bequeathed to us. It may be time for us to come full circle and return to more localized agriculture, to the veneration of nature and its fertility and to the interplay between the tamed and the wild, so powerfully expressed in Neolithic ritual, and upon which our lives, like theirs, still depend.

Read more in History Today.

Image from wikicommons:

Neolithic Rock Art at the Avebury Stone Circles in Southern England

015_Meaden, T, Prendergast, K and Pattison, D.(2010) in Monumental Questions: Prehistoric Megaliths, Mounds, and Enclosures, Proceedings of the XV UISPP World Congress (Lisbon, 4-9 September 2006), Vol.7 edited by David Calado, Maxiliam Baldia and Matthew Boulanger.

There is strong academic research on a range of different rock art traditions in Neolithic Britain. These traditions span much of the Neolithic era, and represent a major expressive medium for these societies.  Phone aug 11 206

This paper argues that comparable rock art exists in Neolithic Wessex, specifically at the Avebury stone circles in southern England. It presents evidence for dressed and carved stones and suggests that potential meanings associated with such carvings are integral to the wider ritual and symbolic uses of the monument. Hence it signifies a major, hitherto unrecognised, regional rock art tradition in Neolithic Britain. 

See Di Pattison's website for the full paper.

Sacred territories: astronomy, ritual and the creation of landscape at the passage grave sites of Neolithic Ireland

100_0297This article was published in Landscape in Mind: Dialogue on Space between Anthropology and Archaeology edited by George Dimitriadis, BAR 2009.

It argues that Neolithic passage-graves, and the wider landscape of Ireland and Scotland they inter-connect, was built and understood in terms of the relationship between time and place, the earthly and heavenly realms and the movement of time and its cyclical return.  100_0295

Constructing a landscape out of such ritual and cosmological understandings was, it is suggested, a major influence on the later Neolithic and on the ways in which agriculture came to be accepted and developed across the British Isles. 

Download article (pdf)

Summer Solstice at Stonehenge

Where ancient and modern meet


The history of alternative gatherings at Stonehenge has long been culturally and politically fraught. Festivals began at summer solstice at the site over 25 years ago, but were suppressed at the notorious Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, after which, direct access to the stones was cut off at summer solstice and at all other times.

However, the desire for an annual gathering never disappeared, and during the late nineties, sustained negotiation between Druids, pagans, festivalgoers, English Heritage, and the National Trust facilitated a remarkable compromise. From 2000, the stones have become directly accessible again for anyone who wants to go on the night of the summer solstice.

One of the key aspects of Stonehenge is that astronomical alignments have been deliberately and accurately built into the design of the monument itself. One of these alignments is on the summer solstice sunrise. Watched from the center of the circle, the sun rises in the north east, just left of the Heel Stone (an important freestanding monolith on the edge of the monument). On a clear day, as the sun rises in the sky, it shines down the avenue leading into Stonehenge and casts a shadow of the Heel Stone into the centre of the monument before rising to reach its highest point in the sky by noon.

The summer solstice is not the only alignment at Stonehenge, and debate continues about the range, accuracy and importance of the extent of complex astronomical knowledge built into the monument. But whatever the finer technical points of these debates may be, the central fact is that the builders and users of Stonehenge were concerned, obsessed even, with astronomy and they knew the movements of the planets and heavens and their relationship with earth very well. Solstice2002-01b

In our post-industrial age, we believe all too often that we have gone beyond nature; we have mastered it for our own ends. We experience it only as a backdrop—convenient or otherwise—to our busy, machine-dependent lives. Yet, like our ancestors, in reality we, too, are born into it, dependent on it, and subject to its forces. By celebrating at Stonehenge we, too, momentarily can find the connection we have to nature, and to a realization of how much we are a part of it. In so doing, we reforge a connection with those human beings living all those years ago who left us such a remarkable testament to what they held dear, as well as with the awesome turning of the cycles of the world.

Winter solstice alignments at Stonehenge - read more.

Caves of the winter sun: Astronomy at the Boyne Valley Passage Graves

100_0091This article, published in Riocht Na Midhe, the journal of the Co. Meath Archaeological and Historical Society (2003), argues that the three great Boyne valley passage-graves: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth have inter-related astronomical orientations.

It reveals that all three passage-graves are precisely and exclusively oriented on the winter solar cycle, with the solstice orientations at Newgrange, Dowth and possibly at a range of satellite mounds, at their heart. This finding has two significant implications. The first is that it reveals that not only was orientation to astronomical phenomena central to the ritual uses to which the individual monuments were put, but that these orientations functioned together, so that the relationship between orientation and ritual was coordinated across sites as well as operative within each single site. The second is that the winter solar cycle appears to have been central to the ritual meanings embodied in the monumental site as a whole.

There is a tendency within archaeology to dismiss such evidence, even as it is revealed; but in fact, the pattern of orientations at the Boyne valley presented here is striking, and significantly furthers our understanding of the ways in which the site may have functioned as a ritual and cosmological complex. The fact that the winter solar cycle was enshrined at the heart of an extremely elaborate prehistoric monumental and ritual site such as the Boyne indicates that the season itself had a powerful role within the cosmologies of such groups. Such a role cannot be reduced to ‘simple’ concerns to observe the turning of the year, but would have interacted integrally with the range of procession, deposition and initiation rituals evidently practiced at all three monuments. It would also have had meaning and significance in terms of the spatial use of the monuments, and certainly had significance in relation to the complex cosmological symbolism suggested by the rock art. 

The central and integrated relationship of the orientations at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth suggests that the winter cycle may even have acted as a structuring principle for such ritual practices and cosmological meanings, embodying an authority that appeared to lie beyond human agency, within the ‘order’ of the cosmos itself. Moreover, the winter solstice is a central alignment at other highly prominent Neolithic sites, suggesting it may have had a structural ritual role across as well as within particular regional monumental groups.

Neolithic Solar Ritual at Stonehenge: Mad Midsummer or Bleak Midwinter?

DSCN0334  This article was published in 3rd Stone magazine, 2003.

Download the article (pdf).

 This article argues that, from the available evidence and analysis, it seems clear the primary orientation of Stonehenge is to the winter solstice setting sun. Prof. John North argues that this orientation was present at the earliest stages of the monument; certainly, the evidence that it was the orientation to which the monument was primarily dedicated and which received the most intense elaboration from its monumental stages seems incontrovertible.

This raises several questions. It clearly suggests, as Ruggles implies, that any orientation to the summer solstice rising sun is secondary to the main alignment to the winter solstice setting sun. It also indicates that the central orientations incorporated at Stonehenge from its earliest to its latest phases were to the winter sun and to the moon. This is corroborated, not only by Newham and North’s findings about orientations at the early phases of Stonehenge, but also by North’s observation that the Heel Stone-Grand Trilithon alignment "was set up with a double function, for observing two extremes, one of the sun and one of the moon". StonehengeSunrise1980s

Our contemporary desire to party at Stonehenge on summer solstice indicates the degree to which such moments in the seasonal year are still understood by us as times of real power. Perhaps what is needed then, as an answer to the original question this article posed, is for the Wiltshire Constabulary to give the go ahead for a second festival at Stonehenge, but this time on 21 December. We could then gather to watch the death of the sun through the ‘gateway’ of the Grand Trilithon and witness the rising of the moon and stars on the longest night of the year. This would undoubtedly represent a darker and more sombre ritual than the triumphant celebration of the rise of the sun at midsummer. But just as midsummer drumming is a good antidote to Land of Hope and Glory, a midwinter ritual at Stonehenge would not only fully connect us to those who built and used it, it may also give us a much needed ritual alternative at a time dominated by modern festive consumerist excess.

Second photo: Sunrise at Stonehenge, winter solstice 1985 (wikicommons)

The Merriest Days of the Year: Unearthing the Pagan Origins of Christmas

Santa This article was originally published in Science and Spirit magazine in 2000.

It is an abridged version of: Chronos, Saturn, Mithra: Archaeology and the Pagan Origins of Christmas, in Insoll, T. (ed.), Case Studies in Archaeology and World Religion. BAR International Series 755 (1999).

Read the full article here.

Among the vast corpus of ancient Greek myths, the story of Chronos, Father of Time, tells of how time itself came into existence. In later Roman mythology, the god that was most explicitly equated with Chronos was Saturn. And like many of the great pagan mystery cycles, both Chronos and Saturn were associated with a set of rituals - the Kronia and the Saturnalia - that were structured primarily around the seasons. The same is true of the cult of Mithra, which spread rapidly across the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries CE, and exactly reproduced the logic of these other seasonal rites.

If we explore these classical mystery cycles from the perspective of seasonality, the development of the Christian festival of Christmas should not be seen as the heralding of a new religious era. Rather, it appears to be a restatement of the ritual logic of these late antique pagan mysteries.800px-Mithras_relief,_Vatican_Museum

Tracing the evidence for such ritual continuities has major implications for our understanding of the development of Christianity as a world religion, for it puts this development in the context of the far older religious practices from which it emerged. It may also reveal some of the deeper elements of continuity by which religious practice has been - and continues to be - organized.

Photo: Mithras relief, Vatican Museum (wikicommons)