Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Stone age observatories or motel of the mysteries?

Terrified prehistoric (well, 1980s) adolescents in
West Kennet Long Barrow
I was interested to see in New Scientist that 'prehistoric tombs may have doubled as star-gazing observatories,' because this reminded me of one of my favourite books from the 1970s.

The idea put forward in the article is that in the extended, narrow chamber of a long barrow or passage tomb, an observer would peer in darkness down to a small fraction of sky and be able to see stars around dawn that would otherwise be washed out by sky light. And it's certainly possible. I particularly liked the quote from Fabio Silva of the University of Wales, Trinity St. David, conjuring up an adolescent initiation rite:
Imagine a young boy forced to spend the night in the passage – probably scared to death. In the morning he would see this star rise days before the rest of his tribe. That may have been presented as secret knowledge.
The reason I find this so delightful is that it has immensely strong echoes of that book I mentioned at the beginning of this post, which was called Motel of the Mysteries. Written by David Macaulay, the idea was simple but excellent - a couple of thousand years in the future, archaeologists excavating the ruins of America dig up an old motel (the Toot N C'mon Motel, to be precise). With no way of understanding its uses they assume, for example, that the toilet seat is a ceremonial collar for ritual purposes and that the TV set was an altar.

Of course, Dr Silva could be spot on. But I would just love it if his interpretations had the same delightful inaccuracies as the interpretations of the motel. And it is entirely possible that it's the case.

The book was out of print for a long time, but is now available again. You can get a feel for it (though the real thing is much better) from some of the text an illustrations, which are available online here.





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