Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland - Clive Ruggles
Hardcover - 288 pages (June 1999) Yale
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rugglesm.jpg (18472 bytes)This book has been 20 years in the making, and is an epic read. As well as the main text there are background boxes interspersed to cleverly and briefly cover important aspects of archaeology, astronomy and statistics. These serve to refresh your arsenal ready to take an onslaught of sometimes complex cross-disciplinary information. The text is also backed up with a dozen or so site data tables, a humungous number of references and a large bibliography. The boxes cover such processes as probability and hypothesis testing, declination and parallax of the moon, and modern approaches to archaeology. This is appreciated by those of us not inclined to read academic textbooks and makes for a self-contained work.

Back to the main text, (getting sidelined like this happens when reading as well; the difficulty of staying on track is as a disadvantage of the approach taken, and anyway my concentration is addled from being able to follow hyperlinks in hypertext documents from the computer publisher O'Reilly. Oh for a copy of the text on disk to accompany the book!). Anyway, the first chapter is a frank appraisal of how British archaeoastronomy languished on the fringe with the ley hunters, buried in argument for much of the 1970s. Then lo!, along came Dr Ruggles and contemporaries to sweep away the legacy of Hawkins and look again at Thom's precision alignment. Chapter Two re-appraises the latter's work, questioning his methodology, but not his integrity. Ruggles' cumulative plots agree that certain directions show up as significant, with a bunching of alignments, but only at low precision.

To cut a long story short, Ruggles and colleagues decided that the only way to get to the bottom of the problem was to conduct a large-scale survey of sites and their possible alignments. This they did in Western Scotland from 1975 to 1981 and I won't spoil the story of what they discovered… Ruggles explains how his 'initial enthusiasm for Thom's ideas was followed by profound disillusionment, but led eventually to a more reasoned set of ideas which were then modified over the years.' The first few chapters are quite frustrating to Thom enthusiasts, as he does his deconstruction job on such attractive ideas. The re-built worldview is a no-nonsense one of harder heads and fuzzier edges.

The sceptical approach involves looking again at the evidence or Ballochroy, Kintraw and Brainport Bay in Argyll, Scotland. Alignments in the Ruggles worldview do not have to be more accurate than a few degrees. Sobering thoughts are that the daily movement of the sun is as much as of its own diameter per day at the equinoxes, dropping to only 1/16th of a diameter at the solstices. This calls into the question of pinpointing the latter as festival days, and with no clear central marker, the concept of the equinoxes also comes in for a pasting as possibly too abstract a thing for ancient cultures, and one on which we perhaps pin too much weight. He clears up misconceptions in the significance of the 56 Aubrey holes at Stonehenge as pretty clearly not eclipse predictors. Tellingly, however, he also shows how the efforts of different archaeologists to pour cold water on the idea could equally flawed in their own way.

A typical subject is the cup marks at recumbent stone circles, and how their declinations from the ring centre line up with the rising or setting moon at the major standstill limit (another phrase whose wooliness he complains about). The fact that these cup marks were most likely added after building suggests that the moon connection may have been a later realisation rather than an integral part of the monument. All great stuff.

'Astronomy is not practised in isolation', he writes; beliefs, observations and rituals form part of the world view. He expands on this in chapter four, and comes back to describe the importance of non-Western ideas in chapter nine. This introduces some mind-boggling theoretical archaeology, a subjectiveness that he ironically finds reminiscent of a certain Professor Thom. Back full circle, as he points out in his rounding up.

Chapters are introduced with quotes ranging from Burl to Tolkein. Chapter six talks about southern Irish, and western Scottish rows, trends rather than certainties, and a frustrating lack of significant results. Seven covers the North Mull project, and gets stuck into issues of intervisibility of monuments, which Ruggles brings right up to date with a discussion of computerised terrain mapping. For a link to images of one of the excavations. Chapter eight is a well-rounded summary of relevant research up and down the British Isles.

All in all, he writes a spirited defence of archaeoastronomy since about 1980, and reflects on the depressing way many archaeologists ignore the subject as using data that is intrinsically laden with presupposed theory, rather than being objective as laid out in this book. They may dismiss Hawkins and Thom, yet also make generally incorrect statements themselves, as indeed do many popular archaoastronomers of course. Ruggles characteristically puts the boot into both sides.

Pity the innocents who ask "So which alignments at Stonehenge are significant then Clive?". He might answer tersely: 'This recipe book approach to solar and lunar targets should be avoided at all costs…'. His own methodology is laid out in a detailed appendix of its own, setting a standard for future researchers to meet if they want any hope of legitimacy.

If, like me, this subject intrigues you then Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland holds lasting interest and provides a springboard to many fascinating areas of up-to-date research. Thoroughly recommended.

It's worth mentioning Ruggles' on-line slide collection, STILE, which was such an inspiration to many of us developing our own megalithic websites. His excellent university lecture notes that are also generously available to all at and serve as something of a taster to this book.

Review by Andy Burnham

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