Commanders and Kings
People of the Sea
Editor Simon Denison
Memories of Callanish
Aubrey Burl on his discovery that folk memories of the circle’s original alignment had survived for 1000 years
Even after 40 years of studying stone circles I have never lost my sense of their romance. But perhaps my favourite find was not the discovery of a previously unknown circle, but of some intriguing information about one of the best-known circles of all - Callanish on the Isle of Lewis.
I first went to Callanish in 1976. I had just finished an excavation in northern Scotland and I thought it would be rather pleasant to go across to the Hebrides to have a look at this marvellous site. It was a remarkably hot day - we had to shelter behind one of the stones while I was taking some notes because we needed some shade.
I was taken aback by the site. It is a unique place because the stones are very tall, with a huge central stone, an avenue and stone rows. It probably started off as a single standing stone, like a navigational marker for sailors - there are a lot of stones like that in the Hebrides on the coast - and then presumably acquired some sanctity, and people put up the stone circle, then added the avenue and the rows, and then they poked a little chambered tomb inside in the end.
About four years later, I was reading a book called The Sphinx and the Megaliths by John Ivimy, who had the belief that Stonehenge was put up by Egyptian astronomer-priests because they wanted an observatory in a part of the world with uncluttered skies! Anyway, this book contained a reference to the 1st century BC Greek writer Diodorus Siculus, who had described a 'spherical temple' where Apollo (the sun or moon) 'skimmed the earth at a very low height'. Ivimy assumed that Diodorus was writing about Stonehenge, referring to an eyewitness report of an explorer who had actually seen the place.
But as soon as I read about Apollo skimming the earth I knew this couldn't be Stonehenge, because at Stonehenge's latitude both the sun and the moon are always very high above the horizon. To see that phenomenon (the moon or sun hardly rising above the horizon between rising and setting) you have to go about 500 miles further north, and I wondered if Diodorus might have been referring to Callanish.
Then Diodorus goes on to say: 'In that temple, at the rising of the Pleiades, the sun is seen to set at the equinox'. And those two phenomena do also occur uniquely at Callanish. The ENE stone row at Callanish was in line with the rising of the Pleiades in the early Bronze Age, and the western stone row does point towards the setting of the sun at the equinox. So three independent lines of astronomical evidence point to Callanish; and that is very convincing.
It is accepted that Diodorus took his information about Britain from the earlier, lost, writer Hecataeus of Abdera, who himself drew on the lost writings of the 4th century BC Greek explorer Pytheas. Now what is remarkable is that by the time Pytheas got to Callanish, the Pleiades would have risen a few degrees to the north-east of the ENE stone row. The Pleiades - whose movements can be dated - had risen in alignment with the row for a few centuries after about 1700 BC (which is presumably when the row was built), but since then had edged away.
So Pytheas seems to have been reporting a folk memory of the connection between the circle and the Pleiades that had survived at Callanish for at least 1,000 years, long after the circle had gone out of use. This may seem incredible but we know from other societies that oral traditions can survive for many, many centuries even though their original use has long since been abandoned.
Strangely enough, years later when I wrote a book about stone rows, I suggested - quite independently of Callanish - that short stone rows (the type found at Callanish) were erected about 1800-1500 BC. And there you go, the Pleiades are rising at Callanish right in the middle of that range.
Aubrey Burl's revised 'Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany' was recently published by Yale University Press
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005