Imaging the past

Several years ago we made a trip to Shetland and some of the Orkney Islands, and it was a trip well worth making. One of the things we got to do was poke around a number of Neolithic sites, many of which were underground homes, if not outright collections of houses. One of the remarkable things about these houses, because that’s what they were, was the fact that many were erected before the first pyramids were put up—on some very lonely islands in the North Atlantic. Pretty neat stuff. The same is true for what are called passage graves—burial chambers with long passages from the entrance into the central chamber. The engineering on some of these is impressive indeed.

So now a group calling themselves the Scottish Ten have undertaken an ambitious project—to digitalize the interiors and exteriors of a passage grave called Maeshowe. It’s part of a larger project to digitalize images of ten Unesco World Heritage Sites—the five in Scotland, and five elsewhere. Good for them. The project is still under way, but you can see the results of labours thus far here.

And here’s what the underground site at Maeshowe looks like:

The engineering on some of these passage graves, by the way, is pretty astonishing. Check out the Winter Solstice discussion. Maeshowe has something similar. The notion that some of these were constructed before the Pyramids went up makes me wonder–how did these people, wherever they came from, on some lonely outpost of the North Atlantic far removed from any sort of normal commerce routes, know how to do this stuff?

Categories: Arts/Literature, History, World

28 replies »

  1. Well, determining the day of the solstice and the direction of the sun isn’t hard. You drive a stick into the ground. Every day, you drive another stick at the end of the shadow that the first stick throws at noon. When the shadow stops lengthening and starts to shorten a bit, the sun is coming back north, and that’s the solstice. The direction of the sun at sunrise can be determined from the angle (azimuth) of the shadow at sunrise using the same method.

    From there, it’s not so hard to orient any building/passageway/stone you like to capture the sunrise at solstice. Don’t get me wrong. It’s ingenious. Our ancestors were just as smart, and maybe smarter, that we are. But it doesn’t require modern technology to pull this off.

  2. No, you’re right, but no one is claiming that it requires modern technoogy. There is certainly evidence for dating and calendars of some sort for long before this. The interesting question is what sort of engineering savvy do you need to pull off what is being done here, which is not just orienting to the winter solstice. The really clever part is constructing the passage at just the right angles such that the chamber is flooded with sunlight only on the solstice date. And given the scale of some of these passage graves–Newgrange is BIG, and stones are heavy–you pretty much had to get it right the first time. Check out the plans here: So what did you have to know in order to be able to do this? Newgrange certainly isn’t the only passage grave with this characteristic–Maeshowe has it as well, on a much smaller (and therefore easier) scale–but it’s probably the most impressive.

    • I love finds like this one. I think the main reason is that I’m inherently fascinated by questions of discovery and knowledge and it’s remarkable learning that our ancestors were a lot smarter than we thought they were a lot earlier. It makes me wonder what else we don’t know yet.

  3. We don’t give our ancestors nearly enough credit. I mean, the Greeks built temples with lines that had a gentle curve so that they looked straight from a distance. Some of the column capstones on Greek temples were fitted so well that the cedar posts that joined the two pieces still smells of cedar. These capstones have to be rigged off with modern cranes, etc.

    And it goes further back. The Pyramids aren’t even the truly spectacular feats of engineering in that complex. Some of the other temples have worked, stone slabs fitted together perfectly, and the slabs are too heavy for the most modern equipment to lift.

    Me, i don’t buy the alien hypothesis. Mine is that our own ideas and knowledge of our ancestors is sorely lacking and mostly a narrative pieced together from available evidence that suits our psychological needs.

    And never mind that we don’t even know what we lost c. 12,000 years ago when the ice age started ending abruptly and massive amounts of coastline were swallowed. Hell, we’re just now starting to look for our history in coastal waters.

  4. Lex, that point actually occurred to me too when I was ruminating about this. What has been found has been astonishing in many respects. But it’s what we may never find that’s frustrating, since so much of preliterate human history was on or near rivers or shorelines–which have flooded, receded or simply changed so much over the past tens of thousands of years that I don’t even know how people would determine where to look.

    What I always found fascinating about Newgrange was that the builders knew how to construct the passage to get the effect they wanted–flooding the chamber with light on, and only on, the winter solstice. We first visited in 1974, and it had just been recently opened, and you got the sense that no one quite know how to interpret it. But they clearly had the mental tools to construct this thing the way they wanted to in what was likely (so far as we know, anyway) a preliterate culture, and they clearly had enough of a culture to interpret the winter solstice in a certain way. So how did this knowledge emerge, and then get passed on? Fascinating stuff.

  5. When talking about the amazing stuff that our ancestors built, people tend to forget that there was 10,000 and more years of experience of bashing stone together.
    The aliens are both unnecessary and lacking in evidence.

    What would be interesting is, as Wufnik says, how they pass the knowledge on. Which takes us into anthropology and suchlike, and I’m pretty sure that watching the adults doing things and doing them yourself for years at a time is actually all it takes. Nothing spectacular, just copying then trying for yourself. In an age of changing jobs every few years, the idea of keeping at something, no matter how boring, for decades at a time is unusual.

  6. Guthrie, you’re obviously correct, but what I’m really curious about is what the “it” is. “It” is clearly a body of knowledge, and it includes knowledge about, say, assembling certain kinds of stones in a wall, that sort of thing. That’s obviously the kind of thing that can be passed on through observation and instruction, as you mentioned–by watching adults, for example. Cognitive scientists make distinctions between different types of “knowledge”–to put it simply, “knowing how” versus “knowing that.” Building a stone wall is “knowing how.”

    But “it” also includes knowledge about calculating the position of the sun on the winter solstice, and an understanding of the directionality of light, plus the ability to “model” how the shape of the passage has to be to allow that light an uninterrupted path to the chamber 80 feet away. So someone had to know enough to be able to figure this out, and not only that–they had to be able to use that knowledge in the process of a large organized group effort that probably took several years to complete. It’s the shape of the passage that I keep coming back to–it has that little kink that blocks the light unless the sun is nearly horizontal, which it is one that one day (and nearly so the day before and after). What sort of knowledge–presumably without being written down–encapsulates the ability to do that? And across structures of different sizes? It’s quantitative of some sort–there’s obviously some measurement and calculation involved. And there’s probably some trial and error involved at some point, but by the time you get to Newgrange, you can’t fool around–as I said, Newgrange is big, the stones are heavy, and it’s not like if you don’t get it quite right, you can redo it and see if it works next year. So it was probably pretty precise knowledge, built up over many generations, that got passed on in some form. There are no written records, so all we can do is speculate. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t some sort of notational system, just that we haven’t found it yet. But it’s equally likely, maybe even more so, that it wasn’t written down at all. So were there a set of calculations or algorithms that got passed on, or what?

    If we only had a time travel machine!

  7. Well, with regard to the question you ask, obsessive nutters have their uses. Knight and Lomas, in “Uriel’s machine” suggest quite convincingly how you can get timing and so on with a set of wooden posts in the ground. Bearing in mind that most of these structures seem to be in use after people stop travelling so much, and therefore they are living in the same areas for generations. If it was important for me to know how the season was progressing, I would certainly be more aware of where the sun rose or set at different times of year.

    As for the directionality of light, two posts in the ground takes care of that. Thus monuments such as this would be built over several years, with the first one devoted to a circle of posts.
    I seriously think you are over analysing this. Have you tried bodging something together in DIY, or taken part in exercises to build things? Have you read up on ancient engineering methods? Lots of ways they did things back then were effective with the materials at hand, but came about through a trial and error and observation stage that may have lasted generations. Hence for instance, if I were trying to make such a thing, I would set it out with posts, checking on the 2nd year. I’d then do the passageway alignment first, adding bumps and what have you as necessary. Lash together four bits of straight wood and have someone hold it at the right place and you can direct the placement of stones from the centre of the monument.

    Simple, eh? No knowledge required except expectations that things will continue as they have done before.

    Now, other examples of building stuff without proper calculations include medieval cathedrals. The builders were operating in terms of ideal shapes and cross sections to keep it all in proportion; they didn’t calculate much at all, it all fell out of geometrical diagrams they could draw themselves.
    There are loads more examples, I just can’t think of them. People in the past did not calculate and come up with algorithms, they tried and tested and used simple diagrams and geometry and sometimes it all went horribly wrong and the cathedral roof fell in because in modern terms they hadn’t calculated the stresses properly but they didn’t know that.

    I can’t actually remember, but is Newgrange the earliest of that type of monument so far identified?
    Because when we turn to things like Broch’s, which have previously been treated as amazing weird things that appeared out of nowhere, modern archaeologists have now tied them down to being an outgrowth of the Atlantic wheelhouse tradition. They have found the remains of what were most likely proto-brochs or extra large wheelhouses, i.e. intermediate types of buildings. So what came before Newgrange?

  8. Appreciate the comment. You’re right, of course, about the need to know about the sun etc, and yes, you could model something in some rudimentary way. Sticks do it, in fact. How would you know how to do that? Well, trial and error at some point, and probably much earlier than this. You already know about the seasons, about long days and short days, especially in this part of the world. This is 3500-4000 years before the cathedrals, by the way, by which time you had the Greeks and Romans come and go, some well developed mathematics, alphabets and writing systems, and a body of architectural knowledge of many hundreds of years to build on. There may or may not have been a lot of calculations involved, but much of this would be embedded in what knowledge about construction was passed on from the Romans, actually, and later from both the Moorish tradition in Spain and, more importantly, the knowledge of building that came in from Constantinople all through the Middle Ages. There was a constant flow of knowledge in these days, mainy along trade routes, of course.

    So I’m still back to my original question– back in 3000BC, how do you know what it is you’re modeling when you’re designing the passage, which is what you’re doing when you’re designing the pasageway so that you get the exact angles that you need? Someone had to be the first person to figure that out. And someone had to be the person to check it while it was being built–again, this a a large structure that you’re putting together, and stones are heavy–you can’t just keep moving them around. You can probably make adjustments to the passage, but you have to have a model of some sort in your head of what you want in order to do that–and these angles had to be pretty precise.

    Newgrange is early, about 3000BC, but there are earlier ones, going back to about 3500BC. So presumably by the time of Newgrange the knowledge about how to build these, with the appropriate passage, had been around for a while. Don’t forget that there are probably some of these that still have yet to be found, and may never be. I think Newgrange is one of the largest and most dramatic, though. You ask the right question–what came before Newgrange?

  9. I’m glad you didn’t take that the wrong way, I didn’t quite realise when I was writing it how it could be taken as me being shouty.
    I think part of the problem is that you are asking questions which cannot be answered merely by sitting in an armchair, but there are plenty of people who will pontificate from behind their computer.
    Which takes us to experimental archaeology. I can now do bronze casting into authentic medieval moulds (clay and chopped wool, or clay, horse dung and sand, or clay, sand and organic earthy stuff) after doing some research and experimental work. Oddly enough it wasn’t anywhere near as hard as I thought to get to work, what is hard is getting it good enough to produce usable artefacts.

    So in your case you might like to find out about the predecessors to Newgrange and what the differences between them are, and then work out ways of replicating them, the aim being to work up to a Newgrange like setup.
    Like the great pyramids, places like Newgrange and Maeshowe do seem to be the climax of a specific approach, and after them things changed, leaving you wondering why.

  10. Wufnik, I think what guthrie is trying to say (and me too, though not nearly as thoroughly, expertly, and articulately) is that there’s nothing about the technology you describe that’s particularly startling. At least, not to me. Clever. Oh yes. Backed by a keen intelligence? You bet. But startling? I really don’t think so.

    All technologies (except the first ones, of course) are built on the backs of other technologies. There were clearly smaller, predecessor structures to this one, and we know that people in the British Isles (and other places too, for that matter) were keenly into measuring the sun and its angles. Put the two together, and it would be quite clever, but not intellectually difficult, to make the passageway you describe.

    Now, I’m more interested in the labor it took to do this, and labor was wealth in that age in a way we can scarcely comprehend these days. The fact that an agricultural society in a not-particularly-weather-blessed area could find the excess wealth to build this facility just stuns me, and begs the question of weather patterns at that time, agricultural techniques, and trade. Did they mine or produce something they could trade for excess food elsewhere, freeing up labor from farms? Was their governance such that wealth could be concentrated in just the single, or few, hands needed to fund such a thing? Or was it some sort of community, or even religious, effort?

    So, I suppose I’m not nearly as interested in how they did it as I am in how the funded it.

  11. OK, I see what’s going on here, and I misinterpreted. I think we’re talking about slightly different things here, armchair or not. What you’re both saying is that the technologies here aren’t so special. And I don’t disagree with that. But I disagree that “it would be quite clever, but not intellectually difficult, to make the passageway you describe.” I suspect that for people who hadn’t done this before–and we’re talking neolithic here, six thousand years ago, by the way, off of main trade routes, although the folks who did this may have emigrated up from what is now Brittany–this was something of an intellectual jump, however it occurred, simply because they hadn’t done it before. Maybe they had before Newgrange, but at some point some sort of intellectual leap was made, and it manifested itself in shape of the doorway and the passage. Let’s say they did what you’re suggesting–sat around and played around with sticks and mud and stones and whatnot until they got the tunnel shape right. How did they know what was “right” in this context? They had to have some sort of mental model, and that had to include some quantitative information–remember, they’re seeking a very specific objective here. And how did they know when the model would actually give them the real world result they wanted? Even buillding a small one of these things is a lot of work, and something the size of Newgrange is a whole lot more work. I agree, there’s nothing remarkable about the technology of building a mound here, or the technology of digging a passage. But it’s the cognitive leap that interests me, and that’s what’s on display here, not a technological one. It has more to do with a way of thinking than a way of doing.

  12. Thanks JSO’brien, that helps.
    My idea is more that they had sufficient excess food to enable people to work on things which were not directly productive of food.

    And your point about technologies built on the backs of other technologies is nicely counterpointed by Wufnik writing:
    “I suspect that for people who hadn’t done this before–and we’re talking neolithic here, six thousand years ago, by the way, off of main trade routes, although the folks who did this may have emigrated up from what is now Brittany–this was something of an intellectual jump, however it occurred, simply because they hadn’t done it before. Maybe they had before Newgrange, but at some point some sort of intellectual leap was made, and it manifested itself in shape of the doorway and the passage. Let’s say they did what you’re suggesting–sat around and played around with sticks and mud and stones and whatnot until they got the tunnel shape right. How did they know what was “right” in this context?”

    When you narrow it down to the specific question ‘how did they make the specific leap of concept about having a passage which only allows light down it on 3 days a year to hit a specific spot’ your point is a good one. I just had trouble working out that is what you meant, because to me starting with the whole ‘people who havn’t done this before’ thing is unhelpful because of the incremental improvements we see all through mankinds use of techology.

    Fortunately in my library I have some relevant books that may help you understand things, although they are about SCotland and Britain rather than Ireland.
    Basically, in Scotland in the period 4,000 to 3,000 BC were built a great many chambered cairns, i.e. mounds of stone with entrances, passageways and often little stalls off the passageways. They were often oriented in specific directions. Thus the concept of a passageway built out of stone already existed, and when married with the probable knowledge of the movement of the sun, stars and planets through the seasons (There is evidence for posts and rings of stones in this period) might give you something like Newgrange. But who came up with the idea, and when? If only we had a time machine.

  13. Wufnik, with respect, I believe you’re still misinterpreting my point, and I suspect guthrie’s point, as well. There was no need for quantitative information, any more than early wheel makers needed to know the value of pi. A mental model? Yes, but not one that looks at all like modern, engineering drawings. I think guthrie has described quite well how this would be done. Once you know you want a chamber to be lit by the sun on a certain day at a certain angle off the horizon, you construct, say, a platform (not a model, probably) to use on that specific day and time where you can put various rocks/shapes. At the proper time, you note and stake out where the sun is hitting for your interior room, and potentially change the shapes on the platform to get different effects. Now you build the mound around the platform, perhaps replacing the stones/shapes with something more permanent. Voila! You have a wonder for future generations who are used to dealing with doing all this in their heads, first, then building it … and who will wonder how those ancient engineers did all that in their heads before Newton (or Leibnitz) invented calculus ;-).

    Another thing to remember is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Let’s say that, 5,000 years from now after an apocalyptic event, archeologists discover one of the great cathedrals of Europe and its startling flying buttresses. They may ask themselves how on earth the builders of that age knew about the stresses on rock walls caused by such a towering structure and were able to design such a wonderful and graceful solution, even though they’d never done it before.

    But it had been done before. The history of cathedral building is one of failures and collapses, and uglier buttresses before the flying ones. And they did it by trial and error and experience passed down through centuries. They had no mathematical models of stresses. It’s just that the archeological record of all these predecessor efforts had been lost. And that’s the same with us. More than 99% of the archeological record is gone and will never be recovered. What’s left are large lacunas, filled in by conjecture.

    We have no idea what the predecessors to this mound might have been because we undoubtedly have not located all the earlier mounds, where the builders came from, what sort of society they had, what sorts of technologies they came with, or even the history of the development of that technology.

    Hey, I very impressed by what they did. No question. Thank you for pointing it out on this site. It’s not my intention to pooh-pooh that accomplishment. Far from it. My only intention here is to point out that, impressive as it is, it didn’t require any stunning, one-time leap in technology to exist. Those one-time leaps are so rare as to be practically non-existent. In fact, off the top of my head, I can’t think of one.

  14. guthrie–yes, that’s it exactly. I didn’t express my specific concern well enough. Glad we got that cleared up. And there was lots of this stuff going on all over what are now the British Isles during this millenium of 4000-3000 BC too, so presuamably some of these people talked with each other. There are passage graves in Scotland too–in fact, the original post was about just that. And many had this orientation to the winter solstice. So, yes, there probably were incremental changes in technology along the way, ranging from moving and even shaping stones to the siting of the lintel opening over the doorway. Some of these were just improvements in technology, no doubt–and some were improvements in how the projects were ogranized, probably.

    JSOBrien–you might be right, that might do it. It’s still some sort of jump, I believe. The problem is we don’t have these for before 4000 BC, although we know that Britain was reoccupied after the last Ice Age as early as 12000 BC, and there are bone artefacts going back to the Upper Paleolithic. The Ice Age probably prevented people from living in Britain before 12000BC. Also, since sea levels were lower, Ireland, Britain and Northern Europe were all connected up to about 6500BC, so after the Ice Age ended there was presumalby a lot of wandering around. There is physical evidence for structures as far back as about 8500BC. But the Neolithic is when you started getting actual settled communities, apparently. Which may be why there’s not much before that. Maeshowe may be one of the earliest surviving structures. What’s before these structures is mainly long barrows used for burials, and acutally not much else. Newgrange looks like it may precede Stonehenge by about 600 years, an interesting notion. But in general there’s not much, and then around 4000BC you start getting a bunch of stuff, much of which had oriented doorways.

    And taking into account your point about absence of evidence etc, the fact remains that there are just few physical structures in Briatin and Ireland that precede these monuments. I just don’t know what to make of that, but it does tend to complicate the extended trial and error notion of this–not that we would find the physical models, if that’s what they used. But one would expect to find something preceding these structures that might lend some information about how they evolved. But we don’t seem to have any. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t evolve elsewhere–there were trade routes of some sort even then, and people did move around. So that might have occurred.

    But I still think you’re underestimating the achievement here. This was a preliterate culture that did know some astonomy, so they had notions of time. Which clearly would have been necessary. They could well have had some form of notation–many cultures of this (and earlier) period(s) did. And they clearly know how to build some stuff to last, which doesn’t appear to be a characteristic of earlier dwellers of these landscapes. But, still, suddenly we get a bunch of passage graves, most with this orientation feature, and some, like Newgrange, with some pretty clever engineering, for lack of a better word? I prefer to remain astonished.

  15. Oh no, I wouldn’t want to damage your sense of wonder.
    I suppose that is always a problem, how to balance the wonder with the mundane how did they do that side of things.

    But perhaps if you imagine a pre-literate culture that has been passed on orally from generation to generation for centuries, and even better, the generations are every 20 years or so, which means 5 in a century. Which means that even just a century (And we have trouble distinguishing something as small that far back in the carbon dating) is enough for new people and the passage of information and new trials and suchlike.

  16. Oh, agreed. It would have to be oral. Here’s where I’m ready to start bringing in a lot of fantasy/sf references, but I’ll spare you. But yes, you could easily see how straightforward the diffusion would be once the idea and technique had been established. Were there wandering engineers, for lack of a better word, spreading the technique, just as there were wandering masons during the time when cathedrals were being built? Heh.

  17. “And taking into account your point about absence of evidence etc, the fact remains that there are just few physical structures in Briatin and Ireland that precede these monuments.”

    I’d like to just add: “that archeologists have found” to this statement. Because they haven’t found them doesn’t mean they weren’t, or aren’t, there. As an example, the three pyramids at Giza were well known long before the pyramids of Saqqara, which show a progression in technology, including some failures:

    I guess I’m just always a bit suspicious of what I think of as “Clan of the Cave Bear” approaches to technological progression. If you’re read parts of that series, you’ll know that the heroine ends up inventing everything from the needle to horseback riding. I think she invents a warp drive in the next book 🙂

    (I’m not accusing you of that kind of thinking. Far from it. I just joined the conversation to point out that one can be amazed by what our ancestors were able to accomplish using very crude methods, and the sense of wonder should still be there, but those accomplishments aren’t necessarily a leap of genius such as we have rarely seen before.)

    Neolithic sites are in notoriously short supply, as is the money needed to survey and excavate all the hills that could possibly conceal them. And, of course, many have been destroyed over the centuries in the same way that the Greeks and Romans leveled the top of the hill on which Troy stood. Heck, I once asked a Hittitologist why no one had dug near Beysultan in Turkey, and his answer was, “Grab a shovel.” There are too many possible sites and too few resources to excavate them.

  18. IIRC, the Avebury archer was identified by the isotope ration in his teeth as coming from central Europe. So there were almost certainly wandering families or experts in the time period. Plus you only need to look at the distribution of stone axes eg the Lakeland green stone I think it is, that turns up all over the country meaning someone had to carry it hundreds of miles.

  19. Absolutely agreed. They might be there. But if they are, they’re probably not under mounds, which has been the big help, obviously, in finding many of the sites that we do know about. Aerial surveys have been a help too–in the last big drought about five years ago or so, contours were emerging that no one knew were there.

    Oh, I know those books too. Fun, but honestly….and the movie!

    In a similar vein, check out Marek Kohn’s As We Know It–he’s got a wonderful discussion on the emergence of hand-axes and other triangular tools in early hominid culture. What I was most impressed by is the sheer number of different types of specialized tools you can get with just the basic model of flaking technology.

  20. guthrie–I think people wandered generally–before the neolithic, that’s pretty much all they did between seasonal camps. But I like the idea of the itinerant passage grave builder, traveling around Ireland and Britain, and northern Europe, helping to build these things, with his family trailing along behind him. What a picture.

  21. There’s a debate currently going on about the use of British tin (the Tin Isles, after all) in the ancient Near East. Clearly, tin from Afghanistan was being used in the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan has been found in Greek Thebes (after being carved and presented as a gift by the Assyrians). But many people think that tin from the British Isles made it to the Near East. So, people got around a lot long before even the relatively rapid horse-drawn conveyance came into being. (Before the horse, overland travel was limited to around 16 miles per day, which was eight hours at 2 mph by ox cart, eight hours to graze the oxen, and eight hours to let the oxen sleep.)

    Our ancient ancestors were really quite amazing, and I love learning about them. Thanks again for pointing this out.

  22. Oh, I have no doubt people traveled all over the place. It’s what people did, especially before farming took hold. Including by boat.

    I know, this is fascinating stuff.

  23. Could I add to the comments the observation that Maes Howe should be considered in the context of the wider area around Stenness. The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, (about a mile or so from Maes Howe) which are between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, have revealed a complex set of buildings which show a degree of sophistication in design and construction; last year evidence of painted stonework was found. There is obviously a lot of theorising and speculation about the extent and purpose of the works – the prime train of thought is that the Ness represented a bridging point between the living and the dead worlds. The best place to read further is Sigurd Towrie’s site Orkneyjar –

  24. Richard, you certainlycould–this looks like the kind of site that will keep me distracted for hours. Thanks.