Data Testing Julian Cope’s Dunnideer Hill Alignments Theory
In his popular guidebook to British prehistoric monuments, The Modern Antiquarian, rock musician and poet Julian Cope proposed that a distinctive Aberdeenshire hill in Scotland, the 264 meter (866 ft) high Dunnideer Hill, formed a visual focal point of reference in the landscape in relation to the positioning of ten nearby Scottish Recumbent Stone Circles (RSCs).
Notably, no physical survey data was presented by Cope so I can only assume his comments were intuitively based, undoubtedly after physically visiting each circle and seeing for himself their collective inter-visibility with Dunnideer Hill (Figure 1). A reasonable assumption, but as an archaeologist I have to be careful when accepting such intuitively based information. More so given the fact that he used emotive language such as “Mother Earth Hill” to describe it. However, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and test his “inter-visible-theory” by conducting a quantifiable survey using GPS technology.
Figure 1. Dunnideer Hill. The remains of the hill’s medieval Chapel enhances its visibility amongst the surrounding landscape. (Author provided)
Recumbent Stone Circles (RSCs) Surrounding Dunnideer Hill
The stone circles surrounding Dunnideer Hill belong to a greater class of stone rings known as Recumbent Stones Circles (RSCs). A distinctive class of prehistoric circles which were confined to North-east Scotland. Their architecture was consistent, set out in a ring, they often contained between ten or eleven standing stones plus an outlandishly large recumbent stone that was deliberately laid flat in the southern quadrant of the respective circle – hence their name (Figure 2). Amazingly 156 of these monuments were built across the entire landscape of Aberdeenshire. Regrettably, only 71 of them survive today. Carbon dating places their construction to the Late Neolithic, circa 2500 BC. The original purpose for building these stone circles remains unknown but what we can say with certainty is that no human burials have been found in any of their primary contexts.
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I have already written about these RSCs in a previous article published on Ancient Origins. In that paper I proposed that a single specialist was responsible for designing every one of these RSCs. As I also mentioned in that article, these RSCs were positioned across the landscape so that they were astronomically aligned towards each other forming clusters of circles within their respective landscape settings. See the first of my freely available YouTube videos here explaining more about how these alignments work at the circles.
Although I had suspected that these clusters of circles were deliberately aligned towards natural features of the landscape, such as hilltop summits, I did not have any survey data to prove it. So here was an opportunity to not only test the extent of stone circle alignments towards natural hills but also see if Julian Cope was correct.
Figure 2. The distinctive architecture of an RSC. A ring of standing stones plus its recumbent stone as seen at the Strichen House RSC. (Author provided)
Survey Method Used at Dunnideer Hill
To survey the alignments between the Dunnideer Hill and its surrounding cluster of ten stone circles, I utilized GPS technology in the following manner. Standing on the summit of Dunnideer Hill, the GPS plotted my precise position on the ground. This information was then relayed back to me via a positional coordinate for where I was standing. Then systematically moving to each of the surrounding RSCs, the GPS plotted my successive positions, each time providing me with the corresponding coordinates. Using the “go to” facility on the GPS, I could then obtain the distance and direction travelled between each coordinate. After completion I was able to cross-reference the combined GPS data to produce the maps discussed here.
What I was particularly looking for with the GPS data was to search for astronomical alignments between the hill and the surrounding ten stone circles. Now, if I know the angle of the ecliptic (between the Sun and Earth) at around 2500 BC, I can divide that angle by the exact latitude for the hill and whichever stone circle I was standing at.
This “scientific calculation” then gives me the directions of where the Sun rose or set on the days of midwinter and midsummer for Aberdeenshire around 2500 BC. With some adjusting (to cater for the angle of the moon’s orbit around the Earth), I could also determine similar positions for the Moon as well. After obtaining this scientific calculation I was ready to start.
The Ancient History of Dunnideer Hill
Of course my starting point was Dunnideer Hill. Located close to the small town of Inch, Aberdeenshire, this hill possesses its own long archaeological history. Unfortunately, if ever a stone circle stood on the summit of this hill then whatever evidence for it is now lost. Nevertheless, some 440 meters (1,443 ft) downslope, north-west of the summit, are the remains of the Dunnideer RSC (B), indicating that the hill was at least known to the Neolithic communities as far back as 2500 BC.
The Dunnideer summit has been subjected to many alterations and much disturbance since that time. For instance, during the British Iron Age, a hill fort (circa 700 – 500 BC), was dug out across its summit. 1,500 years later, a medieval Chapel with both solid stone flooring and walling was built above the foundations of the fort, destroying anything below it.
Still, the views from the top of Dunnideer Hill are amazing (and well recommended – despite the short climb). Certainly, I could imagine the Neolithic specialist builder standing here some 4,500 years ago, viewing the landscape below, pondering where to position the ten stone circles in relation to those areas of land below being opened up for domestication and cultivation.
Figure 3. The ten RSCs selected for survey that are also inter-visible with Dunnideer Hill. (Dr. John Hill)
Dunnideer Hill Survey Results
I had established with my GPS an arbitrary distance equal to a radius of 6 km (3.72 mi.) circumnavigating Dunnideer Hill. This radius immediately captured the ten RSCs (Figure 3). The logic behind this arbitrary distance being that (at the most) it would take an hour to walk from the farthest RSC to the hill. Secondly, all ten circles were physically inter-visible with good views of Dunnideer Hill. Incidentally, another interesting observation uniting this cluster of circles is that they all shared similar oval-shaped large but thin recumbent stones - usually these recumbent stones are very broad and thick (Figure 4). Possibly, these thin recumbent stones signified a specific local identity associated with this particular cluster surrounding the Dunnideer Hill.
Figure 4. Three examples of the thin, oval-shaped recumbent stones. 1 = Dunnideer RSC; 2 = Wantonwells RSC; 3 = Stonehead RSC. (Author provided)
After compiling the GPS data from Dunnideer Hill, the rock musician’s theory of it being a focal point for the surrounding stone circles was proving to be disappointing. I could not find any data that would indicate that the hill possessed any astronomical correspondences towards the surrounding ten circles other than them being inter-visible with the summit.
Incidentally, Dunnideer Hill is not the only hill in this landscape, there are other hills which could have acted as alternative focal points. Nonetheless, I wanted to give Cope the benefit of the doubt, so I continued to collect GPS data from the surrounding stone circles.
As I visited each of the stone circles I needed to re-compute my original scientific calculation. When I was standing on top of Dunnideer Hill’s summit I was looking downward towards the directions of the surrounding stone circles, so the altitude factor (within my first equation) did not matter with regard to the astronomical data I collected. Now, standing at the circles, I was looking upward, towards the summit of the hill, so I had to make the necessary adjustments for the “upward” angle of altitude.
Having made these adjustments to my second equation the results I was anticipating began to materialize but not in the manner I expected. Yes, Dunnideer Hill was important to the astronomical alignments connected with the ten circles, but it was not the single focal point as I thought it would be.
Rather than being a single point of reference in the landscape for any one of its surrounding RSCs, the data suggests that Dunnideer Hill appears to have acted like an axis mundi around which the rising and setting of both the Sun and Moon would be seen to rotate during the seasons. And it all depended on when and where one was standing in order to see the corresponding astronomical event at each of the respective stone circles. Indeed, one would have to follow a circular route around the hill, visiting each circle at different seasons to appreciate how the Neolithic communities organized their agricultural and ceremonial calendars.
In short, they were using the hill as a gigantic beacon in the landscape to monitor the movements of the Sun and Moon. Or rather, the cosmos above revolved around the earthen-hill below, with the hill acting as the axis mundi. Let me explain further.
In Figure 5 we see an alignment between Ardlair RSC (A), Dunnideer Hill and Old Rayne RSC (F). Taking into account the altitude factor for the hill, then the alignment runs due east / west. So let us imagine that we are standing at Ardlair RSC, looking eastward, and watching the Sun as it appears to rise behind the eastern summit of Dunnideer Hill. When the Sun appears to rise in this direction then we have an astronomical alignment between the two circles (and the hill between them).
Now, this is the alignment that would only occur on the morning of either the spring, Vernal (21st March), or autumn equinox (21st September). And vice versa, standing at the Old Rayne RSC, looking westward we can watch the equinox sunsets, setting behind the hill in the direction of the Ardlair RSC. Thus, the two circles and the hill align with the equinoxes and as such we have an ingenious method of predicting the times in the agricultural calendar for sowing (i.e. spring) and harvesting (i.e. autumn).
Figure 5. The equinox alignments between two RSCs and Dunnideer Hill. (Dr John Hill)
Similarly, in Figure 6, we can see an alignment between Wantonwells RSC (G) and Dunnideer RSC (B), with Dunnideer Hill again positioned in the middle of the two circles. The axis of this alignment corresponds to the direction of the summer solstice sunset (21st June) and vice versa the direction of the winter solstice sunrise (21st December). So if we were to stand at Wantonwells RSC and watching the sunset behind the hill then we would be looking in the direction of both north-west and the Dunnideer RSC (at the time of midsummer sunset). Such an observation might have been a cue for the Neolithic farmers to move their cattle northward, during the warm summer months, to the higher pastures around the Candle Hill RSC (D).
Alternatively, standing behind Dunnideer RSC and watching the sunrise behind Dunnideer Hill in the direction of Wantonwells RSC, then we would be looking towards the direction of the midwinter sunrise. Seeing the sunrise in this direction may have been the cue for the Neolithic communities to commence the culling of their surplus livestock which would have provided them with plenty of meat for the cold winter months.
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The GPS also provided data to support the statement that the Neolithic communities were also using Dunnideer Hill as a means to monitor the movements of the Moon. For instance, the alignment between Wantonwells RSC (G), the hill and the Stonehead RSC (C) captures the setting position of the midwinter full moon at its most southerly position on the distant horizon. In effect, by using Dunnideer Hill as an axis mundi, the Neolithic communities could operate (albeit a basic) solar-lunar calendar.
Figure 6. Solar and lunar alignments revolving around the axis mundi of Dunnideer Hill. (Dr John Hill)
I did not want to bombard the reader with too much of the astronomy in this article, so the above examples are just a sample of the alignments I have obtained for this particular cluster of stone circles. For sure, there are many more alignments that I could have discussed here. Of course, the reader may question as to how these astronomical alignments were achieved when their inter-visibility between the stone circles mentioned here was blocked by Dunnideer Hill.
Certainly, this is an important question and in in my recent book The Recumbent Stone Circles of Aberdeenshire I propose a number of solutions. But for now, I would ask the reader to view my second freely available video which demonstrates how the geometry used to construct these circles and captured the symbolism associated with the astronomical alignments across the landscape: Ancient knowledge, Sacred geometry at the Loanhead of Daviot stone circle.
But here is another one of my solutions. That is the people were using “smoke signals” across the landscape in order to set out their stone circles in alignments (Figure 7). We have good archaeological evidence that fires were regularly set alight before, during and even after these RSCs were constructed. Although whatever the reasons for these fires remains conjectural, I can reasonably propose that they were a sure way for the Neolithic communities to set out their stone circles in straight lines across the landscape, especially when their visibility was blocked by natural hills such as Dunnideer Hill.
Figure 7. The Neolithic communities used smoke signals to set out accurate alignments across the landscape. (Dr John Hill)
Dunnideer Hill as Axis Mundi
As well as acting as a visible focal point in the landscape, Dunnideer Hill also operated as an axis mundi for the local Neolithic communities to organize their agricultural activities. Of course, I have so far interpreted the GPS data within the practical terms of farming and there is no reason why sacred explanations could not also be offered. Social ceremonies such as weddings or funerals could have been scheduled around the hill in accordance to the relative positions of the Sun and Moon.
Indeed, at certain times of the year the solar and lunar orbs may have even been invited guests to visit the stone circles. An ethnographic analogy springs to mind here with the ancient Japanese, shamanistic religion of Shinto, which was populated by kami-spirits who lived on the summits of certain sacred hills across the Nippon landscape. The Shinto-shamans would place special stones and rocks at the bases of such hills in order to entice the benevolent spirits to come down from their summits and enjoy both the seasonal gatherings and offerings left by the people in exchange for good fortune and productive harvests.
Finally, I should thank Julian Cope for his intuitive observations. Had he not written about his ideas about the “inter-visibility-theory” between Dunnideer Hill and its surrounding stone circles then I would not have undertaken this GPS survey nor written this report.
Dr. Hill’s book, The Recumbent Stone Circles of Aberdeenshire: Archaeology, Design, Astronomy and Methods is available at: https://www.cambridgescholars.com/product/978-1-5275-6585-2
Top image: Dunnideer Hill in Scotland. Source: Scott K Marshall / Adobe Stock
Cope, J. 1998. The Modern Antiquarian – A Pre-Millennial Odyssey Through Megalithic Britain. London, HarperCollins.
Hill, John. 2021. The Recumbent Stone Circles of Aberdeenshire: Archaeology, Design, Astronomy and Methods. Newcastle, Cambridge Scholar Publishing.