10,000-Year-Old Telescopes? Ancient Tombs May Have Enhanced Visibility of Astronomical Phenomena
Could ancient megalithic passage graves in Portugal dating as far back as 8000 BC have doubled as astronomical observatories? A team of researchers studying the ancient tombs thinks so, and have even suggested that the megaliths provided optical opportunities for the ancient observers, effectively acting as ‘telescopes’ without lenses.
The idea behind the researchers’ speculations is that the passages of the tombs, which show just a small patch of sky on the horizon, would have been dark. Anyone sitting inside them would have had an early view of rising stars. The reduced ambient light in the passages around twilight would have made the stars more visible to the naked eye. Telescopes did not come until much later (1608 AD), but ancient observers may have used the stone constructions to enhance their visibility of astronomical phenomena.
In particular, says undergrad Kieran Simcox of Nottingham Trent University in England, the ancient people may have been trying to get an early glimpse of Aldebaran, a bright red star in the constellation Taurus.
That star might have played a role in moving herds and flocks to higher grazing every summer. It’s possible, the researchers say, that herding the flocks to higher ground may have coincided with the star’s first annual rising in morning twilight. Around 4000 BC, Aldebaran rose for the first time each year around the end of April of beginning of May, “so it would be a very good, very precise calendrical marker for them to know when it was time to move into the higher grounds,” Dr. Fabio Silva of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David told the Guardian.
Earth’s moon occults Aldebaran (Wikimedia Photo/Christina Irakleous)
Dr. Silva and Daniel Brown, also of Notthingham Trent University, were the advisers for Mr. Simcox’s project.
The passage tombs, which consist of one or more chambers and a corridor covered in earth or stone, are known all over Europe. Prehistoric peoples placed their deceased community members in the tombs between 6000 and 2000 BC, the Neolithic era - some of the tombs feature paintings point to their purpose. Two famous passage graves are Maeshowe in Scotland and Newgrange in Ireland.
The famous passage tomb of Newgrange (public domain)
Inner chambers of the tombs, which are known as dolmens, were graves for the deceased (at least later on), while outer chambers may have been used to conduct death rites or other rituals, the researchers say.
Drs. Silva and Brown told Discover Magazine: “These passage graves exhibit elements suggesting that initiation rituals, also known as rites of passage, might have been conducted within the megalithic chamber.”
Mr. Simcox told Discover that some literature speculates that viewing stars from passage tombs would make them more visible, but the idea needs research. The team intends to do just that—study the rising of faint stars to see if they are more visible from the passages.
The orientation of the tombs suggests that they are aligned to offer a view of Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. Photograph: University of Wales Trinity Saint David/Nottingham Trent University.
For many years, researchers and scholars have been speculating whether prehistoric and ancient stone monuments around the world were used for astronomical and calendrical purposes, now they are getting closer to understanding just how they did this.
Top image: Dolmens or passage graves like this one, Anta da Orca, in Portugal, may have been simple star observatories. (Photo by Alta Falisa/Wikimedia Commons)
By Mark Miller