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Widecombe History Group Talk May 2000

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Widecombe History Group Talk on Dartmoor’s Megaliths and Moonlight


Illustrated talk by Brian Byng - Dartmoor’s Megaliths and Moonlight!

This was an interesting address which included a theory that Brian has developed over the years, by careful study and detailed calculations concerning the position of standing stone, stone circles and stone rows on Dartmoor and their relevance with the sun, moon and stars.

What are they and why are they here today. Some circles can have as many as five concentric circles. Norman Lockyer in the 1920’s put forward a theory that these things were aligned on the stars, he was director of the solar physics laboratory in London. Worth who was at that time considered an authority on Dartmoor tended to look with disdain on this ‘outsider’ coming into the area with these new fancy ideas. Looking at Greywethers, two circles beside each other, it can be seen that a line running between the two centres of these circles runs exactly north/south. It has to be remembered that several of these old prehistoric monuments were re-erected around the end of the 19th century, when the Dartmoor Exploration Committee found many in a state of ruin, there was a great upsurge of archaeological activity at that time. Stone rows, single, double and even triple stone rows can be found on the moors and they tend to run up-hill terminating with the remains of a burial site. Most of the stones in a row are like slabs that run with the direction of the row, stones set across the direction of the row are generally only found at the ends. Some of the early archaeologists did what they thought was right when re-erected some of these stones, but now one can query their action as to whether they replaced some of the stones in the correct position and at the correct angles.

How can one work out why prehistoric man placed them where they are? What evidence is there that we can study in an effort to understand their actions. He considered a modern situation - Buckfastleigh’s Church on the Hill - burnt down in 19 , if it was not for the fact that today everything is written down so that future generations can read of what happened, just looking at what is left, a row of pillars running west/east or east/west, a big stone, possibly an altar at the eastern end, a high tower at the west, what does it all mean. With prehistory there are no written records so we have to surmise or better still perhaps, try to calculate what went on and why!

What kind of ceremonies were held here, what people were involved, a large room running east/west, even if a stained glass window survived, what is the meaning of that and who or what does it depict? Without written records it could be difficult to come up with the correct answers. Today we are faced with the same dilemma when we try to unravel these prehistoric features.

In modern Christian churchyards the graves run east/west, and if in years to come they were excavated the remains would appear facing east/west. Why! what is it all meaning. So the building and the graves run in the same direction. He mentioned the large stone grave in Buckfastleigh churchyard with a roof on it and iron railings around it, that of Richard Cabell, supposed to have been buried with a stake through his heart as he was a wicked old soul, with a large concrete slab above him, and even during World War II the locals refused to allow the railings to be removed for fear that he could escape, even the inscription was not finished on the grave as the stonemason was reputedly frightened while doing it and refused to return to finish it!

All this folklore and history is passed down by word of mouth or by the written word, but when we consider 4000 years ago there is nothing like that to help us understand. Here in the year 2000 AD, we still in the Christian religion bury our dead facing east, with a stone (headstone) placed at the head of the grave. Brian then stated that there is an exception, that is in the case of the Vicars, they are buried the other way round, their head at the east so they are facing west. (One feels that this needs ratifying!)

Stonehenge was mentioned as the ‘altar stone’ facing the position of sunrise on mid summers day. On June 21st people who call themselves Druids, assemble there dressed in white cloaks, chant a few choruses and witness the rising of the sun. The term druids was introduced by the Romans to explain the rather blood thirsty religious leaders of the native British that they found when they invaded Britain about 2000 years ago, they of course wrote this down, and when in about the 1600’s people started to read the old Roman or Latin documents, they found this term used to describe some of the early British, they then adopted this term for their beliefs, but 4000 years ago or so when Stonehenge and our early stone buildings were being erected this term was not in use. Another construction of the same era is New Grange in Ireland, a burial tomb, it has a very long passageway in the shape of a cross, the tomb chamber at the end is constructed with large quartz slabs. The locals always believed that above the entrance there was a ‘letter box type’ opening and that at sunrise on December 21st (the shortest day) the sun shone through the opening and lit up the entire chamber at the end of the passageway. This has been proved to be correct and the quartz reflects the rays of the sun and completely lights up the interior. This must have been deliberately built to take advantage of that sunrise, calculated to have been built in 3500 B.C.

Freda Wilkinson then quoted a local belief that if you stand on Corndon Tor on Easter Day and watch the sun rise in the east, it is reputed to dance, it rises and dips again under the skyline, belief is that it does this as a salute to Christ.

Stone rows on Dartmoor are generally aligned in three major directions, north/south, east/west and northwest/southeast, there are only a very few that do not fit with this generalisation.

Brian has a computer programme that can plot the position of the sun, moon and stars for any date going back over the past 10,000 years, he can take any date and see the position of each to each other and their place in the sky.

About 4000 years ago one finds the second brightest star in the sky was Arcturus, at that time it did not set beneath the horizon in the north. There are several north/south rows with a cairn at the northern end and 2000 B.C. this star would dip behind the cairns at midsummer and midwinter and this would be observed when looking up the length of the row. One can only surmise that this could have been a deliberate act on the part of our ancestors when erecting these rows. Cirius the brightest star associated with Orion, (Orion the hunter), disappears for 40 days and 40 nights and gradually rises in the eastern sky and the early Egyptians would use Cirius to signal the beginning of their year, so watching the sky is indeed an age old study, art and occupation. By watching Cirius it was found that the year is 365 days plus one quarter of a day and that is how the leap year of adding one extra day in four came about. There are examples that do not fit the pattern, for example rows with circles in the south. Anything that rises in the eastern sky and sets in the west has to travel across the southern sky and according to the rise and fall point of the sun and moon so the height in the southern sky can vary, so more research is needed to understand this phenomenon. Brian is continually looking for an association of the directions of stone rows and the rise and set of the moon, he is still adding to his knowledge and theory. The Scilly Isles have passage graves similar to the one in Ireland, 4000 years ago with the continual melting of the ice cap, the level of the sea rose flooding the lowland leaving what we see today, the islands, the islands of today were the hills/tors of that time so we must realise that what we see today is different to how it was at those times. Stone circles are the next thing

that he is studying and they too seem to have an alignment with the rise and set of the sun in some cases at midwinter or midsummer.

He said that this is an attempt to explain and hopefully profit from these wonderful and interesting prehistoric remains.

Questions

Could it be that the different directions of the stone rows could be explained by the possibility that they were built by different cultures or peoples?

Could it be that some were connected to the sun and others connected to the moon, meaning that various importance was attributed according to different eras or religions.

The direction of how peoples were buried could that be associated with alterations in beliefs.

What about dowsing? He showed some doubt in this art, it was suggested that his disbelief was because it is something that he does not understand.

Was it possible that much of the land was wooded when these were erected? He suggested that perhaps there were large clearings where early farmers had cleared ground to raise livestock on.

This action would create sites to build these artifacts

A vote of thanks was recorded for an interesting, fascinating and thought provoking talk.

The meeting was reminded that Brian would be giving the group a guided walk around Merrivale Stone Row and its associated circles, cairns etc on Wednesday 17th May beginning at Four Winds (Foggingtor School) car park at 7.30 p.m.

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