Thursday, 30 June 2016

Ancient European Communities might have Used Passage Graves as Telescopes

A new study carried out by researchers from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and the Nottingham Trent University suggests that ancient humans might have used entrance passages to 6,000-year-old tombs (passage graves) as "telescopes" to see the rising stars.

Image by Karsten Wentink [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Such passage graves are scattered across Europe, and researchers believe the dark, narrow entrances of the graves might have provided viewers a clear, amplified view of the night sky - allowing them to detect stars rising at twilight sooner than other members of the community.

In particular, researchers reveal that the orientation of the dark entrances to passage graves in Portugal suggests that they were aligned to give a view of Aldebaran, the red star and the brightest body in Taurus constellation. Researchers believe this star probably had a special significance for preshistoric communities who used to move their sheep and goats to mountain pastures for summer grazing each year. The study argues that this annual shifting event could have coincided with the first appearance of Aldebaran in the morning twilight each year.

"This first rising of Aldebaran occurred at the end of April or beginning of May 6,000 years ago, 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" said Dr Fabio Silva of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

The team says the conditions within the chambers could have provided viewers an early view of Aldebaran's first appearance before those outside. Researchers also believe that these passage graves were probably linked to some ancient rituals involving revelation of an astronomical secret. "There is a wealth of evidence now that these passage graves were not only used as tombs for burials, but they could also be used for rites of passage," said Silva.

Ancient European communities placed their dead within passage graves featuring single or multiple chambers, and a long, straight corridor to connect the underground tombs to the outside world. Mounds or earth or stones were used to cover the entire structure. These tombs were widespread phenomena in Spain, Scandinavia, Portugal and the UK. According to researchers, many tombs also featured engravings or paintings. "Imagine a young boy forced to spend the night in the passage – probably scared to death," says Silva. "In the morning he would see this star rise days before the rest of his tribe. That may have been presented as secret knowledge."

According to Frank Prendergast at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland, the finding of the new study is definitely a reasonable hypothesis. "The purpose of these tombs is not just funerary, there's a lot more going on," he says. The detailed findings of the study will be presented at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting at the University of Nottingham.

Author: Devender Kundaliya