Last year I was all set to see the sun rise on the newly-turned year – but it it was pouring down, untypically for our normally cold clear winters. This year I can touch the cloud-base, the sky’s so heavy with snow. But I’ve a Theory To Prove, and the forecast said it will clear a bit . . . so it’s up in the dark for porridge, then coffee in the flask and tog up like an Inuit – or Idiot.
It’s regrettable, but in this dumbed-down day-and-age, going dolmen-hunting puts me way over at the Eccentric end of the spectrum. So it was with alarm that I heard that my wife and daughter wanted to come too. I know they’re all used to me being a bit barmy – but to want to join in – they must be mad!
The theory isn’t that startling: a number of archaeologists have noted that the alignments of the dolmens in Languedoc-Roussillon are all over the compass (including one north-facing) reflecting waves of ‘immigration’ or cultural influence. I simply wanted to establish that one of the nearest dolmens to our village, was one of the very few that actually faced the winter solstice sun-rise. With the dolmen de la Porteille, twenty km. south in the Corbieres Hills, it’s the only tomb that faces precisely 120 degrees, E S-E.
I confirmed my own measurements with those in the Corpus Mensurarum (data from 2,500 communal burial sites around the Mediterranean) that forms the basis of Michael Hoskin’s tremendous study: Tombs, Temples and their Orientations. It’s a summation of half a lifetime’s work at Cambridge University, set out in a very clear and accessible form.
Plus the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Dept. azimuth-calculating programme.
Naturally I was disappointed when the glow to the east failed to break into a dazzling sunbeam smiting the chevet stone at the back of the tomb. But it gave rise to further thoughts regarding the other dolmens of the region – those that are oriented to a sun already rising.
Back at the house now and I’m delighted to come upon the article in Modern Antiquarian about the bone-middens near Stonehenge, and the winter festivals that they might represent.
Then I’m out in the courtyard gathering old logs for this year’s midwinter solstice bonfire party when it occured to me that by not orienting their tombs too strictly to the instant of sunrise, by relaxing the ‘fundamentalist dogma’ by a few degrees, the clan could avoid disappointments, dismay and despair. If they let the day develop and the sun establish itself, before opening the tomb for its annual rituals – then the ceremony could continue more effectively – and with less sniggering from the family . . .
Hoskins’ conclusions follow similar paths – only more seriously. He proposes that the waves of influences – sunrising architects versus sunsetting – mingled in a beneficent manner here in our region, and that pacific concessions to each ‘culture’ were probably made.
I can no longer find the link to Michael Hoskin’s paper : Cosmovision in the Neolithic, and Cultural Identity – so I’ve included the full text of it in Pages, under General.
His Corpus Mensurarum is here.
There’s more info and photos of the dolmen de la Madeleine in summer and midwinter on the Madeleine dolmen Page.