Review of ‘Records in Stone: Papers in Memory of Alexander Thom’ edited by C.L.N. Ruggles

26th May 2014

‘Records in Stone: Papers in Memory of Alexander Thom’ edited by C.L.N. Ruggles, 1988, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-33381-4 (hbk)

Review by R.J. Lampert

The megalithic Sites scattered throughout Britain and Brittany are a source of fascination for archaeologists and laymen alike. Stone circles, standing stones, chambered cairns, stone rows and stone fans have been interpreted in various ways by their beholders throughout recorded history. Even well into this century, antiquarians saw the great stone circles of Britain as ‘druidical temples’ or ‘temples of the Beaker Folk’, but in recent decades many such romantic views of the past have been modified by scientific rationalism. For example, numerous radiocarbon dates show that stone circles date back as far as 5000 BP, a time well before the earliest beaker pots appeared in Britain. There is nonetheless a persistence of views among scholars today that stone circles, at least the best known examples like Stonehenge and Avebury, are ‘religious monuments’ or ‘ceremonial centres’. Some go beyond this and see the sites in terms of contemporary ideas about power structures and social change, the era of megalith building being seen as a time when a ‘collectivist ideology’ produced, and was reinforced by an incipiently ‘Stalinist architecture’, with its eventual decline being seen as a time when ritual-authority social structures gave way to those in which the proclamation of power lay in prestige goods. Small wonder that Jacquetta Hawkes’ comment ‘every age has the Stonehenge it deserves or desires’, is quoted often. However, such discussion falls outside the subject matter of the book under review which concerns itself more  with physical aspects of megalithic sites, notably the notion that megaliths contain calendrical alignments, having been laid out by their builders to predict such major solar events as the solstices and equinoxes, or the lunar cycle.

Alexander Thom, to whom this book is dedicated, held the chair in engineering science at the University of Oxford, but had a lifetime interest in megaliths. This became a full time pursuit after retirement until his death at the age of 91. Using his engineering skills, Thorn accurately surveyed hundreds of stone circles and stone rows to obtain a data base large enough to allow him to assess his ideas statistically. As well as examining possible alignments with celestial bodies, he used geometry to examine the shape of stone circles, many of which are in fact far from circular, and to suggest ways in which they could have been set out. By examining distances between stones he tried to determine whether standard units of measurement had been used, eventually arriving at a value for the megalithic yard, equal to 40 megalithic inches and 2/5ths of a megalithic rod. Published in some 60 papers and books, Thom’s interpretations of megaliths were controversial, sparking debates that continue today as shown by several of the 21 papers assembled in this book. .

Six of the papers are introductory, combining to give an outline of Thom’s life and work. One paper describes the Alexander Thom Archive held at the National Monuments Record of Scotland which includes notebooks detailing some 800 visits over 40 years to megalithic sites, while another reproduces a descriptive catalogue of more than 600 field drawings. A chapter by Chris Jennings which con- eludes this section is simply an extraordinarily beautiful photographic essay showing megaliths on the lonely upland moors of Scotland, Wales and Devon.

The real meat of the book lies in the remaining 15 papers which describe archaeological research inspired by the ideas of Thom. Some of this research is the mere, rather uncritical, application of Thorn’s techniques to other sites, but other papers portray an increasing analytical rigour as computers and more stringent statistics are marshalled to handle an expanded data base. In many papers however, particularly those dealing with astro-archaeology, fertile imagination has inspired special pleading and subjective assessment of the evidence. To name but a few examples: stone circles which do not align exactly with celestial bodies explained as ‘symbolic observatories’ (Aubrey Burl) or ‘reminders’ of events yet to ensue (Euan MacKie), and what about ‘Seventy men could have erected the heaviest stone … one might assume an adult male community of about 100 and a total population … of 400 or more’ (Aubrey Burt) for a piece of demographic sleuthing? We poor naive colonials obviously should not feel abashed at basing population estimates on midden biomass and land resources! These views might seem hard to beat, but the prize for lack of scientific objectivity must go to the statement, ‘difficult to find a probability level for this common sense point of view’ (Alexander and Archie Thorn).

As several writers point out, there are numerous possible alignments within stone circles, and quite a number of noteworthy calendrical, solar and lunar events,
making it likely that ‘significant’ alignments will be found
among several hundred monuments even if they are
oriented randomly. Thom and some of his followers
have increased the range of possibilities, and compounded the problem, by including also prominent
natural landscape features like notches and peaks on
the horizon as a foresight, aligned with a single stone
as a backsight. A better bet are stone rows which point
in only two directions and best of all stone fans which
point in only one. Indeed, among the more convincing
cases for celestial alignment is a paper by Leslie Myatt
analysing azimuthal data from 21 stone fans in Scotland
which show a significant clustering around the direction
of moonrise at the time of southern major standstill,
which has an 18.6-year cycle. In looking at other Scottish sites, comprising stone rows and ‘alignment pairs’
of menhirs, Clive Ruggles finds an identical orientation was favoured. A cluster analysis by Jon Patrick and Peter Freeman of a much larger body of Ruggles’ survey data, 276 megalithic alignments from western Scotland, reveals no clustering around any single astronomical direction. This the authors say merely supports the commonly expressed view that not all alignments have an astronomical purpose. However, the amount of overlap between the data sets reviewed by various authors is uncertain. Ray Norris also claims to have a body of Ruggles survey data from western Scotland under review but, unlike Patrick and Freeman, believes there is a significant number of alignments directed to lunar star rising.

While Thom’s megalithic yard as a unit of measurement in setting out sites receives cautious support from later writers, the megalithic inch suffers a probably lethal body blow from a well argued paper by Alan Davis. The megalithic inch (2.0725 cm) is based on the recognition of supposed integer values repeated many times for distances, both between and within, cup and ring carvings. Through remeasuring Thom’s sites and several additional ones, and employing a test statistic seen as more appropriate to the hypothesis, Davis shows that there is no quantum in the data approximating to 2.0725 cm.

Although Thom’s own research was confined to western Europe, his influence, particularly in astroarchaeology, was more widespread, as shown by the two concluding chapters, in which Anthony Aveni discusses aspects of the Thom paradigm in the Americas and Ed Krupp examines the supposed solar orientation of several Egyptian temples. However for Australian readers, the megalithic structures of Oceania remain mute as far as this book is concerned.

Lampert, R.J.
Review of 'Records in Stone: Papers in Memory of Alexander Thom’ edited by C.L.N. Ruggles
December 1991
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