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Navigation in the Neolithic Retrospective Part I D. P.

Davidson This document correlates the unpublished archaeological research papers of Peter Davidson that were devoted to the study of the use of megalithic monuments for maritime navigation. The words are predominantly his, but they have been scanned, edited and abridged in a non-judgemental spirit for presentation on the Web by me. The opinions are his, not all of which do I necessarily comprehend or subscribe to. But I apologise for any editorial errors which will be predominantly mine.

IN MEMORIAM Peter B Davidson MA CEng MIChemE 1922-2010 CONTENTS Summary NEOLITHIC AND EARLY BRONZE AGE NAVIGATION 1974 Paper presented to JHA but not published Part II at MEGALITHIC AIDS TO NAVIGATION 1988 With Appendices I Statistics The Jigsaw II Mensuration The Megalithic Yard III Primitive Navigation IV le Menec as a Tide Predictor

Summary All down the Atlantic edge of Europe, our forefathers left behind an extraordinary legacy of large stone (megalithic) monuments, whose use has been a matter of much speculation. Some of this speculation has been extremely fanciful. Nonetheless it is clear that many, such as Stonehenge were placed with remarkable and seemingly intentional precision. Many have been shown to have been aligned with important things in their lives (and their death). They were their Almanacs and must surely have fulfilled a wide variety of purposes, more durable than wood, and more sophisticated than simple waymarkers. It is well understood that many megalithic assemblages indicate key way-markers and pointers for travel over land. 30 years ago, Peter Davidson came to a realisation that marine navigation is a purpose to which the many perceived characteristics of these megalithic arrangements might have been applied, and set about examining how likely this might be. His initial data were taken directly from 20 or more alignments that the late Professor Alexander Thom had noted among the thousands that he surveyed, and that did not relate directly or solely to lunar or solar motion. Secondly he visited and surveyed a number of these sites to understand and confirm the indications. Thirdly he visited sites in northern France that Thom had not covered, and showed that similar indications of sea crossings could be imputed. Finally he collected all the information about the crossings indicated, including areas of particular Neolithic activity such as funerary centres or axe trade, and developed a statistical process for calculating a level of support for the proposition in each case.

Surrounded by carefully argued interpretation of observations, he came up with two key propositions: That: 1. In the two thousand years or so before 1500 BC the inhabitants of Western Europe developed the techniques of moving, and to some extent working, very heavy monoliths and placing them accurately for a variety of purposes. They also developed the technique of working hard volcanic stones into polished tools of a variety of types and uses. To facilitate the finding and dissemination of these tools they developed routes for travelling through a lightly populated land; some routes are overland, but many are across substantial stretches of open sea. To do so they needed to identify routes between sandy beaches (for landing open boats) and that avoid areas of tidal turbulence. Their navigation techniques could have included memorising the sequence of stars that set behind a stone alignment. Over a period of many centuries they also developed a technique of predicting the tides by observing

the moon; and by so doing improved their navigation by sailing at the shortest neap tides. And: 2. For sea passages: Where we have a Site Catchment Area (SCA) for late Neolithic and early Bronze Age activity (such as an axe factory) which is close to a sandy beach and there are alignments: If we have alignments of any of the categories: the flat face of a slab; two or more stones aligned; a circle with an outlier or one circle observed from another;

and we transfer that alignment to the beach, and the alignment (in either direction) is included in the seaward arc of the beach, then: a sea passage indicated will be free of nautical hazard (rocks, strong currents and so on) and will lead to a sandy beach marked by stones or graves of another SCA or be the natural point of entry to another SCA.

PBD also recognised that the stone rows at Carnac in Brittany might have served a purpose, inter alia, as tide predictor, and he wrote an objective and persuasive thesis for this to be the case. His analysis of le Menec as a Tide Predictor is included in this compendium with the appendices. His papers have never been published beyond a private web-site ( ), and are now made available here for the first time in the hope that others will be able to continue the research where he left off. The information has been collated by his sons, Iain and David, and is presented here substantially as PBD left it. A succinct notice of the work was published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology shortly before his death in 2010 (Davidson, Davidson, & Davidson, 2010). Davidson, D. P., Davidson, I., & Davidson, P. B. (2010). Navigation in the Neolithic. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 285, 288290.


Peter Bird Davidson 1974

Growing acceptance that the Neolithic and early Bronze age people who lived on the western shores of the British Isles and of Brittany set up their stone alignments with a precision and purpose hitherto unsuspected (Ref. 1) perhaps permits the collection of data that suggests a way in which they may have been used. Many of the assemblages can now be identified as serving some astronomical purpose but others do not have any obvious connection with sun or moon and it is with these that this note is particularly concerned. Observation of the circle at Gors Fawr in the Prescilly mountains created the impression that two large outliers in the north east quadrant aligned on the two ends of a distinctive rocky outcrop on the horizon. These two alignments have no obvious astronomical importance but they are the true bearings from the beach at Newport (Pemb.) of the bays of Aberdavon and Porth Neigal on the southern tip of the Lleyn peninsula. That the two small outliers in the northwest quadrant appeared also to give the bearings from Newport of ends of the beach in Eire between Cahore point and Wexford increased the interest in this coincidence, particularly as the very precise lunar alignment at Parc-y-Merw in the same locality happens to be midway between this latter pair. The suggestion is made therefore that such alignments could have been associated with navigation from the one area to the other and that the starting and target points for the voyage were open sandy beaches suitable for beaching small craft. A search for similar associations of alignments with pairs of sandy beaches, one of which had to be conveniently placed to the alignment, revealed some twenty across the Irish Sea and Bristol Channel and these have been tabulated below in Table L Although in all items in the table an alignment is found only at one of the beaches both beaches were in an area of settlement in some part of the period in question (Ref, 2). In most cases the bearing is from the starting beach to the target beach but in a few cases the back bearing is given by the alignment. As the suggestion must include the return passage there is no particular objection to this though it is not known what would have influenced the choice. Some further support to this concept may also be taken from the observation that passages between the pairs of beaches concerned mostly lie in areas not affected by strong tidal currents (Ref. 3 & 4). There are however some features of these passages that raise important questions:a) The passages from Padstow appear to be concerned with passing on either side of Lundy Island which has substantial tidal currents round it. b) Some bays, such as Newport (Pemb.), Padstow, Ramsay (IOM) and Red Wharf Bay (Anglesey), are limited in extent although there seems to be little alternative in the vicinity.

c) i) ii)

There are some particularly strong associations between some pairs of beaches such as: the traffic in stone axes from Langdale arid of flint from Graig Lwydd, the close association of Scilly with Tramore for entrance graves;

iii) the association of Neolithic tombs of the Boyne Valley and the Solway area whatever this may be deemed to be, If Table I encourages acceptance of this concept then we should expect to find that similar passages were indicated across the English Channel to areas of settlement in Brittany. Further observations have therefore been made of both the north and south coasts of Brittany and indeed one finds support for this association of stone alignments with sandy beaches. One of the alignments in Table 1, S1; 11. from St. Ives Bay to Tramore happens also to serve for Mounts Bay to grve de Guelven (Brittany), This is essentially a matter of coincidence though it need not have prevented its use but it has not been included in Table II The widespread offshore rocks on the coasts of Brittany present an obvious difficulty to the idea of regular passage in small boats over open beaches. Only the bays of St. Malo and St. Brieuc appear to offer uninterrupted passage to a beach but both are in an area of strong tidal movement. Tectonic movement is believed to have taken place in south west England and in Brittany in the last four millenia and is thought to have been as much as 30 ft. in Scilly (Ref. 5). The coast at the time in question may therefore have followed a line closer to that of the present 10 metre submarine contour. Much of the northern coast would have remained rocky or with important offshore outcrop. As Greve de Goulven (Canton de Lesneven, Finistre) then appears to become free of such obstruction, a visit was made to establish whether there might have been alignments to sandy beaches on the south coast of England, There are two isolated menhir in the vicinity of Brignogan plage at the western end of grve de Guelven. That to the south of Brignogan plage stands on its own in a field and gives no suggestion of an alignment except it is viewed from a small natural platform of rock outcrop some 50 m to the north. From this platform the tip of the menhir intersects the horizon to the south. The better known menhir is a large stone surmounted by a cross that stands on the top of the hill approximately 1 Km south west of the lighthouse. It is now close to a house and invisible from all directions to the south. Checking the position of the rock platform associated with the menhir to the south from the 1 100, 000 map suggests that the christianised menhir would have been clearly visible from the platform. The bearings of the two menhir from the platform are shown in Table II and appear to satisfy the same conditions that were required in Table I This survey of alignments in Brittany was not comprehensive but, surprisingly, two alignments on the south coast were identified that suggest passage across the Bay of Biscay. Although these represent much longer passages than the other entries they do continue to satisfy all the other criteria. In particular the target beach for both passages is in an area with strong prehistoric associations. The alignment at Kerascouet, west of Erdeven in the Canton de Quiberon, is of substantial stones close together Although three of the four are now overthrown their earlier position is clear and reinforces

the alignment of the standing thin stone. The bearing indicated clears the western end of Belle-Isle and indicates a landfall on the north coast of Spain west of Santander. The starting beach is assumed to be from Barre d'Etel some 3 Km west of the alignment. The target beach is San Vicente de la Barquera reputedly of considerable extent at the foot of the Picos de Europa and 20 miles from Llanes. The alignment at Plozevet at the north end of Baie dAudierne (Finistre) is less satisfactory. It consists of a single very thin blade of stone set on the sea shore, and has been covered with an inscription twice in modern times. Provided it has not been disturbed in its alignment, however, the lack of a defined observation point should affect the bearing by about a degree. Viewed from the road some 200 m north the tip of the stone cuts the horizon. There is now no indication of a viewing point, but the farmhouse close by has a set of stones in the garden suggestive of a circle removed. Assuming a starting beach up to 1 Km west of the alignment the alignment suggests a passage to the coast west of Santander. It is tempting to think that originally this passage may also have been to San Vicente de la Barquera but we could only hope to improve the data if the location of the original viewing point could be determined. Even if there is acceptance that these two tables are strongly suggestive of a pattern of regular sea travel in open waters over distances of 100 Km to 300 Km or more it may still fail to convince that such voyages are feasible. There is now well documented evidence for the ocean voyages of the Pacific islanders (Ref. 6) that have persisted until recent times. Such voyages are navigated using a primary alignment on the stars that set on the required bearing, with secondary aids in the "feel" of the ocean swell and various indicators of the presence of land. The navigators of the South Pacific appear also to possess a highly developed sense of location with the position of other islands remaining clear in their mind as the voyage proceeds. These requirements for ocean passages are, it is suggested, similar to those that would have had to be developed by the Neolithic and Bronze age sailors. The stone alignments therefore would have provided the local knowledge of the succession of stars setting on the required bearing. Inferences based on alignments alone are notorious and it will be necessary to seek further support from archaeological data before claiming acceptance of this complex hypothesis. It is proposed to extend the study to seek this additional support and to include the following aspects 1) 2) 3) 4) The distribution pattern of Neolithic tomb-types The distribution pattern of stone axes, beakers and associated artefacts. The association of these alignments with particular types of stone circle. A study of the solar and lunar alignments for their suitability as tide predictors.

An important influence on holding a course in a small boat in the seas in question is the tidal current. While the passages appear to avoid the worst areas of tidal movement it would still be important. Tidal prediction would require a close study of the movements of sun and moon and could have been the objective in setting up such observatories. To determine that they were particularly used for this purpose will be difficult but it is possible that the interpretation of the stone rows may become clearer if they are considered as having been used for this purpose.


References 1. a) Ancient Astronomy at the Royal Society, Nature, December 29, 1972.

b) Conference on Ancient Astronomy at the Royal Society, Journal for the History of Astronomy, February 1973, Vol. 4, Part L 2. Types of Megalithic Monument of the Irish Sea and North Channel Coastline; A study in distribution, M. Davies, Antiquaries Journal XXV (1945) 125-1440 3. Diffusion and Distribution Patterns of the Megalithic Monuments of the Irish Sea and North Channel Coastlands, M. Davies, Antiquaries Journal XXVI (1946) 38-60. 4. 5. Reeds Nautical Almanac. Prehistoric Chamber Tombs of England and Wales, Glyn Daniell. CUP, 1950,

6. We the Navigators. The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, David Lewis, Australian National University Press, 1972. 7. Megalithic Sites in Britain. A. Thom, Clarendon Press 1967.