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soltices and dolmen orientations

Last year I was all set to witness the sun rise on the newly-turned year - but 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.

Now, 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 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, at Lugne) and that this reflects waves of 'immigration' or cultural influence - and integration.

I simply wanted to establish that one of the nearest dolmens to our village, was one of the very few of the 150 tombs in our region 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 exactly 120 degrees, E S-E.

I confirmed my own measurements with those in the Corpus Mensurarum (the core data from 2,500 communal tombs from 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, with the data set out in clear and accessible form.
Also, I have to admit that the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Dept. azimuth-calculating programme was most useful.

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 did give rise to further thoughts regarding the other dolmens of the region - those that are oriented to a sun already risen.

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 . . .

Hoskin's 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 made.

Meanwhile I found myself unconsciously building a kind of bonfire I've never done, or seen done, before. Seven short upright logs surrounding one tall central log, with space between each for bundles of kindling. The henge or harrispil of burning wood-menhirs would be pushed gradually closer to the central Standing Log - but still apart to allow a venturi-effect of air to circulate.

It worked, and there was plenty of cheer from the pot of Vin Brûlé for the families and friends, both French and English, who came to celebrate - but no bone-midden.

There's more on le Dolmen de la Madeleine - both summer and midwinter photos - plus links to some of Hoskin's work, and the sun/moon azimuth calculator at


Posted by roc
23rd December 2009ce

Comments (1)

"way over at the Eccentric end of the spectrum"

Ain't that the truth? ;) A couple of very interesting blogs. My feet never get too itchy, but maybe some day...
gjrk Posted by gjrk
23rd December 2009ce
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