Cosmology, Calendars and Society in Neolithic Orkney: A Rejoinder to Euan MacKie

Article excerpt

The authors examine critically MacKie's long-standing contentions concerning Neolithic Britain -- theocratic control of society, the relationships between monuments and sunrise or sunset on significant days of the year, the use of an `elaborate and accurate' solar calendar and its survival into the Iron Age and into modern times.

Key-words: Neolithic, Britain, Archaeoastronomy, Maes Howe, Orkney

You can't measure time in days the way you can money in dollars because every day is different.


In a recent article in ANTIQUITY Euan MacKie (1997) has presented new material to support a modified version of his long-standing contention (MacKie 1977a; 1977b) that there existed in later Neolithic Britain and Ireland theocractic elites who possessed what seems astonishingly precise and sophisticated astronomical and mathematical knowledge. He uses new archaeoastronomical data obtained at Maes Howe passage tomb in Orkney, combined with archaeological evidence from the nearby Neolithic settlement of Barnhouse, to reaffirm a number of earlier ideas (e.g. MacKie 1969; 1976; 1977a; 1977b; 1981; 1982; 1983; 1986; 1994). In particular, he suggests that certain pre-Christian calendrical festivals, some of which survive into modern times, could derive from a 'Neolithic solar calendar' in widespread use in later Neolithic Britain and Ireland in which the solar year was divided into 8 or even 16 parts of equal length measured to the nearest day, starting from one of the solstices. Further arguments in support of these ideas, extending the origin of the `calendar' back to the earlier Neolithic, are also presented in a subsequent article on Neolithic and later structures at Howe, Orkney (MacKie 1998).

Some of these ideas are important because of their clear, and radical, implications for our understanding of aspects of prehistoric cognition and cosmology, social organization and the factors determining patterns of continuity and change. In considering the new evidence, it is helpful to separate three overlapping, although not necessarily mutually dependent, fundamental ideas. The first is that the theocracies occupied a powerful and influential place in a strongly hierarchical social structure present throughout Britain, using `national' forms of monument and pottery (MacKie 1997: 339). The second is that precise relationships existed between monuments, points of reference on the distant horizon, and sunrise or sunset on significant days in the calendar year. The third is that an `elaborate and accurate' ceremonial calendar was in widespread use from Orkney to southern England and even Brittany (cf. MacKie 1997: 340,358).

MacKie refers back repeatedly to the 1977 proposition of his ideas in the book Science and society in prehistoric Britain (MacKie 1977a -- hereafter S&S). He dismisses critical reviews and commentaries (e.g. Hawkes 1977; Piggott 1978; Daniel 1980; Ritchie 1982) as `not finding favour' and accuses others of lacking the courage to deal head-on with his views (MacKie 1994). The propensity of this topic to generate more heat than light is undeniable, but in view of the continued propagation of these ideas the present authors felt it necessary to attempt to provide -- if not the detailed refutation that MacKie (1983) has demanded -- at least the main threads of such a case, both from an archaeological and an archaeoastronomical point of view, together with pointers to some of the many relevant publications which, in our view, support that refutation.

Social hierarchy and theocracy

MacKie's basic belief is stated clearly on p. 22 of S&S:

as in the Classic period Maya, a dominating class of priests and chiefs emerged of whom at least the former lived in special ceremonial centres supported by food surpluses grown by the rural population. Its members thus had plenty of time to engage in intellectual activities and to develop systematically a variety of skills -- astronomy, mathematics, an accurate calendar, writing, a legal system, elaborate religions and so on. …