What lies beneath Achill-henge?
It’s good to see Achill-henge being picked up by the BBC. This is a story that’s been around for a while. I think RTÉ’s video report is accessible worldwide. The BBC just has a webpage that’s an introduction to the story. You can also listen to the radio programme (worldwide I think) with the relevant segment at 6m04s.
It’s not a bad story, but from an archaeological point of view it misses the most interesting things. Firstly building this ertsatz archaeological site may have damaged a real site. Usually before construction there will be test digs to check the construction won’t destroy something of historical importance. Achill is an extremely sensitive archaeological site. There’s a long running field school there because it has such a rich archaeological record. If you’re a fan of prehistoric remains, it seems a bit mad to risk destroying one to make a copy.
The second thing is the template chosen for the site. It’s Stonehenge. It’s a shoddy Stonehenge as anyone who’s been there could tell you, but it’s clearly a ring of trilithons. You don’t get those in Ireland. There’s a romantic ideal that the prehistoric British Isles were all Celtic but, as we learn more about sites, it’s becoming clear that there are distinctive differences in traditions around the islands.
This is Tomnaverie Recumbent Stone Circle. The recumbent bit is the low stone in the middle, flanked by two tall stones. There’s plenty of stone circles like this around Aberdeenshire, but you don’t get so many of them anywhere else. There is a possible astronomical alignment. These circles tend to be set up so that the summer full moon appears to roll across the top of the recumbent stone every 18 years or so, due to the way the Moon’s orbit wobbles.
This is Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle. It’s compact and tidy, but the tallest stones are on the opposite side to the recumbent stone. This is more typical of Irish circles. The tall stones can be seen as a deliberate a portal for entry. The astronomical alignments are different for Irish circles. They tend to be facing south-westish and this could be an alignment to winter solstice sunset.
Even though they look similar, these stone circles could be telling us very different things about belief. If we trust the patterns emerging from studying groups of monuments, not just the ones we like, then they’re almost opposites. The key event in Scotland seems to happen with the Moon in summer. In Ireland they’re looking to the Sun in winter.
There’s an ongoing argument about whether summer sunrise or winter sunset was more important at Stonehenge. I favour winter sunset, but to some extent this is just as reflective of how you view prehistoric life as it is about the data. In addition there’s plenty of evidence showing that Stonehenge was repeatedly remodelled, including a possible shift from lunar to solar alignments.
In any event whatever the tradition was at Stonehenge it’s a massive leap to think what happened there was reflective of beliefs across the Irish Sea. Stonehenge is so embedded as an iconic brand for prehistoric archaeology in the British Isles, that British prehistory is now colonising perceptions of what a prehistoric Ireland would look like.
I don’t know to what extent that’s a good thing. Modern states are recent inventions, and some archaeologists will cringe at the idea of a prehistoric Ireland or UK. Recognising modern boundaries don’t apply to the past is a sensible feature. At the same time an appealing common past does risk losing some of what makes places locally distinctive.
Achill-henge. Photo by Seequin. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.
Tomnaverie Stone Circle. Photo by Cameron Diack. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.
Drombeg Stone Circle. Photo by Todd Slagter. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.