The first practical telescopes weren’t invented until the early 17th century when European astronomers became eager to study the stars and learn their secrets. Now, there is new evidence to suggest that ancient ancestors spread across various corners of Europe may have already been conducting scientific studies of the stars centuries earlier, not with telescopes, but with graves.
About Passage Graves
Six thousand years ago, the ancient people of Portugal buried their dead in stone structures known as passage graves. Today, some of these structures remain standing in the country as odd stone outcroppings on the landscape. Shaped like an igloo, passage graves typically had two chambers; the first being an innermost chamber that was the location where the dead were laid to rest, and a second being an outermost chamber that was used for burial rites.
Scientists from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David who were familiar with the passage graves knew that some ancient sects performed rituals in these outermost chambers. Knowing that initiations and other rites often were tied to the position of the stars and moon, they wondered if perhaps these structures gave ancient man the ability to study celestial bodies and set out to find out.
During the research led by Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University, and Fabio Silva of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, the scientists examined passage graves in Portugal and compared their positioning with the location of various stars and celestial bodies as they would have been seen between 6000 and 2000 BCE. They concluded that one grave was perfectly positioned to provide a view of the star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus rising over the Serra da Estrela mountains.
Based on this observation and the data known about the people who built the graves, the researchers concluded that the nomads would use the grave sites to determine when it was time for them to move to the mountains for the summer season. This is because, from the low ground position, they would be able to see Aldebaran rise in April and May. The researchers believe that standing in the grave made it possible to view this movement earlier than the nomads could from outside the grave by decreasing the size of the background sky, and focusing on a specific small area of interest. As one of the study’s assistant researchers, Kieran Simcox from Nottingham Trent University in England, explains:
“By using these passage graves, the observer would have sat in complete darkness, with only the opening to the passage grave in front of them showing the part of the sky where the star rises.”
The passage graves like the one studied in Portugal are found throughout the European continent as well as in England and Ireland. Based on the conclusions drawn by the researchers, we may well see further studies into the positioning of some of the other passage graves.
Could it be that these structures doubled as observatories for ancient mankind? The early research seems to indicate so, but more work is needed to prove this definitively. If the theory of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David is correct, it would mean that mankind has been tracking the stars in a serious way for much longer than we originally believed. Commenting on the findings, Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, stated:
“This kind of ‘archaeoastronomy’ highlights the fact that human beings have always been fascinated by the stars and that sky-watching has had an important role in human society for millennia.”