Marianna Ridderstad: “Monuments of Stone and of the Sky. Archaeoastronomical investigations into ancient Finland”. Lectio praecursoria 22.10.2015

FL Marianna Ridderstadin väitös ”Monuments of Stone and of the Sky. Archaeoastronomical investigations into ancient Finland” tarkastettiin Helsingin yliopiston matemaattis-luonnontieteellisessä tiedekunnassa 22.10.2015.Vastaväittäjänä toimi Dr. A. César González-García, Institute of Heritage Sciences (Incipit), CSIC, Espanja, ja kustoksena professori Karri Muinonen.

All around us, we can see examples of buildings and other structures oriented towards astronomical events. The windows of a house may be oriented towards the east and the rising sun; the patio of a lodge may have open views towards the beautiful summer sunsets. Many of us have even noticed that most of the churches here in Finland have their axes oriented closely towards the direction of the true east.

The latter ones form an example of ritual orientations – something that we often do not recognise around us here in our modern, secular society. But in the past those were common. The main axes of the ancient temples of Rome, Greece, Egypt, and the Near East were oriented towards the sunrises of calendrically important days or other significant astronomical events; the famous Stonehenge and other Neolithic stone circles were astronomically oriented; graves and other types of monuments and even dwellings had astronomical orientations built into their architecture. To date, the orientations of thousands of ancient structures have been measured and found to have been built to face celestial events.

The astronomical knowledge of ancient cultures only becomes visible to us at the point in history when the written word was invented; however, it must have accumulated during thousands of years. The science of archaeoastronomy was built on the notion first made in the seventeenth century that the orientations of ancient temples and monuments form sorts of ‘records in stone’ – that they are the silent testimonies of the accumulated astronomical knowledge of many generations past. The astronomical orientations of the monuments tell us that their builders were aware of the basic celestial cycles and presumably had calendars very similar to those found in fairly recent times in the pre-industrial societies all around the world.

In archaeoastronomical research, it is fairly easy to detect non-random orientation distributions in the case of large samples. A much more difficult question is, however: why were architectural structures and monuments oriented to astronomical events in any period? For example, why celestial orientations in the Neolithic, how can they be combined with the archaeological and ethnographical facts we have, and what do they tell us?

To see what the ancients meant with the orientations, we must see the world as they saw it. This is more easily said than done. We must rely on the facts, but they are scarce and can have different interpretations. The problems faced, however, are also encountered in the research in many other fields of the humanities, and the results and methodologies of other disciplines can be applied to aid us in interpreting the meaning of the orientations. For example, information on the calendric systems used by peoples past and present has been gathered in the ethnographic and historical literature for several centuries. One can also use the novel results of religious studies, psychology, sociology, and so on, in one’s research.

We know that already in the Palaeolithic, simple ‘tally sticks’ recording the basic cycles of the moon were used, presumably to count periods of time. It also seems that the celestial bodies and cycles had religious and ritual significance, as is indicated by the imagery of the cave paintings.

With the start of the Neolithic about 12000 years ago, something seems to have profoundly changed in the way humans saw the world around them. We may guess that it was related to the transition of a human being from being a part of the natural environment towards being an active agent and exploiter outside of it: animals and plants were tamed to fulfil the needs of the human population. Consequently, the natural environment was altered by human activity and started to look different: two worlds were created: the one of humans and the one of the wild ones, the wilderness. Soon, the changes in the environment resulting from human activity acquired a more deliberate nature: large monuments of earth, wood, and stone started to be built. 

The astronomical orientations built into these new monuments indicate that their significance was in some profound way related to the celestial rhythms. As the natural horizon line around an observer is usually perceived as being of a circular form, for example a circular ditch replicates this space in a more limited, artificial form. By building an opening with an orientation towards a recurring celestial event into a structure, the effect inside the structure is of that event being controlled by the existence of the opening. Presumably, these events created by astronomical phenomena were used in rituals. We do not yet know, and perhaps never will, on what beliefs were the constructions and rituals based on, but it has been suggested for example that the natural annual vegetation cycle of life and death may have become incorporated as a central part of the Neolithic religion.

In Finland, the monumentality of the Neolithic period achieved its high point in the middle and late Neolithic Ostrobothnia, where large stone enclosures known as Giants’ Churches were built. The prosperous marine seal-hunting culture that built those structures shows signs of social complexity unseen in the previous cultures in the region. Suddenly, around five thousand years ago, large houses started to be built, soon followed by many cairn monuments and the Giants’ Churches. The builders of the Giants’ Churches directed the axes and openings of the enclosures towards certain preferred directions. Also the cairns around those were symmetrically placed. The orientations seen in the very largest Giants’ Churches resemble those common in the largest Neolithic monuments of Central Europe: orientations towards the sunsets and sunrises of summer and winter solstices.

The Giant’s Church culture came to a rather abrupt end around 1800 BC. As organic material is poorly preserved in the local soil type, the culture left hardly any trace of its everyday life. The population numbers seem to have significantly dropped, and it is hard to say how much of the cultural traditions and beliefs survived to live on in the follower cultures of the early Bronze Age.

A completely different cultural horizon that also oriented its largest constructions towards celestial events is that of Christianity. The practice of orienting a Christian church towards the east and the sunrise has been explained by the relation of the sun to the light of the Christian God and Jesus Christ, as well as the direction of the arrival of Christ on the day of the Last Judgement. Culturally, the roots of the relation between the solar orientation and the churches lie in the practices of orienting the temples of the Antiquity, which in turn can perhaps be traced to the solar orientations of the earlier temples of the ancient Egypt and the Near East.

In Finland, Christianity arrived relatively late, about a thousand years ago, and became the primary religion everywhere in Southern Finland during the 11th century. The first churches were small wooden ones, but in the 13th century the parish churches started to be built of stone. The orientations of the medieval stone churches can be perceived as remarkably uniform, considering that they were built during a period lasting for more than two hundred years. There are probably several reasons for the observed uniformity at the large scale. First, the stone churches had already been preceded by several generations of wooden churches, and the Christian building tradition was not a novelty in the areas in question; second, these churches were parish churches, which had replaced the very first generation of churches in Finland, which had been private ones, belonging to certain small communities such as families and villages – the orientations of the parish churches may have been more tightly tied to the dogmatic views of the church than the orientations of the previous village churches.

Nevertheless, different orienting practices can be detected even among the medieval parish stone churches. It is interesting, that even in a literate culture, the written records do not have preserved many details of the ritual orienting practices; details, that can nowadays be retrieved only via the means of archaeoastronomical investigation. For example, in Finland part of the churches may have been oriented towards the Easter Day sunrise, and elsewhere in Europe orientations towards the sunrise of the feast day of the patron saint of the church. These practices have not been written in the annals of the church, while for example the identity of the patron saint is explicitly mentioned in the records of many medieval churches also in Finland. Additional uncertainty is added by the fact that the interpretations made by the medieval church-goers of the church orientations may not have been even close to the official dogmas of the church: it is known that in medieval Finland, the vernacular religion still included many pre-Christian elements, both beliefs and rituals, part of which can be retrieved by analysing the poems and myths recorded since the 16th century.

We can see both similarities and differences emerge in the analyses of the orientations of the two types of monuments from the two very different cultural periods, the Giants’ Churches and the medieval churches. We may also observe that both classes of monuments occupied prominent positions in their surrounding landscape. Their astronomical orientations should thus be analysed also in the wider context of the surrounding views towards the horizon line, taking into account the fact that the views seen through an opening and from a certain site include the possibility of observing the cycles of several celestial bodies. Thus, we can and should investigate not only the orientations but also the interplay of the landscape, the skyscape and the whole cosmovisions of ancient cultures.

Nowadays, new techniques and technologies, such as satellite observations and airborne remote sensing are increasingly used to aid us in forming more complete views on the ancient cultures, including their astronomically related architectural solutions. Moreover, developments in the research of the ancient mindsets and worldviews will help us to reach more complete pictures also of their astronomies.

In conclusion, while gathering information on the practices of an ancient culture can be very difficult and inherently uncertain, one is able to achieve significant insights into the thinking of the ancients by using the methods of archaeoastronomical research. Archaeoastronomy can be seen a unique way of obtaining information on the practices and beliefs of ancient cultures; information, that has often not been preserved in any written form and that cannot be retrieved by any other means than those of astronomical calculations and archaeological facts combined.

Kuvan tiedot: Hattulan keskiaikainen kirkko (kuva: M. Ridderstad); lidar-datasta luotu 3D-malli Raahen Kastellin jätinkirkosta (aineisto: Maanmittauslaitos; ohjelma: FugroViewer; luonut M. Ridderstad).

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