The Bronze Age farmers and miners who left relics of their civilisation all over Dartmoor were linking themselves to the cosmos, so they could read the time of year very precisely, when they heaved their standing stones into position over a thousand years of hardscrabble survival.
Until now, there has been a broad understanding that some of the stone rows and circles were to do with a calendar based on sun and moon cycles, but not a lot of firm evidence and a lot of exceptions to the rule.
Now local historian John Morgan, resident of Crapstone, seems to be able to explain most of them – as markers which line up with landmarks to point the way to a small number of bright stars beyond our universe. One star would be watched because it rose for the first time at the end of winter, for example, and another because it would disappear at the end of summer.
He explained his theories to an audience of about 70 in St John’s Church, Horrabridge, on September 7.
Mr Morgan joined the RAF in 1956, when navigation by the stars was still common, and served for 25 years. He became a squadron leader, then got an Open University degree in mathematics and worked as a navigation systems expert in the aviation industry. Since 1989, he has lived in Crapstone and walked all over Dartmoor. He began to take an interest in the archaeology and for the past five years he has been taking detailed measurements and working with a computer programme called Stellarium which allows him to see what the night sky looked like from Dartmoor at any time in the past 5000 years.
He has built on a theory proposed in Victorian times by the astronomer Sir Norman Lockyer, who built an observatory at Sidmouth.
Lockyer proposed that the two main stone rows near Merrivale Quarry were built to mark alignments with the rising of a cluster of stars known as the Pleiades, relative to the local horizon. After some centuries, Lockyer calculated, the stars would have moved enough for the original markers to be noticeably out of line and a new row to become necessary – not quite parallel to the old one.
It all seemed to fit okay at Merrivale. And Lockyer suggested there was a similar explanation for The Hurlers on Bodmin Moor. But the calculations involved were enormous and nobody ever tried them anywhere else and the theory has been disputed ever since Lockyer’s death in 1920.
Mr Morgan’s interest began when he discovered that a cist – one of the box-shaped Bronze Age tombs scattered all over the moor – was precisely at a crossing point between two lines drawn from tor to tor on the surrounding horizons. He got interested and started reading.
He found that a hundred years ago, an investigator called Hansford Worth had noted a pattern in the alignment of cists. Nine out of ten were angled more or less north-west to south east. And skeletons, when found, were invariably lying on their left-hand sides, facing north east. That is the direction in which many stone rows march – and the direction of the Pleiades when they can be seen.
Mr Morgan found that 30 out of 70 Dartmoor rows were pointing to these or one of a handful of other bright and obvious markers in the night sky of ancient Dartmoor – along a sightline from lowest stone to highest and on through a tor or sharp valley on the horizon. Some of the others run east-west, along the path of the sun at the equinox between summer and winter (which happens to be today, September 21). Some have yet to be fully explained. But one by one they are falling into place in a logical pattern.
Some apparently random stones marked a precise 3-4-5 triangle from one cosmic line or other, long before Pythagoras wrote down the magical symmetry of the right-angled triangle. Possibly the old astronomers thought there was a power in the formula.
At Merrivale, checking the two main rows and one which is now nearly hidden, Mr Morgan found the dimensions and spacing of the rows have a common factor – a standard unit he has called The Merrivale Stride, measuring 87 centimetres, which would be a feasible long step for a man. All the measurements work out in round numbers when divided by the Merrivale Stride. And the same constant can be found elsewhere.
Stone circles appear to be sites at which events in space were marked by gatherings with bonfires. Some of the stones are on significant observation lines for sun or other stars, or both, and a lot of ash has been dug up inside the circles.
Mr Morgan presented his findings in a paper for the Devonshire Association last year and has been sharing them since, at events like the fund-raising evening for St John’s, where he had his audience fascinated..
Sir Norman Lockyer thought the Dartmoor settlers, known as The Beaker Folk, because of the many pots they left behind, had learned astronomy from the Egyptians who built the pyramids, and who could predict the annual flooding of the Nile by watching the star Sirius.
Mr Morgan is now saying it looks as if he was right. There must have been schools where the knowledge – and probably some mythology too – was passed on to a privileged few.
He told his Horrabridge audience: “When you start looking, it all seems obvious. But nobody seems to have noticed before.”
He added afterwards: “Archaeologists have tended to get lost in weights and measures, without looking at the landscape around them. These stones fit into a pattern which the local landscape is part of.”
Early Brits mainly lived around the coast and up river valleys, he said. The settlement of Dartmoor, around 2500 years BC, came about because of a global warming cycle which meant local conditions would support some people, crops and livestock, at up to a thousand feet. They would also have been making a little currency out of finding tin, for mixing with copper to make bronze, which was just catching on in Europe, after being invented and developed in the Middle East. There was a tin trade starting out of Penzance and Plymouth. The incomers were from farming societies probably originating in Spain and Central Europe
When the warm period ended, around 1500 years BC, Dartmoor became a more miserable place to live and people moved back out to the edges. Thousands of huts on the high moor were abandoned and the moor was never repopulated. So the relics of the Bronze Age are better preserved there than anywhere else.
So far, the new view of them all only explains why the stones were put where they were. How they were used is a matter of guesswork but Mr Morgan is sure they had a religious significance. And knowing the time of year would have helped with farming.