The Arles-Fontvieille Megalithic Monuments: astronomy and cosmology in the European Neolithic
AffiliationSchool of Historical and Philosophical Studies
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2014 Dr. Morgan Sterling Saletta
This thesis is an archaeoastronomical study of a group of megalithic sites in the south of France, the Arles/Fontvieille monuments, as well as a historiographical and epistemological study of the context of these sites within megalithic studies more generally. The Arles-Fontvieille monuments were deliberately aligned to the setting sun so as to be illuminated at important times of the year for cosmological and seasonal, ritual purposes. I have documented this seasonal illumination at three of the 4 intact sites and used 3D modelling to demonstrate the illumination in the fourth monument, the Grotte de Cordes. My archaeoastronomical research and interpretation of these monuments intervenes in debates concerning Neolithic and late prehistoric astronomy, cosmology and the origin, diffusion and evolution of megalithic monuments in Europe. Firstly, the similarity between the illumination at the Arles-Fontvieille monuments and the well-known illumination of monuments such as Maeshowe in Scotland and Newgrange in Ireland converges with a growing body of archaeological evidence suggesting that cosmological principles and practices, including those related to megalithic architecture such as passage graves, diffused in Western Europe by way of long distance contact and exchange networks during the late 4th and early 3rd millennia BC, a period which saw the florescence of major monumental centers in Atlantic Europe as well as at Arles-Fontvieille. Secondly, there is a growing amount of archaeological evidence suggesting that megalithic monuments were conceived of as ‘houses of the dead’ and were symbolically and cosmologically related to the houses of the living, a connection that is also strongly supported by ethnographic analogy. Building on this, I argue that the solar orientation of megalithic monuments in late prehistoric Europe- which is strongly suggested by statistical surveys- had its origin in the functional orientation practices, cosmological symbolism and lived experience of domestic architecture. Thirdly, the discovery of previously unknown seasonal illumination events in a major group of monuments suggests that illumination may have been a predominant factor in the orientation of many more, perhaps even the majority, of chambered megalithic monuments. I argue that archaeoastronomers need to think more like architects and anthropologists in their interpretation of the relationship between monumental orientation, astronomy and cosmology. For many megalithic monuments, seasonal illumination for cosmologically symbolic and ceremonial purposes offers a much stronger interpretive framework than the paradigmatic assumption that chambered megalithic monuments are targeting the position of a celestial body on or near the horizon. Solar illumination, and/or the creation of zones of light and shadow within monuments, was cosmologically symbolic and exploited for cyclical ceremonial practices linked to the social dynamics, temporal rhythms and beliefs about life, death and ancestry of the people that built and used them.
KeywordsNeolithic; cosmology; astronomy; archaeoastronomy; megaliths; dolmens; cultural heritage; astronomical heritage
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