A few things are known. The scale of these projects means that a large proportion
of the resources available to these people was put into them. That means they must
have been very important to the people who built and used them. Another thing that
can be clearly seen are the contemporaneous dwellings on the coast of Shetland. These
are sophisticated designs that would also have required a great deal of co-operation
to construct. So, I don’t think there is an issue about these monumental constructions
being beyond the capabilities of Neolithic humans.
Although these constructions are thousands of years old, that’s not long enough for
us to have physically evolved nor is it long enough for the shape of the landscape
to have significantly altered. If you visit any of these sites yourself, you will
be able to experience some sense of what the world felt like to our prehistoric ancestors.
Of course, the big questions are why were they built and what were they used for?
All the theories I’ve come across have involved worshiping of the sun, moon or some
other god with high priests leading a congregation in some form of ritual. Somehow,
that just doesn’t ring true for me. I can easily understand how that theory comes
about. As we go back in time through our written history we find an increasing tendency
to worship gods rather than follow the principles of science. It’s quite natural,
therefore, to extrapolate into these pre-written times and assume that religion came
first and that these monuments are part of the first manifestations of religious
practice amongst humans. I’m not convinced.
I would like to suggest that these monuments were in fact the earliest surviving
example of the practical application of scientific principles. Science and religion
are both bodies of knowledge that seek to explain the workings of our universe and
the only real difference between them is that one requires faith whilst the other
needs actual proof.
When you look at the houses these people built for themselves, one thing that really
stands out is how practical they were. They have built-in hearths, beds and shelves.
Modern humans would be hard pressed to create something so practical, using the same
materials and technology. It is easy to see why they would have put so much of their
resources into building them, given the practicality and usefulness of the final
I cannot see why these people would not have the same mentality when it came to constructing
megalithic monuments. It seems much more likely that they had a real and practical
purpose that was obvious to the people of the time. It is very possible (indeed probable)
that over generations of use, the original purpose was forgotten and only the ritual
was left. The theory that these were used for religious purposes might very well
be true but I cannot believe that is why they were built in the first place.
So, why were they built? What purpose was so useful and practical to these people
that they would give up so much of their time and energy to construct these things?
For me, the answer lies in the soil or, more specifically, arable farming. That was
the big story at the time. These monuments were built during the period when farming
was taking over from hunter-gathering as a way of life. When you stand at one of
these Neolithic sites, it does make you think about the similarities and differences
between us and our ancestors. By far the biggest difference is of course, knowledge.
If we wanted to start farming there is a vast body of knowledge for us to call on.
But that wasn’t available to our ancestors, so how did they learn farming?
If there was no knowledge base, then it had to be through observation and reasoning,
linked with trial and error. In other words - science. I don’t believe that someone
just “dreamt up” farming without years of observing the life cycle of plants. Not
all hunter-gatherers moved with the herds, some lived in communities around sheltered
bays where there was a year-round abundance of seafood. It’s very likely that those
people also ate local plants and, over the years, would have been able to observe
the effect of the seasons and other factors on the growth of the local flora.
It’s not a vast step to go from observing seeds fall to the ground and become new
plants to collecting them and planting them somewhere else. But there is no guarantee
of success. Nowadays we know, because we can go and look it up, that whether this
will work or not depends on things like soil preparation, sunlight, water and timing.
It’s this last factor that was probably the most difficult to understand because
it relies on having a calendar, which of course, nobody did at the time.
At least nobody had a written calendar but, by observing events in the local flora
and fauna, they would probably have developed a good understanding of the seasons.
For example, by sheer trial and error, they could have worked out that the best time
to sow a particular seed was the day that some flock of migrating birds arrived or
left. That would be the only calendar you would need for one specific local area.
But the most important thing about farming is that it spread. To do that, a calendar
had to be created that was independent of local events. Fortunately, there is such
a calendar available to us all - in the sky. The connection between the movement
of the sun and the seasons was one of the earliest truths discovered by science.
Knowing the date wherever you were would greatly help a farmer get consistent results
year after year. One thing is obvious, agriculture would never have spread without
consistent results, people’s lives depended on that.
It’s doubtful that all Neolithic monuments were actually built for the same purpose.
The individual stones may have just been markers. Artificial landmarks to help people
navigate their territory. Meet me by the megalith at midnight sort of thing. However,
a large number of these constructions have an alignment with the setting sun at midwinter.
That, I believe, is their main significance and their original purpose.
As was stated earlier, there are no surviving written documents, but that doesn’t
mean that there was no writing. In any case, all that is needed for a calendar is
numbers. You don’t even need numerals. You could use notches on a stick, marks on
a stone or pebbles in a bag. But counting the days doesn’t make a calendar, you need
a fixed point in the year as a starting point in order to synchronize your numbers
with the seasons of the year.
Choosing midwinter as the day to start your calendar is not just arbitrary. There
is a much deeper significance to this time of year. Anyone observing the movement
of the sun in the weeks leading up to midwinter would see it getting lower each day.
It does not take a great leap of imagination to realise that, if the trend continues,
the sun will disappear, maybe forever. But it doesn’t. Every year it stops getting
lower and starts to get higher and higher in the sky every day, until the summer
Whilst that is something to celebrate, it is not a piece of religious dogma, it is
a scientific fact, which can be proved. Not only that but it’s an important enough
fact to warrant the time and energy required to build a monument that tested the
theory and celebrated the moment. The local farmers could start counting the days
to the best time for planting their crop and take a lot of the guesswork out of their
There is also an ideological significance to the time of midwinter. The idea of the
sun nearly disappearing (dying) but then returning to life after this time mimics
the way plants die and are reborn. Perhaps this explains the numerous burial chambers
that have a shaft allowing the light from the sun to reach the inner sanctum only
at midwinter. They may have hoped that the rebirth of the sun might have the same
influence on their compatriots as it did on their crops. But that is moving well
into the land of conjecture.
These megalithic monuments represent the practical application of one of our earliest
scientific discoveries. Every year they prove our knowledge of the seasons and help
us understand and control our environment. The information is there for all to see,
it is a repeatable scientific demonstration. Had they been created just for religious
purposes, there would have been no need to prove that the event had occurred. Proof
is something that no religion has ever required.
It is one thing to look at photographs of these monuments, it’s another thing entirely
to visit and experience them for yourself. One obvious thing that a picture of these
megaliths doesn’t show you is the view from the site out to the surrounding countryside.
The other thing that strikes you immediately is the scale of these things. Even the
small stones would have taken a large and co-operative group of people just to put
them in place. Sadly, there is no written evidence from these prehistoric times so,
every theory that has been written about the reasons behind their construction is
just speculation, including this one.