BMCR 2002.06.44

Tombs, Temples and their Orientations. A New Perspective on Mediterranean Prehistory

, Tombs, Temples and their Orientations. A New Perspective on Mediterranean Prehistory. Bognor Regis: Ocarina Books, 2001. 264. $34.95.

Bronze Age megalithic architecture was introduced into the popular imagination by accounts of stone circles in the British Isles, but the monuments of the remainder of western Europe, which litter the countryside from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, receive far less attention. The megalithic monuments of Britain, Wales, and Ireland have also been the focus of intense archaeoastronomical investigation. This interest began with the collaboration between William Stukeley and the astronomer Edmund Halley in the early part of the 18th century and continues to this day. The archaeoastronomical interest in megalithic monuments found elsewhere in Europe, however, has received far less attention by researchers and has not been the subject of a major monograph until now. The book under review makes available Michael Hoskin’s twenty years of field research on over 2600 tombs and monuments. The author’s intention is to provide archaeologists with the opportunity to incorporate this information into broader examinations of Mediterranean cultures throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

The book’s first chapter is a general introduction to the field of archaeoastronomy and describes as well how the author became interested in orientation studies in Mediterranean Europe. His second chapter is invaluable because it is targeted toward an audience unfamiliar with archaeoastronomical research. It contains a readable and concise explanation of the rigorous methodology now employed by archaeoastronomers as well as an effective introduction to the observable cycles of the sun, moon, planets and stars as they would have been seen by ancient people (with emphasis, understandably, on the Mediterranean).

In his explanation of methodology, he makes the important distinction between the “normally uncontroversial fact” of a temple’s or tomb’s orientation and the models that are so often derived from these orientations, which are often quite controversial (p. 13). Specific orientations may reflect environmental necessity (landscape, lay of the land, prevailing winds) or may reflect belief (astronomical events, taboo.) When all of the variables have been analyzed and the orientation of similar types of monuments repeatedly exhibit non-random patterns, an archaeologist can argue that a tradition exists over a small or large area. This argument can then be contextualized with other types of archaeological evidence in order to advance theories of religious or symbolic belief, trade, and other types of interaction. Two unstated but questionable assumptions are that similar choices about orientation in geographically distinct areas will not have been made independently by the tomb/temple builders, and that the custom of orienting architecture is assumed to be a correlate to religious or taboo belief when landscape issues have been ruled out.1

The main section of the book is broken into two parts: temple orientations (chapters 3-4) and dolmen burial orientations (chapters 5-14).

Chapter 3 summarizes the temple alignments on Malta and Gozo. These magnificent structures date from the Neolithic period (roughly 3600-3000 BC) and show a consistent orientation to the constellation of the Southern Cross, which was visible at the time of the monuments’ construction. Hoskin argues that the entrance stones of the temple Mnajdra III preserve a mnemonic device for counting days between heliacal risings of certain stars, evidence of the sophistication of astronomical observations during this very early period. Chapter 4 outlines the orientations of the preserved sanctuaries on Menorca (dated to approximately 1000 BC.) Here too the temples are aligned toward the Southern Cross. The 2600 years that have passed since the temples were built on Malta and Gozo, however, have significantly changed the night sky, making this constellation difficult to pinpoint without an unobstructed view of the southern horizon. Interestingly, the temples on Menorca are all positioned in the landscape to afford an unimpeded view of the southern horizon. Chapter 4 also discusses the temples on Mallorca, which are 500-700 years later than those found on Menorca. By this date, the Southern Cross had dipped below the southern horizon permanently and was no longer visible. Centaurus, however, was visible and was located in a similar position of the sky to that held by the Southern Cross earlier. Hoskin postulates that Centaurus was now the focus of temple orientations in the absence of the longstanding tradition of orienting architecture south to the Southern Cross.

Chapters 5-14 are presentations of dolmen burial orientations in several areas of the western Mediterranean. Chapters 5 and 6 (which, perhaps, should have been written as one chapter instead of two) discuss megalithic dolmen orientations in southern Spain as well as all of Portugal. These tombs all date to the late 5th-early 4th millennium BC with the exception of the “tholoi” (a different type of tomb) which dates to the 3rd millennium BC. Hoskin measured over 725 of the dolmen tombs in Portugal and southern Spain and found that the vast majority of these structures (702) face within the range of the sunrise in the east or just south of the easterly range of sunrise. He argues that this trend illustrates a consistent geographic pattern to the orientations as well as an extended diachronic tradition.

Chapter 7 isolates dolmen burials in Northern Iberia along both sides of the Pyrenees. Hoskin felt it was important to discuss these structures as a separate data set from the rest of the Iberia because orientation traditions in France are somewhat different (see Chapter 8). What Hoskin discovered is that megalithic tombs are found alongside a very different tomb type, the tumulus. (Tumuli lack entrances and therefore are without a discernable orientation.) The megalithic tombs that are found in the Pyrenees, however, follow the Iberian tradition of sunrise facing tombs. Furthermore, it is not surprising that Spanish Basque and French Basque have similar orientation traditions, which match Iberian customs. At the end of Chapter 7 (p. 127), Hoskin summarizes his theories regarding the Iberian tradition of a sunrise/south-easterly facing orientation for their tombs. 1) He suggests that the easterly Iberian pattern indicates that these orientations exist because of a long-standing custom on the Iberian Peninsula. 2) The sunrise on the day of tomb construction was the focus of the Iberian dolmen orientations. The tomb orientations that lie south of the sunrise limit were due to the fact that the altitude of the surrounding horizon caused the sun to visibly rise south of its true rising position, thereby skewing the orientation position of the tomb to the south. 3) The oldest tombs with the easterly orientation tradition are found in Iberia. It is here, Hoskin argues, that this tradition originated and was adopted into the other Mediterranean regions covered in this book.

In Chapters 8-10 (which might have also been considered together in a single chapter), Hoskin discusses orientations in Mediterranean France. Here, the author relied on unpublished measurements made by Yves Chevalier and Jean Clottes for some of these dolmen tombs. Like their Iberian counterparts, most of these tombs were simple (single inhumation) dolmens thought to date from the early 4th millennium. Communal tombs began around 3500 and became the most common type of burial in the late Neolithic period (2800-1500 BC). In the western regions of France (Causses) discussed in Chapter 8, the majority of these tombs follow the now-familiar sunrise pattern found in Iberia. As one travels further east within Mediterranean France, however, the pattern becomes variable, with tombs facing east, south and west. This broad pattern is attributed to the traditions found even further east in Provence and E. Languedoc, where a west facing tradition was very strong, in direct opposition to the Iberian tradition discussed earlier. Hoskin identifies the “variable” pattern found in the border region between these two very different orientation traditions as a “confusion” of belief systems. He argues that this “confusion” is found not only in the orientation of the tombs but in other material remains such as the construction techniques used in dolmen tomb construction. This last point is an important aspect of Hoskin’s book. Wherever possible, the author contextualizes his argument about the orientations within larger archaeological models of trade and interaction, colonization, and diffusion of burial traditions and beliefs made by archaeologists and other specialists in the specific cultures under discussion.

We return to the Balearic Islands with Chapter 11. This time, however, Hoskin outlines tomb orientations instead of religious architecture. These tombs date to the 2nd and 1st millennium BC, dates which indicate that the tombs and the religious sites are contemporary. The pattern that Hoskin identifies indicates that these tombs face west. Hoskin contextualizes these orientations by reminding the reader that some archaeologists assert a connection between the region from the southern Spanish coast to Provence with the Balearic Talayotic Bronze Age culture. Hoskin argues that the westerly tomb orientation tradition allows us to localize this cultural connection as one between Provence and the Balearic Islands.

Hoskin revisits Corsica and Sardinia in Chapter 12 by examining the dolmen burials developed in the late 3rd millennium BC. Archaeologists have argued for some time that the tombs found in northern Sardinia and Corsica are related. The orientations further this hypothesis since a strong orientation tradition was found in both regions, a tradition similar to that found on the Iberian Peninsula (east/south-east.) By the second half of the 2nd millennium BC, the Nuraghi tombi di giganti replaced dolmen burials on Sardinia. Hoskin found that the tombi di giganti continue the east/south-east tradition in the north of the island. In southern Sardinia, however, the orientations face all directions of the compass. Hoskin argues that the earlier dolmen tradition set the pattern for the later tombi di giganti orientations in northern Sardinia, but in the south part of the island some other tradition (or, quite possibly, no orientation tradition) prevailed.

Chapters 13 and 14 are included, it appears, because the orientations are available. The data in these chapters, however, add very little to Hoskin’s general arguments. The tombs of Malta, Sicily, Pantelleria are rare and seemingly late, built after the Neolithic and Bronze Age tombs found in earlier chapters. The tombs found in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco are very late (dating to the late Hellenistic and Roman periods.) The orientations of the tombs in Algeria are taken from old publications, since political problems during the last two decades prevented him from taking the measurements himself. While it is useful to have the orientations of these late tombs at one’s fingertips (and this is presumably the reason Hoskin includes them here), it is hard to argue for their inclusion in the main body of the text. He might have added this information as an appendix, like the one at the end of the book that summarizes work done by the author in the eastern Mediterranean on Crete at the site of Armenoi. The book concludes with a Corpus mensurarum of all the tombs he measured for this study.

Rather than merely being a list of what orientations and monuments he measured over the past twenty years, this book is often a personal reflection of the joys and tribulations of attempting this kind of research. Hoskin also enjoys telling tales of how local people helped him locate sites and of being taken into people’s homes and hearts as he searched for archaeological tombs and temples throughout much of the western Mediterranean. The book is well written and complex concepts are explained in clear and uncluttered language.

Hoskin’s main goal is to provide the “facts” and leave the models to the archaeologists, but there are a number of instances in the book where he provides his own theories about what the orientations mean within the context of the larger culture-history of the periods in question. Some of his suggested archaeological interpretations are rather strained. For instance, he suggests that the presence of a small Egyptian statue of Imhotep in the taula sanctuary of Torre d’en Gaumes on Menorca is related to the orientation there towards Centaurus, which was the Greek Chiron, counterpart to Imhotep (pp. 42-43). This type of interpretation is problematic since the offering is a single artifact. Only the presence of many such offerings, providing a pattern of behavior, would allow the archaeologist to suggest the meaning behind such an act of devotion. Additionally, it is dangerous to invoke the presence or influence of the “sea peoples” in any argument of eastern Mediterranean influence on the western Mediterranean (pp. 44-45). Who the “sea peoples,” were, their movements and influence, their material culture, and their beliefs are poorly understood by archaeologists specializing in the eastern Mediterranean. Much to Hoskin’s credit, however, he easily accepts that his own interpretations are possibilities rather than being definitive.

Hoskin’s intent was to publish tombs from his own research (although he did include unpublished research of Yves Chevalier and Jean Clottes on the dolmens of the French Causses as well as published work from Algeria.) Yet archaeoastronomical research is beginning to gather momentum in the eastern Mediterranean as well as in the west.2 The book’s title claims that this book is a “New Perspective on Mediterranean Prehistory,” yet so much of the eastern Mediterranean material is not covered. Hoskin does include the Late Bronze Age tombs on Crete at Armenoi and he mentions briefly the tomb orientations at Mycenae (p. 14) that face downhill and were not astronomically oriented. There are, however, publications of the orientations of the Minoan palaces and peak sanctuaries on Crete.3 There are also recent publications on monuments in Egypt, including the Nabta plain orientations4 as well as Egyptian temples and pyramids.5 Recent work in the Levant includes orientations found at Rujm el-Hiri.6 An analysis by Hoskin of the methodology and arguments presented in these studies would have been most welcome.

This book is a valuable addition to archaeoastronomical research and critical for the growth of the field in the Mediterranean. It is an impressive account of a career spent searching for sites, taking careful measurements, and then publishing the results in an easy-to-understand format that allows the data to be used by specialists and non-specialists alike. The book is accessible to those who are interested in the archaeology of a particular area or those just interested in archaeoastronomy in general. I would also recommend the book for archaeologists who have never had an interest in archaeoastronomy or who consider the field to be peripheral to important archaeological research. This book might just change your mind.


1. For a persuasive discussion of orientation as an archaeological correlate for religious concerns, see C. Carr (1995). “Mortuary practices: Their social, philosophical-religious, circumstantial, and physical determinants.” J. of Archaeological Method and Theory 2: 105-200.

2. There is a small section on “Circum-Mediterranean Archaeoastronomy” in A. Aveni’s revised edition of Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico (2001). Austin, TX. University of Texas Press. 322-329.

3. J. Shaw (1973). “The Orientation of the Minoan Palaces.” Antichità Cretesi: Studi in onore di Doro Lévy. Università de Catania, Instituto di Archeologia. Volume 1: 47-59. See also G. Henricksson & M. Blomberg (1996). “Evidence for Minoan Astronomical Observations from the Peak Sanctuaries on Petsophas and Traostalos.” Op.Ath. 21(6): 99-114, and also M. Blomberg & G. Henricksson (1996). “Minos Enneoros: Archaeoastronomical light on the priestly role of the king in Crete.” in Pontus Hellström and Brita Alroth (edd.), Religion and Power in the Ancient Greek World. Uppsala, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis Vol. 24: 27-40. Interest in the archaeoastronomy of peak sanctuaries extends back to 1965. See Faure, “Recherches sur le peuplement des montagnes de Crète. Sites, Cavernes, et Cult.” BCH 89: 39-41.

4. J. Malville, F. Wendorf and A. Mazar (1998). “Megaliths and Neolithic astronomy in southern Egypt.” Nature 392: 488-491.

5. While not recent, the most important study to emerge was V. Trimble (1964). “Astronomical Investigation concerning the So-called Air Shafts of Cheops’ Pyramid.” Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschung 10: 183-187.

6. A. Aveni and Y. Mizrachi (1998). “The Geometry and astronomy of Rujm el-Hiri, a megalithic site in the southern Levant.” Journal of Field Archaeology 25: 475-496.