County Louth Archaeological and Historical Journal, XXVI,3 (2007)
ISLAND OF THE SETTING SUN: In Search of Ireland’s Ancient Astronomers. By Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore. Pp x + 326. Dublin: The Liffey Press Ltd. 2006. ISBN 978-1-905785-05-6. €29.95. Paperback.
|Archaeologist Finola O'Carroll, who reviewed the book, appearing on RTE's Nationwide programme.
The stated aim of this book is to tell the true purpose of the megalithic monuments in the Boyne Valley around 5,000 years ago: which they believe was to ‘track time, vast periods of time, to bring the sky down on the ground in a grand astronomical scheme’. To do this the authors evoke myths, legends, astronomical data and their own observations and speculations. The book is a collaboration between the artist Richard Moore and Anthony Murphy with the latter undertaking the tasks of writing the text and providing the photographs. It is a product of over seven years of joint investigations and research. The book is not a particularly easy read, though it is beautifully produced, as facts, quasi-history, assumptions and observations are tumbled out for the reader to absorb. Undoubtedly, by tapping into the long traditions of myth and legends concerning the Bend of the Boyne they bring to the forefront the sense of awe and mystery surrounding these monuments.
The authors also bring unbounded enthusiasm to the project, but while many will find it hard to follow them in their leaps from astronomy, to the Annals of the Four Masters, to the legends of the Tuatha De Danann, in an odyssey that transcends changes of language without a blink, others will be comfortable with the idea that such material contains accounts of the true purpose and intent of the monument builders. There are many leaps of faith in the book, and many confusing assertions as well. The question of whether the ancient Irish had their own names for the constellations is raised at the very beginning of the book, but while we are led to believe in some places that they did, (we are told on page 57 that the constellation of Leo was referred to as Cú in the zodiac of Old Ireland), elsewhere the modern (or Greek) identifications, for example Taurus, are assumed to have been the same 5,000 years ago.
There is some merit in the approach which throws caution to the winds and treats legends as containers of meanings which unlock the grand design which they believe is manifest in the siting and function of the monuments of the Boyne Valley. The power and longevity of oral tradition is not easy to ascertain and may well transcend changes in language, whatever about changes in population. They have put in countless hours in the field observing the sun and moon and their relationship at key points in the solilunar calendars with many monuments, such as the stones at Baltray. The results of this work are often fascinating and the fact that they draw attention to lesser known sites is welcome.
The fascination the tombs hold for us today is not a new phenomenon and the myths that incorporate explanations of how they came into being shows that this is long held. Whether those stories hold deeper explanations beyond those which have been ascertained through excavation is another matter.
Archaeologists have provided through excavations and analyses a set of facts; the dates the passage tombs were built, the fact that they held the (mostly) burnt remains of a number of people. They have enumerated the decorated stones and examined the successive phases of use (and abuse) of the monuments. The solar alignments have been re-discovered and speculation about other alignments is ongoing.
Many of the claims made by the authors are not wholly convincing, but nor can they be dismissed out of hand. The theory of the High Man, may seem, particularly when applied to the roads of Co Louth, too far-fetched. The complex lunar calculations claimed for Knowth in particular, may have some substance.
The book does a considerable service in detailing, describing and producing images of some lesser known sites (of varying periods) in the area. This is welcome, as it is easy to overlook sites such as Rath Colpa. It is perhaps unfortunate that they do not make any great use of recent information from excavations, such as those which have taken place at Colp over the last twenty years, where extensive settlement and burials of the Early Medieval and Medieval period have been uncovered, as well as activity dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages.
The book is beautifully designed and produced with a lavish use of colour, both in the wonderful photographs taken by Anthony Murphy, and the twelve striking paintings by Richard Moore. The subtitle of the book is In Search of Ireland’s Ancient Astronomers and while many would feel that the evidence they put forward does not sit with accepted or understood archaeological evidence, it should be acknowledged that in studying the past, there are many aspects to be examined and many lines of enquiry to pursue. The value of such work is that it opens lines of enquiry that conventional works wouldn’t. Whether they have indeed found Ireland’s ancient astronomers, and whether they were as sophisticated as they believe them to have been, may still be a matter for some debate.
A firm but fair review of the book by archaeologist Finola O’Carroll. It is gratifying to have someone in the archaeological sphere review Island of the Setting Sun, particularly as it is the archaeologists who have revealed many of these ancient wonders to us. It is equally gratifying to see that someone has thoroughly read through our work thoroughly and seeks to give a balanced overview of it. Thank you Finola O’Carroll.
Some comments: Finola says “The book is not a particularly easy read” and I suppose this is subjective for anyone who approaches Island of the Setting Sun but I will defend it in saying that many reviewers have not made similar comments. In fact, one recent review stated the opposite, saying that IOTSS is “written in an easy story style”.
A lot of commentary has surrounded the constellation names. The fact of the matter is that we have no manuscript or document from prehistory which definitively tells us, “these are the old Irish names of the constellations”. We have arrived at the conclusion that many of the modern (or Greek, as Finola puts it) constellation groupings were already in existence in the Irish Neolithic, and have presented a decent body of evidence, albeit circumstantial in places, that that was the case.
I’m not altogether certain that we threw “caution to the wind”, and it is helpful to point out that all our astronomical data and observations CONFIRM and SUPPORT the archaeological dating of the sites in most cases.
I thoroughly agree that some would think the High Man far fetched, but I’ve been honest in the book in stating that I come to this subject with scepticism and that we ourselves are not fully convinced about its origins, whether accidental or planned.
In relation to the reviewer’s comments on the lunar calculations at Knowth, and the astronomy in general, again it is refreshing to read an archaeologist’s opinion on this subject because many archaeologists simply will not make any comment on astronomy because in the vast majority of cases, Irish archaeologists have no training in astronomy and no knowledge of the sky. So again, thanks.
I am delighted to see that we are given recognition for realising and highlighting the importance of the lesser sites. I’m not so sure that data about the Medieval significance of Colp has any great place in our work, which focuses mainly on prehistory, and perhaps this is an indication of the reviewer’s own area of specialty and interest. I think it’s only fair to point out that many archaeological texts and papers were consulted and referenced in the work.
Overall, I found this to be a very fair, independent, and balanced review, and am particularly pleased that archaeologists are interested in examining some of the ideas we have put forward.