Our understanding of the methods of design involved before any British prehistoric structure was physically built, that is from the moment when its form had been conceived in someone’s mind up to the point to when its construction commenced, needs further investigation.
During the British Neolithic, circa 4000 – 2500 BC, we witness the appearance of numerous ceremonial and domestic monuments dominating the prehistoric landscape. Providing an absolute total as to how many of them were built during this period is not possible. Undoubtedly, we could be looking at a figure in the thousands.
And, if we accept the opinion of archaeologist Andrew Flemming, then the architectural form of these structures was so designed that their appearance visibly indicated the specific types of rituals or domestic usages that could be legitimately held there. Accordingly, their respective designs would have had to been well thought out: their architecture had to meet the visual and experiential expectations of the people.
All in all, one is led to consider the possibility that any form of design was the result of deliberate thinking and that the prehistoric builders were working to specific plans or blueprints. But this is where we hit the major drawback to this assertion which this article attempts to tackle.
Was this the silent language of the megalith builders? (Author provided)
The British Neolithic communities were preliterate, and they left behind no written records or sculptured schematics of any kind that could be interpreted as evidence of “architectural blueprints.” Nor, unlike the ancient Egyptian Pyramid builders, do we find pictorial reliefs showing builders in action, scratched onto the surfaces of those British orthostats used in construction. In short, archaeologists have yet to recover any material evidence of deliberate design during the Neolithic.
Rather, we are left with the impression that the British prehistoric communities were illiterate and no better than “savage, ignorant builders” who could neither think nor count and yet they still somehow managed to construct complex monuments such as Stonehenge.
Without a doubt, British Archaeology does not have a happy relationship with the concept of deliberate design nor intentional planning involved with the construction of Neolithic structures. Suggestions that there might have been “gifted individuals”, such as the Neolithic Scottish architect I spoke about in a previous Ancient Origins’ article are not very welcome:
At best, academic attention towards such intellectual architects tend to be glossed over or, at worst, simply ignored. Thus, when it comes to analyzing evidence for those blueprints that built complex structures such as “megalithic” burial chambers, then it is so much easier to avoid mentioning “prehistoric architects”. In fact, avoid the subject is the best strategy. Otherwise, one will have the difficulty of both explaining and demonstrating the existence of Neolithic architectural schematics across prehistoric Britain – for which there is no immediate material evidence.
Megalithic builders or architects were obviously brilliant individuals but how to reconstruct what they saw and how they designed? Experimental archaeology in action. Recently, a group of students from University College London (UCL), in the United Kingdom, staged an archaeology experiment to learn how ancient peoples may have moved the stones of Stonehenge. (Adam Stanford / Aerial Cam )
Megalithic Builders Recreated Via Experimental Archaeology
I am an experimental archaeologist who has been reconstructing the architectural designs of many numerous British Neolithic monuments for over 20 years. To do so, my experimental methods utilize measured lengths of ropes to set out on the ground the designs for these reconstructions.
But, before I continue with this article, I think it would be prudent for the readers to formulate in their minds a conceptual image of what I mean by setting out with lengths of rope. Therefore, I recommend that they view my freely available, online YouTube video “Ancient Knowledge: the sacred geometry behind British Stone Circles.” This short documentary shows me performing experimental archaeology at the Neolithic Arbor Low henge and the Nine Ladies stone circle, both of which are in Derbyshire.
What is important about this video is the concept of folding a measured length of rope over and over in order to set out the ground plan of the intended monument to be built. But coupled with this folding of ropes is the idea that the prehistoric communities might have folded their ropes into shorter lengths using finger reckoning, that is counting on their fingers to calculate the number of folds required for the outline of the intended structure i.e., fold the rope once equals one finger; fold it twice equals two fingers; and so on.
Certainly, combining finger reckoning alongside the folding of rope has several outcomes. Firstly, it works. Secondly, it is a system of mathematics that need not employ pen and paper to work out the calculations required for any reconstruction. Thirdly, the physical performance of finger counting can be visually expressed and communicated by way of physically “wagging” one’s fingers to indicate number – and here is a way to communicate measured-related-instructions across a prehistoric workforce who might not have all spoken in the same language or dialect.
But such finger wagging does not explain design. So, when developing my methods for the rope experiments, I deeply contemplated about the intellectual capabilities of the Neolithic builders . I wanted to push back their conscious awareness of both mathematical number and geometrical shape to a point in their mental abilities where neither the thought of number nor shape existed as a quantifiable concept in the way that we think about such things today.
To be sure, finger reckoning provided a rudimentary form of mathematics required for construction (e.g., measuring, etc.), but it did not explain design. Moreover, I needed to consider how their principles of design could be explained without access to drawing blueprints on bark, sand, paper, or ceramic materials.
My solution is the idea is that the Neolithic builders were using a sophisticated form of sign language when designing their monuments. Besides using their fingers for counting, they were also expressing design by making shapes with their hands. And I ask the reader to consider the findings of my recent fieldwork concerning the architectural design of a couple of Neolithic dolmens / passage graves found on the Isle of Anglesey , North Wales (Figure 1C).
Figure 1. (A) The Ty Newydd Burial Chamber before the modern support wall was added. (B) Plan of the current chamber. (C) Location of Isle of Anglesey.
Case Study: Ty Newydd Burial Chamber
This Neolithic burial chamber is located along the west coast of Anglesey. About 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from the rocky cliffs that overlook the Irish Sea. Its extant remains consist of three large uprights supporting a large 15 ton (15,241 kilogram) capstone.
Figure 1A shows the state of the monument just under 100 years ago. However, a modern brick column has now been added to the configuration in order to protect the chamber from complete collapse. I like to think of this tomb as a typical dolmen, but it is actually classed as a passage grave because of a possible entrance once existing towards the southeast of the chamber.
Excavated by in 1935, over a hundred fragments of broken quartz were recovered from inside the chamber along with evidence of fires using hazel wood. The tomb was originally built between 3200 – 3000 BC. Incidentally, the presence of Bronze Age barbed and tanged arrowheads, and shards of Beaker pots indicate secondary use of the chamber around a thousand years later between 2200-1800 BC.
Figure 2. The hand gesture that explains the general design of the Ty Newydd chamber.
In Figure 2, we see the first visual instruction expressing the general design of the burial chamber . In this example, the palm of one hand rests upon the fingers and thumb of the other hand. The emphasis of this gesture is to explain shape, balance, and positioning of the upright stones in relation to supporting the 15 tons capstone. Note how the human thumb (in the inset image) mirrors the shape and positioning of its corresponding “Thumb Stone” (in the main image). I can imagine the architect standing before the tribe and giving the following instructions: “This is the shape of the tomb we want to build. Does everyone understand and agree?”.
Figure 3. Visually explaining the shape and positioning of the capstone.
In Figure 3, we see the hand gesture for describing both the shape of the capstone and its required positioning sloping “upwards” towards the direction of East. I imagine the architect giving oral instructions to the tribe about seeking out a suitably shaped capstone: “look carefully amongst the cliffs, for the stone that is shaped like a human hand. Then we will position it so that it slopes upwards towards the direction of rising sun at the time of the winter solstice”.
Figure 4. The hand gesture now visually explains orientation.
In Figure 4, we can see how orientation can be expressed by pointing the fingers outward at right angles to the thumb. The architect uses the angle between the thumb and index finger to discuss orientation and commands: “the index finger points in the direction of west, towards the setting sun as it descends every night into the Irish Sea, and this is how we will position the capstone” .
Figure 5. The Thumb Stone takes the weight of the capstone.
Importantly, we see a common observation that I have noted at other extant Anglesey burial chambers. It is with regard to the balancing of the capstones on top of the thumb stones. In Figure 5, we can see how the 15 tons capstone is finely balanced upon the thumb stones at the front and rear of the Ty Newydd chamber (as it also corresponds to the thumbs in the inset image). Again, the architect can gesture with two thumbs and explains: “It is important to find two thumb shaped stones to support the capstone. Go and search, then position them like this”. In Figure 6, we see the same style of gesturing with a thumb and its corresponding Thumb Stone used at another of Anglesey burial chamber’s, Bodowyr (circa 3200 – 3000 BC).
Figure 6. The thumb and Thumb Stone at Anglesey’s Bodowyr burial chamber.
Of course, I have no archaeological evidence to propose that the original builders were using gesturing with their hands in the way I propose. However, in the absence of physical blueprints or schematics of any kind then we are left with the mystery of trying to figure out how the Neolithic builders thought about design.
Undoubtedly the building of the Ty Newydd burial chamber required many workers to drag the 15 tons capstone (as well as the other chamber stones) from its source to its destination. The raising of the capstone then required skill and precision. It also had to be carefully balanced upon the uprights.
It is hard to imagine that a group of people just met at a particular location and started building a burial chamber “off their own bat” and without a plan of some description. Somebody (or some group) must have been in charge and that person (or they) had to express their commands in a language that everyone could understand – and yet that language left no imprint in the archaeological record. Surely, a sign language is the only answer?
Another factor in favor of this type of gesturing is that it can offer a solution to another major drawback for the acceptance within British Archaeology regarding intentional planning. That is, the “silent language” of gesturing (and the appropriate verbal instructions that went with it) can explain how knowledge of monument design could have been passed across the many generations of people who lived during the Neolithic period, especially without them being able to write down or draw their blueprints onto survivable materials.
The hand gestures offered here are just a few of a collection I have identified amongst numerous Neolithic structures (and not just across Anglesey). Hopefully, I have provided enough examples for the reader to try for themselves when the opportunity occurs. Perhaps there may be some nearby dolmens / burial chambers close to where you live and you can conveniently visit and stand before them, raise your hands like I suggest and use “the silent language of the Megalithic Builders ” to appreciate their Prehistoric Design. Definitely, I would welcome to hear about your results, and you can send me your feedback (and photos) to my email address which is listed below.
I would like to thank my friend and artist, Leslie Johnson, for providing the inset sketches used throughout this article.
Top image: How megalithic builders in the UK probably designed stone structures using experimental archaeology. Source: Author provided
By Dr John Hill
Dr Hill has written and published two books about Prehistoric Architecture; Design your own Stonehenge using the Occam’s Razor Solution and The Recumbent Stone Circles of Aberdeenshire: Archaeology, Design, Astronomy and Methods, the latter which is now available from Cambridge Scholars Publications:
You can make contact with Dr Hill at: [email protected]
Fleming, Andrew. 1973. Tombs for the living . MAN 8 , No2, 177-193.