Session 9 – Life in the land of the dead: skyscape archaeology and the ontology of other worlds

Timetable: Saturday afternoon 1430-1800 in the Whitney Battle-Baptiste Zoom Room

Format: Standard

Organisers: Fabio Silva, Tim Darvill


Several prehistoric monuments of western Europe are frequently interpreted through sepulchral models and more generally as places for rites of passage. Many monuments appear to have been designed either to be seen on the horizon or to prescribe views towards a point on a horizon – at the intersection of land and sky. Any monument alignments will bracket these monuments with the settings and risings of Moon, Sun, stars and/or particular horizon features. In a stationary ‘flat’-earth ontology any settings and risings may therefore have been understood as portals to other worlds, such as the underworld or the vault of the heavens. Selected celestial bodies would visit the dead below, the ascended above or may have been sacred entities in other worlds. Skyscape archaeology, by revealing the relational links between the structure and periodicity of celestial bodies and the archaeological record, can inform interpretive narratives for the contents of prehistoric rituals by which returning from the dead, for example, allowed renewal for the living. This session will explore how life may be seen as particular types of transition between states of being and provide insights into the mutability of life between organic and inorganic domains. Proposals for paper abstracts are invited which, by adopting the ontological turn, aim to reveal some of the hidden meanings in the intersections between material culture and skyscape and landscape archaeology for understanding life in this and other worlds.


1430 – Skyscape Archaeology as Ontological Turn: towards an archaeoastronomy rooted in modern archaeological theory

Fabio Silva, Bournemouth University

Though as old as archaeology, archaeoastronomy still lacks frameworks underpinning its data collection, descriptions and interpretations. Without a cohesive body of theory, archaeoastronomical studies can look like a theoretical potpourri. Its quantitative methods and overemphasis on explanation align it with processualism; whereas its aspiration to tap into societies’ cosmologies and worldviews is more allied to post-processualism. However, any attempt to realign the archaeoastronomical endeavour with any of these labels would now be not only outdated and anachronistic, but backwards-looking.

Anthropology has been turning to alternate ontologies which have led to new theoretical approaches and explorations. One such approach is the Ontological Turn, which involves asking ontological questions, rather than taking ontology as the answer (Holbraad and Pedersen 2017). It gives prime of place to the world(s) experienced by the societies being studied, but the onus is on the scholar to change their conceptual toolbox in order to conceive those other world(s) in the same way those societies did (Henare et al 2007). The skyscape, as the element of a society’s world(s) that includes the clouds, the atmosphere, the sky and the celestial objects (Silva and Campion 2015), can also be explored ontologically.

This talk will introduce the Ontological Turn as a method that can not only be adopted for archaeoastronomical studies but, as will be argued, should become a cornerstone of skyscape archaeology. It will discuss the three pillars of the ontological turn – reflexivity, conceptualisation and experimentation – and explain some of the ways they can be deployed to overcome the modern western biases and anachronisms that still plague archaeoastronomical studies.


Henare, A, Holbraad M and Wastell S (2007) Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically. London: UCL Press.

Holbraad M and Pedersen MA (2017) The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Silva F and Campion N (2015) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

1450 – Capturing Contemporary Skyscape Experiences: The Present Informing the Past

Daniel Brown, Nottingham Trent University

Skyscape archaeology has the potential to inform narratives related to rituals linked to the dead and living. However, we must ensure the explorative channels of this narrative are not biased through our current personal view of the sky and its singular meaning for us. This is especially true given the ontological turn whereby we avoid aiming to describe the subject of sky using only one set of attributes valid for one subject alone.

This talk explores the ongoing work of how we describe our current engagement with the sky through photography, art and poetry developed through in-situ work at relevant sites for skyscape archaeology. To ensure we are fully open, we investigate if there are common experiential channels through which we negotiate the meanings of individually apparent skyscapes. We propose that awe and wonder are driving forces that shape these skyscapes.

Our research is based upon a case study of an ongoing art exhibition “Writing Skyscapes” that has been running for two years and is a collaboration between Nottingham Trent University, Creswell Crags and the Outsider Artists Collective. This exhibition has been hosted at Creswell Crags and Mayo Dark Sky Park embedded within fully immersive experiences of skyscape through planetarium shows in caves, night-time walks and reading poetry during sun set.

Embracing a phenomenological approach, we have offered rich experiences, allowed participants unbiased avenues to express their experiences and have ensured our interpretation remains open for equal interpretations and expression of being and sky.

1510 – Beliefs and cosmology:  the orientation of graves in Neolithic China

Yuqing Chen, Durham University

The study of prehistoric megalithic and astronomical phenomena in Europe has long been linked to a variety of prehistoric ideologies and beliefs. However, the relationship between prehistoric sites in China and astronomical phenomena such as sunrise and sunset, the Plow or the North Star is still at an embryonic stage of research. This paper presents a selection of three Neolithic sites containing several hundred graves, located in the Yellow river and the Yangzi river basins and belonging to different cultures within China. The burial orientations and the relationship between the layout of each cemetery and its surrounding landscape are analysed through ArcGIS to understand the prehistoric cognition of life and death. For instance, the orientation of the graves in the Yangshao culture (仰韶文化) is uniformly to the west, but the orientation of the neighbouring Dawenkou culture (大汶口文化) may have been determined by the geographical landscape of its surroundings. Network Analysis will explore burial customs across the sites to analyse the distribution of cultural features through space and time and the connections that may have existed between these communities. The aim is to critically determine whether the layout of orientations is decided by celestial beliefs in the culture to which the site belongs to or local context or other reasons.

1530 – The Vrsac Circles in Serbia: worshipping life and rebirth in the Neolithic

Marc Frincu, Nottingham Trent University

The Vrsac circles are located in the Serbian Banat near the homonymous town. They are similar toKreisgrabenanlage structures found in Central Europe, consisting of  5 concentrical circles slightly elevated from the surrounding area and a linear structure (possibly a ceremonial road) offering access from the east. For unknown reasons, the linear structure makes a slight turn towards the northeast after just a few meters. This layout is surprising as there is no clear obstacle, the site being located in a flat plane. Furthermore, the circles are located in a swampy area which makes agriculture unpredictable even nowadays. In fact, the entire Banat plain was a swamp until the Habsburg regularization of rivers in the 18th century. The location seems to have been chosen in relation to the nearby Vrsac mountains as the winter solstice sunrise as well as the minor lunastice moonrise seem to take place from their direction giving the impression of heavenly bodies climbing up the mountain slopes in the sky.  All aspects linked to the Vrsac circles seem to indicate a life-death, wet-dry, and lunar-solar dualism similar to what has been theorized in the case of Stonehenge with the only difference being the absence of stone. In this talk, we address this dual moment where ancient people gathered and experienced a common epiphany as the moon-sun pair raised together from the underworld. The digital nature of the place is further illustrated by a southernly nearby site linking the Vrsac to the summer solstice sunrise.

1550 – Break

1610 – Making Worlds in the Landscape

Gail Higginbottom, Incipit Instituto de Ciencias del Patrimonio

This paper firmly positions itself as one that highlights the fluidity between that which is made and that which is natural in the creation of ‘worlds’ by prehistoric peoples. It is fluidity that bears witness to the coalescing of forms and ideas where one can appear to be the other, whilst in fact there is no perceived separation in a lived life. The action of making a ‘new’ object can therefore be seen as a performance of Creation anew, connecting people directly to the belief systems that bring their world into being. These are transcendental acts which absorb the maker at the potter’s wheel, the hammer and anvil and the heat of the furnace – the focus is essential, and in this they are mesmerizing in turn, in their performance. There are, too, overlapping occurrences of transformation of both material and person as the process of creation begins from the first journey to obtain the raw materials to the lying down of the object and standing back to take in the effect of making. This talk will take you on the journey of the making of a World, of both ideas, and a cosmological system. From the sourcing of the right stone to become one menhir in twelve, to the possible entranced state of marking out the cosmos on the ground, to the upright stances where, using sticks and rope, they ‘dance’ around together tracing out their known World and place in the Cosmos, in the form of a circle.

1630 – Rock is Dead, Long Live Rock: a Quantum Archaeology of the Neolithic

Thomas Legendre, University of Nottingham

This paper begins by briefly considering phenomenological aspects of prehistoric sites at Kilmartin Glen, where rock art and built structures are inextricable from local topography and astronomical alignments. These features, along with their acoustic and material properties, suggest a range of activities dedicated to decentring human individuality and agency, paradoxically, through heightened sensory experience. This process of ‘losing oneself’ in time and place may be understood in terms of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) as defined by Timothy Morton and Graham Harman, rejecting subject-object relationships in favour of a ‘flat ontology’ of object-object relations in which life or sentience receives no privileged status. OOO’s explication of metaphor, rooted in a schema of essence and appearance, and further supported by cognitive linguistics, serves as a basis for erasing not only the distinction between the literal and metaphorical but also, with additional consideration of the implicate order as described by physicist David Bohm, the organic and inorganic. Taken together, these approaches allow us to understand ritual activity involving music and contact with ‘dead’ stone at astronomically significant moments as a method of what Morton describes as ‘stripping away our illusions about the nature of sentience until we arrive at an object-like entity, an entity that precisely is not “us” but is far more intimately “there” than us.’ This ‘attunement’ to the continuity between terrestrial/celestial and animate/inanimate is consistent with contemporary efforts to reconcile classical and quantum physics as it confronts the subjunctive nature of reality itself.


Bohm, D. Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Taylor & Francis, 2005)

Harman, G. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (London: Penguin, 2018)

Johnson, M. The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Morton, T. Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2013)

1650 – Crossing to the Land of the Dead: Earthen Causeways at Cahokia and the Milky Way Path of Souls

William F. Romain, Indiana University

The idea that the Milky Way is a path to the Otherworld is common cross-culturally. In North America, the general idea is that the Milky Way is a path that souls of the dead use to journey to the Land of the Dead. Review of the ethnographic literature finds this belief among the Ojibwa, Delaware, Shawnee, Iroquois, Pawnee, Creek, and others. Given the geographic extent of this belief, it seems reasonable to presume that it has great time depth.

In this presentation it is suggested that the Milky Way Path of Souls is manifested in the layout of terrestrial features at Cahokia – a Mississippian-era site (ca. AD 1050 to AD 1250) located in Illinois, USA.

Two elevated features (or causeways) appear associated with the Milky Way. One feature (previously documented by archaeological excavation) is known as Rattlesnake Causeway. The second feature, reported here for the first time is tentatively called the Milky Way Causeway. Both features are more than 1,200 meters in length. Both features align to the Milky Way on the night of the summer solstice AD 1050.

In this presentation, LiDAR imagery, computer planetarium simulations, ethnohistoric data, and archaeoastronomic analyses are used to show the posited associations. Using an approach grounded in relational ontology, it is shown how the living and the dead, animate souls, bones, earthen mounds, the Milky Way, water, and serpent asterisms engaged with each other in an entangled manner that opened directional corridors and temporal windows for the transition of souls between worlds.   

1710 – Plausible representations of the cycle of life and death in Irish megalithic art

Marc Türler, University of Geneva

Megalithic monuments, petroglyphs, cave paintings, and rare artefacts are the only clues at hand to understand prehistoric culture. It is therefore very challenging – if not impossible – to infer how life and death were understood and conceptualized in the Neolithic. What helps us is that we live on the same land, under the same sky and with the same brain. Birth, life and death is a process of growth followed by decay, of an increase in size, beauty, or strength followed by a corresponding decrease. There is an obvious parallel here with the seasons and other natural cycles such as tides, the rising and setting sun, the waxing and waning moon, and daylight duration over a year.

I will show that these daily, monthly and yearly cycles seem to be the main source of inspiration for the wavy lines, chevrons, triangles, lozenges, and spirals, which are typical of Irish megalithic art. The fascination for these cycles is probably linked to the existential question of life and death. Going a step further, I will show that some astronomical manifestations – with likely representations in identified petroglyphs – suggest a symmetric underworld that would have opposite properties: day–night, summer–winter. Finally, I will tentatively interpret the beautiful triple-spiral motif in the central recess inside the tumulus of Newgrange as a powerful symbol for the cycle of life and death in this and another world.

1730 – Shadows and light: Turning the world inside out

Timothy Darvill, Bournemouth University

Much has been written about orientations, alignments, and the views outwards from prehistoric monuments towards the sky and the celestial spheres. But what about the effect of light coming into monuments? How are places within monuments connected to distant realms through blazes of light? And to what extent are shadows and light responsible for transitions between worlds?

Taking various elements of the Avebury complex as case studies, this paper looks at the mutable states between organic and inorganic worlds, between the tangible and the intangible, to explore intersections between earth and the sky within different parts of the monument. As a starting point, the gap between contemporary ontologies and the ontologies of later Neolithic people is highlighted, and the sustaining epistemologies of both examined. Drawing on cosmological perspectivism, the Neolithic world is provisionally represented as having an animistic ontology of some kind, in which perceived components of the world interact with each other in time and space, instanced by shadows and light.      

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