The Astronomical Significance of Spirals in Neolithic Art
Since the 1960’s archaeologists have somewhat grudgingly accepted that many solstice and equinox alignments are evident at Neolithic stone circles and temples. We also find spiral decoration and motifs on some of these monuments and on other artefacts worldwide; most of these date from the third millennium BC (or between about 3100 BC and 1500 BC).
An extensive summary of these spirals and related cup-and-ring art in Britain and Ireland is given by van Hoek. [Note1] He suggests that many more Neolithic spirals have been misidentified as cup-and-ring marks because they are so badly worn.
In my own earlier books Atlantis of the West and Under Ancient Skies I proposed that this spiral art records a wobble of the Earth’s axis of rotation, consequent upon an astronomical event that occurred in the late fourth millennium BC (around 3100 BC). In order for the Earth’s axial tilt (the obliquity) to be modified requires an external force such as an energetic impact event to excite it, or perhaps something more exotic. It would then have to wobble until stability could again be restored.
The Earth has two modes of transient wobble, one (the Chandler Wobble) is damped after about twenty years, but the other mode is much longer-lived and may persist for perhaps two-and-a-half thousand years. It is vanishingly small on the Earth today and geophysicists still don’t really understand what it might look like (should something trigger it). For a long-time the motion didn’t even have a name (or rather it was misnamed) but geophysicists now term it the Free Core Nutation. It would occur if the principal axes of the Earth’s liquid core and the outer mantle somehow became misaligned. [Note 2]
If a change of obliquity were in progress then it would become evident as a spiralling motion of the rotational pole about the celestial pole, causing seven-year rhythms in the weather and climate. However, it may not always be a nice neat spiral! Such systems can become chaotic, such as occurs with a double pendulum! [Note 3] Misaligned axes could present a similar problem. So one may see why ancient people, living under such an uncertain climate regime, would need to track the irregular spiralling motion of the sky in order to predict the seasons. It follows that ancient people would also have needed an accurate calendar against which to track an abnormal episode.
Here are a few examples of spiral art from the third millennium BC, with selected links, for anyone who wishes to research further into this phenomenon.
The Long Meg standing stone, Cumbria:
featured as figure 10.5 of Atlantis of the West and on the cover of: The Atlantis Researches. The notch marks mid-winter sunset on the western horizon as viewed from the stone circle of Long Meg and her Daughters. Date approximately 3000 BC. The drawing that I made in 1990 was art and not intended to be 100% accurate, but as you may see from the photographs, it is closer than some others you may see. The Long Meg stone circle remains much as it was built around five-thousand years ago. Click on the photos for links. A pdf download of the Long Meg article is available here.
The spiral ‘gaming board’ discovered in the tomb of Hesy-Ra (Third Dynasty approx 3000BC). It is usually associated with a game called Mehen, after the snake-deity. I suggested that this might be a ‘spiral calendar’ marking the height of the Nile flood over a seven-year cycle. It certainly looks like some form of game; but a spiral of seven turns is a remarkable coincidence.
I am unaware of any spiral motifs on Egyptian monuments, however we do know that the Old Kingdom pyramid shafts were aligned on the celestial pole and prominent stars; and of course we have the climate references of the seven-good and seven-bad years of the Biblical Joseph story. I shall not open that particular box here!
This calendar was further discussed in chapter 10 of Atlantis of the West.
The Phaistos Disk
Another spiral from this era is the double-sided Phaistos Disc, now in the Heraklion Museum Crete. The symbols show similarities to the Linear-A script and remain undeciphered, so we don’t know for certain that it was a calendar. It is loosely dated to the second millennium BC.
For some reason the publisher chose to use it as cover illustration for my book: Atlantis of the West – don’t ask why! Authors have little say in such matters!
The Spiral Stone, Isle of Man.
An unspectacular monument at the roadside not far from Laxey and Cashtal-yn-Ard. The spirals may be seen at bottom left. Uncertain date, but probably Late Neolithic and possibly not in its original location.
The spiral was not described in detail by van Hoek (although listed) but should rightly belong with his Galloway-Cumbria grouping. The alignment of spirals resembles those at Long Meg, Cumbria.
The Calderstones, Liverpool
The recent history of this monument is a tragedy. The spirals are found on the six stones preserved in a greenhouse within Calderstones Park in Allerton. They were moved from their original location by the former owner during the nineteenth century, so we can no longer test any astronomical alignments. We can’t even be sure whether they were from a stone circle, a chambered cairn, or part of an earlier court cairn dolmen. However, the decoration suggests they were contemporary with other decorated chambers in Ireland and Anglesey. The spirals themselves are incised and quite clear, unlike the Long Meg and Scottish examples; implying that they were mostly decorative art rather than practical instructions for observing the alignments. Pictures and history may be found in these links:
Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey
An archeologically reconstructed mound that prevents us from proving any former astronomical alignment associated with the spiral. The 1847 engraving of the unreconstructed mound in the link below illustrates the problem! The spiral itself forms the head of an elaborate snake motif on the reconstructed entrance stone. Age is Late Neolithic. However, unlike other monuments discussed the alignment appears to have been towards the midsummer solstice rather than midwinter. The entire area shows evidence of later ritual use by the Druids right up to the period of the Roman destruction of their 'sacred groves'.
For a discussion of 'roof'boxes' at this and other passage graves see:
The reconstructed ‘passage grave’ in the Boyne valley, Ireland exhibits spiral decoration on the external stones as well as a three-leafed spiral at the end of the main chamber. At midwinter sunrise a narrow beam of light from the ‘roof box’ above the entrance briefly illuminates this spiral motif. The beam therefore would have been ideal for tracking an abnormal variation of the sun’s position as it moved along the walls. Probable date: 3150±100 BC from radiocarbon (see: O’Kelly 1974). Sceptics will suggest that the alignment at Newgrange is an artifact of the reconstruction. The nearby unreconstructed chambers at Knowth and Dowth offer a more reliable measure of ancient alignments.
Images from the book by R.A.S. Macalister (1931)
A good summary of the legends about Newgrange and descriptions of the monument from before the site was disastrously reconstructed as a tourist attraction may be found at:
Knowth and Dowth
The other passage graves of the Boyne Valley exhibit both spirals and alignments to midwinter sunrise and the equinox. Horizon alignments to the sun and moon could easily be obscured by bad weather, so it would make sense to use a range of seasonal alignments in order to increase the likelihood of good seeing conditions. Modern astronomers will know all about the frustrations of cloudy weather! A comprehensive (but for myself unconvincing) paper by Turler expands upon the earlier calendrical interpretations of Martin Brennan. These theories would treat the art as flattened-out representations of the helical spiraling of sun and moon in the sky as the year progresses. The principal reason why I doubt these explanations is that such complex observatories are not necessary to devise a practical calendar; Mayans, Indians, Chinese and Babylonians all succeeded in devising calendars without building passage graves or stone circles.
The Scottish carved stone balls
These curiosities were found at various sites, of which the best example is the Towie Ball from Aberdeenshire, with its spiral carvings. They are often found associated with Late Neolithic stone circles and were carved with flint tools. An explanation of a practical application for such objects is awaited, as with the spiral ‘calendars’ discussed above.
My own theory? They are probably a game, like French boules, which is why we find them scattered around.
Tarxien and the Temples of Malta
The Maltese temples date from between 3500 BC and 2500 BC and are older than the Egyptian pyramids. The temple at Tarxien however dates from the later phase after 3000 BC. The spiral is clearly being used as decorative art, but again, the date is significant. According to author C.R. Sant all the temples on Malta and Gozo exhibit both equinox and solstice alignments; and that all these alignments changed around 3000 BC. See his explanation below:
According to Sant’s reconstruction, the chambers of the oldest temples from the Ġgantija phase (3600–3200 BCE) are ‘horseshoe’ shaped calendars oriented towards equinox sunrise (an arrangement that would not be practical further north). At each solstice, the beams would fall upon stones beside the entrance of the ‘horseshoe’. The solstice markers at Ggantija on Gozo formerly held spiral motifs less-ornate than those at Tarxien – however today these are almost unrecognisable. They show-up clearly on the watercolour paintings made by Charles De Brochtorff in 1829 when the temples were first crudely excavated. See the paintings here:
However, the Ta’ Hagrat temple at Mgarr on Malta, is an anomaly among the Maltese temples focused towards the winter solstice sunrise (Sant p 54). This evolution parallels that found in Atlantic Europe, where the earlier court-cairn dolmens were (loosely) oriented east-west, perhaps towards the equinox, but gave way around 3200 BC to the solstice-aligned ‘passage graves’ and circles with spiral motifs.
Barclodiad y Gawres, Anglesey
Impressive as it looks, this mound is again a restoration by twentieth-century archaeologists (minus a roof-box). Frankly, I think that the ‘honest’ display of the Calderstones is better than this kind of false reconstruction; locked and inaccessible to casual visitors. However, there is no reason to doubt that the spirals themselves are are authentic Neolithic examples. On the main stone are four spirals arranged in a row, flanked by another stone incised with a faint spiral that was missed by the original excavators. Other art on the stones reinforces the comparisons with passage graves in Ireland and Brittany. The link below provides excellent pictures:
The author's crude drawing of the four faint spirals. The drawing by van Hoek is not very accurate and I could not see some of the lines he depicted. However it seems clear that they are intended to be spirals.
Temple Wood, Argyll
Apparently an earlier Neolithic site that was demolished and the stones reused in the Late Neolithic to build a stone circle adjacent to it. A triple and a double spiral were described by van Hoek. Various alignments have been proposed, including one to midwinter sunset following the axis linking the centres of the old and new circles. I confess I could not find the spirals on the mossy stones, when I visited on a foul Scottish-weather day! They may have decorated a lost older monument and their modern position is chance – the Argyll coast is very rich in Neolithic sites.
The Westray Stone, Pierowall, Westray
The most northerly example of a stone with decorative spiral art, discovered (and broken) by a digger in 1981 and presumed to be from a lost Neolithic site destroyed in antiquity. So again, nothing can be conjectured about its astronomical alignment. The art itself is reminiscent of the Irish Boyne passage graves and that of Brittany. We do find similar mounds in Orkney with aligned 'roof boxes', as at Maes Howe and the recently excavated chamber at Crantit, Orkney Mainland; the chamber faces south-east towards midwinter sunrise and appears to have lain undisturbed for 5,000 years. However, we cannot link these alignments directly to the spiral art. The Westray Stone is now in the island's Heritage Centre.
The Westray Stone (with pictures):
Orkney passage graves:
Further examples of spirals may be found here…
Regardless of the utility of the spiral to represent an astronomical phenomenon, it is always possible that the occurrence of any individual spiral motif, in other eras and contexts, could just be art; for example the Tarxien and Newgrange examples, as contrasted with those found inside the chambers or on aligned-stones. Context and dating is important. I would agree with van Hoek that cup-and-ring art may be older than spiral art, especially in a British-Irish context but disagree in that the use of spirals in so-called ‘passage graves’ should be older than those at outdoor stone circles. An internal beam is useful for practical measurement of where the sun is, whereas an outdoor alignment would be better for ritual purposes involving an audience. It is regrettable that in so many cases the original alignment associated with the spirals has been lost and cannot be tested, often exacerbated by modern archaeological reconstructions.
The study by van Hoek really cannot be praised enough. He concludes that the spiral art originated in south-west Scotland bordering the Irish Sea, based on the concentration of examples found there. I have tried not to unnecessarily repeat his work here, rather to complement it with additional British examples that he did not stress, together with other worldwide examples of spiral motifs on temples and artefacts.
In older geophysical papers the core-wobble was unrecognised and was termed the nearly-diurnal wobble, which is just the body-related part of the motion, whereas the core nutation is the component in space that Toomre (1974) reminded us should be some 460 times larger in amplitude. Due to the lack of a recognised name I used the name core-mantle precession in my book The Atlantis Researches: the Earth’s Rotation in Mythology and Prehistory (1995). These names are all the same motion. For the non-geophysicists Toomre’s paper is relatively lucid to read for a non-specialist seeking a ‘plain-English’ point of entry to this complex subject.  Generally speaking, geophysicists discuss theoretical motions in dense mathematics among themselves with little concern whether such theoretical excitations may actually have happened on the real Earth in recent prehistory; or that non-specialists might also have an interest in the subject. A more up to date bibliography of research is given in reference  and one of the clearest explanations of the Poinsot kinematics may be found on pages 52-58 of reference .
Would all please appreciate that everything discussed here is based on standard geophysics and takes no inspiration from Velikovsky! The core wobble of the Earth is a transient motion and could become chaotic in extreme circumstances as occurs with the double pendulum. See reference  below
1) van Hoek, Maarten A.M. (1993) The Spiral in British and Irish Neolithic Rock Art, Glasgow Archeological Journal, Vol 18, Issue 18
2) Toomre, A. (1974) On the nearly diurnal wobble of the earth. Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 38(2):335–348, 1974. ISSN 1365-246X. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-246X.tb04126.x.
5) Ferrándiz, José & Navarro, Juan & Escapa, Alberto & Getino, Juan. (2014). Earth’s Rotation: A Challenging Problem in Mathematics and Physics. Pure and Applied Geophysics. 172. 57-74. 10.1007/s00024-014-0879-7.
6) Leick, Alfred (1978) The Observability of the Celestial Pole and its Nutations; Prepared for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Goddard Space Flight Center, NSG 5265 jZ6 5; OSURF Project 711055, Reports of the Department of Geodetic Science, No. 262
Tags: spiral, spiral art, Neolithic, stone circle, Long Meg, Newgrange, Phaistos Disc, axis tilt, obliquity, pole shift, core nutation, core wobble
Citation: Dunbavin, Paul (2020) The Astronomical Significance of Spirals in Neolithic Art, in Prehistory Papers, pp 46-58, Third Millennium Publishing, Beverley, ISBN: 978-0-9525029-4-4
Copyright: Paul Dunbavin & Third Millennium Publishing 2019 - 2021 v1.4