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13 July 2011

At www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/07/2011/astronomical-observati… has a post about a very old controversy. Anyone that followed the debate in the pages of Kronos or SIS journals, on the work of Alexander Thom (also available on the Catastrophe CD rom that can be purchased from this web site) and especially the controversy that developed over the alignment at Kintraw may be interested in this short piece which comes up with some current archaeological opinion. Thom suggested the large cairn at Kintraw had been built so that people could observe the upper edge of the winter solstice sun in a notch on the far horizon, the Paps of Jura. However, the notch could not actually be seen from the cairn as it was obscured by high ground. Thom came up with the idea that a small terrace on a hillside behind the cairn had been the viewing point – later investigated by Euan McKie. The terrace point, it was said, made use of a tall standing stone near the cairn, and could be lined up with the notch on the landscape. This would have meant that people would have climbed to the ledge and relayed back down to people below when the Sun actually appeared in the notch, an idea that did not seem logical to Thom's detractors. Unfortunately, Kintraw may have been the catalyst for further sceptism of the work of Thom – at other locations. Criticism began as a trickle but very quickly became a flood yet Thom investigated hundreds of sites – yet just a few have been reinvestigated, Kintraw over and over again. The work of Thom is nowadays virtually dead and buried (but see Robin Heath's Alexander Thom – Cracking the Stone Age Code, Bluestone Press:2007). In spite of a lacklustre academic interest in alignments, especially the longer variety that Thom enthusiastically endorsed, the idea is not quite as prostrate as you might imagine. Some people are still out there in the field reviewing some of the more famous of Thom's landscape alignments, some of which are more likely than others. One such is Douglas Scott (see for example www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/scott324/ ). He makes the point that the cairn at Kintraw is not alone in not having the winter Sun enter the chamber, and other cairns are located in positions dominated by higher ground. However, he notes they do seem to be located where the winter solstice Sun sets on that high horizon. In contrast, passage graves such as Maes Howe and Newgrange are situated in a low horizon position and the mid winter Sun rising does shine into the chambers. It is fascinating to note that there was really no requirement for Thom to have sought out a viewing point on a ledge or terrace location above the cairn and the fact the Paps of Jura can be seen from such a place is possibly just fortuitious. Lots of headaches could have been avoided.

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