Are 6,000-year-old Stone Burial Tombs The World's First Astronomy Telescopes?

Norman Byrd

Archaeologists studying 6,000-year-old burial tombs in Portugal believe that the stone edifices could very well be the oldest astronomy telescopes in existence. Researchers from the United Kingdom, noting the alignment of the tombs, think that the passages into the burial chambers may have formed a tunnel-like effect, thus effecting possibly the world's first ever astronomy telescopes.

The Guardian reported on June 29 that astronomer Fabio Silva from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and the research team found that the 6,000-year-old burial tombs look to be positioned to spy out certain bright stars, such as Aldebaran, thus providing their ancient builders an astronomical telescope as well as a place to house the deceased. The telescope was made by the passageway providing a tube that blocked out other extraneous phenomena, allowing the viewer to see the targeted object.

Silva had the following to tell The Guardian.

"The key thing is that a passage grave with its long corridor acts like a telescope that does not have a lens – it is a long tube from which you are looking at the sky."

As Kieran Simcox, a student at Nottingham Trent University (and leader of the project), pointed out in the National Astronomy Meeting 2016 press release: "It is quite a surprise that no one has thoroughly investigated how, for example, the color of the night sky impacts on what can be seen with the naked eye."

Dr. Daniel Brown from Nottingham Trent University, who is also a member of the research team, concurred, telling The Guardian that the burial tomb-cum-telescope was simplicity itself. "All you are doing is making sure everything is dark apart from that small area in the sky," he said.

The gist: The passages in the megalithic structures -- the burial tombs -- were not accidentally positioned. The tombs exist by the thousands all along Europe's western coastline and throughout northwest Europe. Their exact usage has been a matter of archaeological debate for centuries. And now, with Silva and Simcox's study that posits that the burial tombs doubled as lens-less telescopes, further research just might determine the reason why the tombs were constructed -- or at least one of the reasons.

Toward that end, Silva told The Guardian, "We are going to simulate this star rising at twilight conditions and allow people to tell us when they can see it. Then [we will] compare that with a control group of people that are in a room which would replicate the conditions of being outside the passage grave."

The idea that burial mounds and tombs, not to mention megalithic structures of various kinds, were built to track celestial objects or to capture the Sun and/or Moon at certain points in their orbits is not a new one. Stonehenge is a common example cited. But that site still evades scientific scrutiny as to its exact purpose.

The research team proposes that the burial tomb may have also been used for rites of passage into adulthood, perhaps not unlike a Native American vision quest, but dependent upon external and physical phenomena as opposed to introspective and sometimes hallucinogenic visions. Or it could have been used to monitor the changing of the seasons. Or both, and perhaps neither.

Regardless, a couple things are known about the burials that might be telescopes. A good many of them seem to have passages aligned with the star Aldebaran (located in the Taurus constellation), including 13 burial tombs in Carregal do Sal, Portugal (per The Telegraph). The ones that do not, some 90 percent of the tombs do not. It is hoped that further research will reveal the purpose of the great majority of the megalithic structures.

Silva and team presented their telescope hypothesis and findings at the National Astronomy Meeting 2016 this week at the University of Nottingham, England.

[Image via Shutterstock]