‘I Think, Therefore I Am’  – René Descartes

By Bernie Bell

Thinking – some think that thinking is what ‘raises’ us above the rest of the animal world.  I see examples of animals using thought all around me. Sometime I think to myself – there are people who wouldn’t have worked that out.   Here’s one example …..A flock of Rooks regularly flies over our garden – we think they’re from the Rookery at Woodwick House.  There’s one who is often on his own.  We call him Roookie – pronounced the Yorkshire way – and he’s a very clever bird.  His beak is too big for him to peck bits from the feeder but he’s worked out that when the feeder is freshly filled to the brim he can either land on the cross bar, push the lid up and pick whole nuts from the top, or, when the level has gone down a bit he perches on the cross bar shoves the lid up, clamps himself onto the mesh of the feeder, and sticks his head down into it to get nuts.  When it gets to a certain level he can no longer do this, and we don’t see him again until it’s filled again. That just one example.  What I don’t understand is – why the other Rooks don’t copy him?

I digress – I was thinking about people…..thinking.  TON published this article ….. , which I sent out to various folk that I thought might be interested to see it.  I then sent them this…..

“I was looking for something else in my photo folders when I came across this………(see pic)   It’s carved on one of the stones of the Ring of Brodgar.  A ‘Rosette’ carving?  When was it carved?  Another Brodgar mystery.

Obsessed?  Me?  Naaaaa…….”

Some responded.  It became a strong exchange of ideas and information.  I was thinking  that it would be good if someone would care to bring them together into a cohesive piece, and then thought – I’ll have a go – Swiss Cheese Brain or no – I’ll have a go.

So here they are – thoughts, ideas, information – referring to astronomy, archaeoastronomy, archaeology, folk magic, pottery, mythology, maths….maybe prompting more thought!

If you lay on the ground with your feet at the stone’s toes, you might see this in the stars.

I suppose if thy heid was at the toe of the stone, it would appear the other way up.

I know what obsession is like!”  –  Andrew Appleby

“That’s remarkable, those hollows do look old, and with there being seven of them my first thought is of the Pleiades. My knowledge of astronomy is very limited, and if anyone better placed could comment, it would be most interesting to hear.

Best wishes”   –  Howie Firth

“Hi folks,

For comparison, this is the Taurus stone in the limestone circle at the Spaceguard Observatory in Powys.  The stones came from the restoration work at Ely Cathedral and the inscription says the circle is dedicated to Princess Diana in 1997, though there’s a suspicion that the dedication may have been added some time after it was built.

The holes represent the Hyades and the horns of the Bull to the left, but not the Pleiades, which would have been to upper right if shown.   The ones on the Brodgar stones don’t look the Pleiades to me, I have to say  (pic attached), but as there are seven holes, it could be a general representation of them.

Best wishes”  –  Duncan Lunan

Image credit Linda Lunan

“Hi all, 

It is possible it is the Pleiades, and I can see the approximate cluster shape in the 6 at the left, but the other two to the right leave me puzzled.  Given that individual naked eye acuity defines the number that can be seen, it is possible.  I’ve heard of some people seeing 10 or more, whereas I just see a starry cloud now at my advancing age, although I could see 8 or so when I started astronomy in the mid 1960s. Or we could be looking at other elements at that time, such as fainter planets given the elliptic of the Zodiac being around there, although perhaps a degree or two too far away these days.  Might precession have played a role in that?”  –  Eamonn Keyes.

Hi all

This is interesting to hear, and certainly in tradition and mythology the Pleiades seem always to have been spoken about as seven, for instance the Seven Sisters.

It is puzzling why they are so prominent in tradition when they are so faint in the sky. In some instances they are spoken about in the same context as the Bear and Orion, which stand out so much compared to the Pleiades.

I wonder if there could be any link with the rising or setting of the sun at any particular time of year that made the Pleiades seem more significant? I guess though that that would depend on location, and they seem to be to the fore in cultures in so many different parts of the world.

All the best”  –  Howie


I think they’re really like a small, close family of stars that are instantly recognisable, as opposed to the sprawl of constellations.  Given that some cultures personified the stars, or thought that they were souls of warriors, that closeness and brightness suggested a closeness of family or souls.  

Given that the rising of Sirius was linked to the flooding of the Nile, it was discovered that Greeks had temples aligned to where they rose, and they were very important in Polynesia, beginning the Makahiki season in Hawaii. In addition their rising with the Sun announced Beltane for the Celts. They are linked with many cultures all over the world.” –  Eamonn

(At this point, Dr. Antonia Thomas wrote that she has recorded similar drilled holes in both Neolithic context (at the Ness of Brodgar) and at St, Magnus Cathedral.  She notes that it seems that medieval and post medieval pilgrims often drilled into stones in churches to get the powder from the stone, which they mixed with water to make a sort of potion that embodied the sacred power of the stone – known as ‘poor man’s aspirin’!  There’s a reference to the ‘dot patterns’ in the St Magnus graffiti report  She sees this as being a mixing of folk magic with Christian spirituality, and notes that the holes tend to be in clusters or threes, fives or sevens (sacred numbers). There is also good reason to see these holes as a simple form of mark making / graffiti, a continuation and variation on a practice that has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years.)

“Hi all,

Threes, fives and sevens appear in the decoration on the Culduthel Beaker. When I remade it for The NMS I noticed this regularity.

Odd numbers divide better on a pot as well. There is always a central motif, which one can then place two or three marks either side. It makes it easier to regularise a pattern. Then sometimes there is an awkward space where the division is either too wide or too small. This is where decoration is changed to compensate.

As I remember, on the Culduthel piece the decoration did work evenly.

There thee goes.”  –  Andrew

You know how the ancient folk used to use little nobbles of clay to make decorations on their pots?  I was wondering, have any pieces of pot been found with nobbles in the form of a ‘rosette’?

I wonder about a lot of things – that’s why my brain hurts.”  –  Me

“Hello Bernie, Although it’s likely that they could count, the idea that they used maths, comes from Alexander Thom reading too much into his surveys. As the monuments were only generally aligned to the sun or moon, I suggest that they simply watched where they rose and set, and then aligned them in these directions.”   –  Dougie Scott

What Antonia and Andrew say about the occurrence of particular numbers is very interesting. Attention on the mathematical skills of the Neolithic has been focused mainly on their beautiful geometric patterns, but in fact in mathematics generally algebra underlies geometry, and there are reasons for thinking that algebra (which is a mathematics of time) is more appropriate for the Neolithic worldview than geometry (which is a mathematics of space), and this then leads to the use of number theory as the purest mathematics of time. There have been some fascinating analyses of the geometry of various stone circles in terms of underlying number patterns. Numbers in this role would have been something to explore for insights, rather than for the more utilitarian roles that we give them today.

This idea of the primacy of numbers has surfaced at various times over the subsequent millennia, and strangely enough it’s being tried out today in some fundamental areas of mathematics, and physics as well.

All this is being said in order to encourage everyone in archaeology to keep looking out for numbers and patterns!” – 

Stone from an Orkney beach with limpet scars in ‘rosette’ pattern.

“Another thing I learned as a young potter… When weighing up ingredients you add in units. To keep count you did on a bit of paper one vertical stroke per unit, then another and another unit you had four. You then put a diagonal line over these verticals and that MEANS FIVE! You have your five signs underneath each other so you can count them and maybe stroke them off with a dot until you have the amount you really need. I have seen this in a flour mill in pencil and scratched onto stones at The Ness.

I use it as a failsafe method, even now at my pottery, when weighing out glaze materials or pottery plaster and pints of water. It is very important to me.”  –   Andrew

“That’s very interesting Andrew, and it’s making me think. Pottery-making is going to involve numbers with the mix of ingredients, and that will lead to proportion, since in a situation involving scaling-up then all the quantities must be multiplied accordingly. So the thinking has to move beyond number as quantity to relationships between numbers and so mathematical structure.

I’ve been rummaging in books on the history of mathematics and found that one of the oldest examples of counting is the Ishongo bone from the Congo, dated to around 20,000 years ago, with numerous notches on it which are grouped into patterns. I will be interested to hear what patterns others see. (Although I am still trying to work out the reason for the final two numbers in the third row!)

11, 21, 19, 9

11, 13, 17 19

3, 6, 4, 8, 10, 5, 5, 7

(Interestingly, some of the space are greater, and one way of writing the sequence could be:

3,6     4,8     10, 5, 5     7) “ – 

“Hi Bernie, 

At this point I feel all we have is a hatful of facts and a bagful of opinions, and we need linkage. And I feel we haven’t even really defined what the central point is.  I like the idea of archaeoastronomy, but again, I’m wondering if there’s a sufficient gap between guesswork and evidence. 

This’d be a cracking topic for a social meeting with red wine and nibbles.  Damn Covid!”  –   Eamonn.

“ Thing is…..I don’t think the ‘rosette’ carvings, any of them, look like the Pleiades.  If the Pleiades was ‘closed’ – yes.  As it is – I just don’t see it.

I think it’s something that has become accepted in relation to the cluster on the Nebra Sky Disc and folk aren’t questioning it. That’s is just my opinion though, and I’m not even an astronomer – but my chum Eamonn is – and he said, as a comment to my original ‘Nebra Sky Disc piece….……”Hi Bernie, the cluster in the Sky Disc is nothing like the Pleiades. Compare the Lascaux cave painting featuring them and other stars in an astronomically correct configuration some 15,000 years earlier.”

Even if the ones on the stone at the Ring of Brodgar are not ancient – they indicate that someone carved them with the rosette carvings in mind?  Hmmmmmm……

And I’m interested in what those rosettes do represent.  Double Hmmmmmmm

I’m going to lie down and try to switch my brain off.  Do you remember the Gumbies in ‘Monty Python’?

They’d stumble on and say “My brain hurts” – well – mine does!”  –  Me

I like it that this exchange brought together various aspects relating to the knowledge of ancient peoples – some of the folk quoted here can connect these different aspects, too. 

In a couple of month’s time the dig at the Ness of Brodgar will resume – think about how much the Ness has revealed of the knowledge of the Neolithic people of Orkney – and beyond.


From Duncan Lunan:

Hi Bernie,

I think I may have found the explanation for your Brodgar mystery, though maybe not one we would have wanted.  I knew that pattern rang a bell.

In the Alien movie ‘Prometheus’, there are carvings found all over the world, supposedly corresponding to a star group which is too far away to be visible to the naked eye.  The example most recently discovered is on the Isle of Skye, which might have prompted someone to mark it on Brodgar.  Or maybe it was a plan to promote the film.  Let’s be charitable and say it was inspired by the ‘Mycenean’ daggers carved on Stonehenge?

Here is the Prometheus film clip that those various hieroglyphics were all seen in:

and I’m attaching a still of it for comparison with your photo.

Leave a Reply