September 2016 saw the complete excavation (and subsequent re-burying) of the largest piece of Neolithic rock art in Britain – the Cochno Stone – by archaeologists from Glasgow University. This was the much-anticipated follow-up to 2015’s preliminary test dig to ascertain the condition of the stone and see if a full excavation would be worthwhile. I blogged about that dig here.
The morning was slightly fresh but some streaks of blue sky through the clouds hinted at a dry, possibly even sunny morning ahead as I carried my ceremonial birch bark Iroquois medicine bag, paddle and Raven blanket from the car park up the hill to the muddy access path, my walking boots with socks pulled up to protect my trousers quite spoiling the ‘itinerant shaman’ look that I was aiming for. Luckily, nobody was around at this early hour to comment on this gross fashion faux-pas.
Arriving at the site, I left my walking boots at the perimeter and proceeded to set up my kit for the closing ceremony of the Cochno Stone dig. The atmosphere was quiet and wistful, perhaps with just a slight tinge of apprehension in the air, like a child who knows that they have to go back to school but wishes that the holidays weren’t over.
Glasgow’s Secret Geometry
My fascination with the Cochno Stone goes back some decades to when I first learned about it in Harry Bell’s book ‘Glasgow’s Secret Geometry’, where he had placed Cochno in alignment with far-distant Tinto Hill and several other sites across the Clyde valley; “…the Cochno Stone is in perfect alignment with King’s Ford, the Iron-Age fort at Cadzow, Craignethan Castle and Tinto Hill.” The fact that the Cochno Stone had been buried in the 1960s to protect it from vandalism only made it more tantalising, and when I subsequently learned more about Ludovic McLellan Mann, the Glasgow councillor and amateur archaeologist who had famously painted in all the symbols on the Cochno Stone in 1937 and added a radial grid of his own devising to demonstrate his theory that it represented a star map of the area, I was hooked.
I was not the only one captivated by Harry Bell and Ludovic Mann. Film-maker May Miles Thomas was inspired enough to film short vignettes at all the locations of the Glasgow Network of Aligned Sites, producing first a BAFTA-award winning interactive website ‘The Devil’s Plantation’, and subsequently a film of the same name. In turn, this came to the attention of Ferdinand Saumarez Smith from digital conservationists Factum Foundation, who approached May and Glasgow University Archaeology department to discuss the possibility of a complete excavation of the Cochno stone to do a photogrammetric and LIDAR scan, with a view to producing a replica of it (the completed 3D viewer is available here). Dr Kenny Brophy, senior lecturer at GU, also happens to be an authority on Mann’s prehistoric Glasgow investigations and was similarly enthusiastic about the idea. It seems that Mann’s enigmatic painted star grid had cast a wide temporal net across the years.
So it was that almost exactly one year after the test trench was dug, a small army of archaeology students and other volunteers from the University and elsewhere descended on the stone. Enthusiasm was high, finances were tight. Over the course of an extremely wet working week, and with the aid of a small mechanical digger and the fire department who helped clean the surface, the Cochno Stone was finally coaxed into the light of day for the first time in 51 years.
The Glasgow Network of Aligned Sites
Tinto Hill used to be called Tintock, which is thought to derive from the Gaelic teinnteach, meaning ‘fiery’ – referring to the red colour of the stone capping the summit and also the hill’s historical significance as a beacon point. There is a prehistoric cairn on the top and from Cochno it lies in the direction of the winter solstice sunrise. However, Harry Bell seemed a little unsure of the alignment, for on the map insert of Glasgow’s Secret Geometry it is shown as a dotted line, and although he does mention it in the text, he seemed to prefer the alignment starting from the dome of Duncolm in the hills behind Cochno. That alignment does at least run through the major nexus of the Necropolis, unlike the one from the Cochno stone which misses the Necropolis by a few dozen yards to the south – although it does cross the site of a Mesolithic settlement on Barrack Street that is mentioned in Harry’s text – and it runs closer to some cup-marked stones to the east of Cochno near Whitehill Farm. Nonetheless, it is tempting to imagine the prehistoric astronomers of Cochno studying the sky in the direction of Tinto on the night of the winter solstice, watching for the beacon fire that would herald the approaching sunrise.
Harry Bell recorded another alignment from the Cochno stone, this one running to the Camphill earthwork in Queen’s Park, another primary nexus in his Glasgow Network of Aligned Sites, and passing through Govan Old Parish Church en route – an ancient site that subsequently became Christianised. By strict Alfred Watkins standards, this is a poor example of a ley, having only three sites on it; however the azimuth of the alignment is suggestive of the point where the moon would rise at the major southern standstill point, which occurs roughly every 19 years. This would be visible over the suburb of Faifley, which means ‘White Pass’ – could this be an ancient etymological reference to the light of the rising standstill moon?
By playing around with Google Earth (a luxury that would have transformed Harry’s researches), I have identified some other intriguing alignments from Cochno. A line almost due south connects the site of Ludovic Mann’s earlier dig at Knapper’s Farm with another of Harry Bell’s sites at Renfrew Old Parish Church, an ecclesiastical site which dates back to the 12th century. Harry thought this location was probably a much older site, although there is no archaeological record to support this idea, and Harry may just have been saying that to justify the inclusion of the site in his Network. Again, this is a very poor ley having only three sites on it, but it is pleasing in that it provides another link between Harry Bell and Ludovic Mann. Surprisingly, Harry does not mention the Knapper’s site at all in his book.
If the alignment to Tinto Hill marks the winter solstice sunrise, I wondered if there was an equivalent alignment to mark the winter solstice sunset? Projecting a line at the required azimuth of 227 degrees using Google Earth’s handy ruler feature, I found that such a line connected neatly with another Harry Bell site at Glengarnock castle. Enthused by this discovery, I next looked at the equinox sunrise and sunset alignments, as the largest trio of cup and ring marks on the stone are clearly oriented east-west (given a level horizon, the sun at the equinoxes will always rise due east and set due west, regardless of your positon on Earth). The western alignment runs directly to Dumbarton Castle, another site at the extremity of Harry’s alignments map, grazing the edge of Sheep Hill Fort on the way (where another fine set of cup-and-ring markings were discovered during an earlier excavation by Dr Euan Mackie); whereas the eastern alignment can be extended right across Central Scotland to Cairnpapple Hill, a site featured in Harry’s earlier book Forgotten Footsteps. However, in practical terms there is a slight rise in the ground to the east of Cochno, so the actual point of equinox sunrise would be displaced a little to the south. As I was to subsequently discover, this may be accounted for in the Cochno Stone markings.
I had been dowsing the area for a couple of days before excavation began, mapping out earth energy lines around the stone and in the country park – this was by no means an easy task with the rampant undergrowth, which meant that my dowsing was confined to walking the paths of the park, with one or two diversions to seek out other cup-marked rocks. As the paths run mainly on an east-west axis in the park this allowed me to dowse reactions on each path as I walked, plotting their positions using the excellent dowsing mapper app on my phone, and then look at them later in Google Earth to see whether I had any correlations between the paths. As I was covering a pretty large area the dowsing was rudimentary at best, however I did find some noticeable connections between the paths I walked on, which developed into a vague grid of roughly north-south lines covering the area. Because of the layout of paths in the park I was unable to match these up with any corresponding east-west lines to see if they did start to form any sort of coherent grid; this is something I would like to revisit later in the year when the undergrowth is not as dense.
Of main import here was that the Cochno stone itself had one very broad energy ley crossing it, and I identified three other energy lines connecting it with other cup-marked stones nearby – but these lines need further checking as the reactions were very faint on two of them, and the third one quickly disappeared into the neighbouring garden so I couldn’t track it in that direction. I did pick up something at the eastern edge of the park that seemed to be this line, but with so few reference points it was hard to confirm. The main energy ley running through the stone roughly parallel with the wall that bisects the site was quite strong initially, and after the stone was completely uncovered and exposed to the sun, it grew wider and stronger until it seemed to stabilise at about 5m wide, with 15 distinct bands within it. There was a very definite increase in the strength of this line over the course of a few days, as though the stone was drawing energy from the sunlight that it had been deprived of for so long. The transverse line was harder to check as I could only dowse for this in two or three widely separated spots at each end of the park, and only one of those was close to the stone; however the plotted GPS positions on the app matched up closely enough to suggest that it was reasonably accurate.
It was the chance to see the incredibly detailed cup and ring marks on the stone that was, for me, the most exciting part of the operation. I have long held the view that these are records of astronomical observations, where the ancient peoples were trying to make sense of the cycles of the heavens above them. This hypothesis is not something that archaeologists like to commit to, as archaeo-astronomy is still regarded with some suspicion in official circles; instead they generally prefer to keep their options open by muttering something about ‘possible ceremonial use’ or similar. But the more of these rock art sites that I visit, the more I find evidence to support the theory that they are records of astronomical events made over long periods of time, particularly the cycles of the sun and moon. Being our closest star, the relative rising and setting positions of the sun have not changed very much since Neolithic times (unlike those of more distant stars) – it varies by less than a fifth of a degree every thousand years, so Neolithic astronomy still basically ‘works’, at least as far as naked-eye observations go. This is why it is still possible to see the midsummer sun rise over the heel-stone at Stonehenge, for example. This is not ruling out observations of other stars as well, but their relative positions have moved much more over time because of precession, making it more difficult for us to calculate without astronomical computer software. However, it is possible that some constellations are depicted in groupings of cup-marks, and Ludovic Mann certainly found comparable groups of cup marks on different stones that closely matched the star layout of particular constellations.
The Cochno stone provides a great viewing platform with a near-level distant horizon across the Clyde valley to the south and west – or at least it would be if it were not for all the trees that obscure the view today. Several markings on the stone are suggestive of solar alignments, particularly winter solstice sunrise and sunset, equinox sunrise and sunset, and potentially even a couple of lunar alignments. There are a couple of methods that could be used to plot these sightlines. By using a pair of rods as back-sight and fore-sight, a cup-mark could be carved to mark the position of a sunrise or sunset – say, for example, the position of the setting sun at the winter solstice extreme. A single rod held vertically would cast a shadow over the stone at sunrise or sunset, providing an immediate visual alignment. However keeping a rod held truly vertical can be problematic and a more accurate approach is to hold a plumb line over the cup mark and let the line cast the shadow. Both techniques are demonstrated on some Galician sites in this Portuguese academic paper by Jose Luis Galovart.
I’ve sketched out some possibilities for the Cochno Stone on this next diagram, which is based on the 1981 R. Morris drawing (which is itself from an earlier drawing) so cannot be regarded as accurate. For the moment, these are speculative alignments only. With one exception, I’ve focused mainly on those with a southerly aspect as that’s the direction with the clearest sightlines and a level horizon. On the diagram, the lines in green are those that would require direct sighting using two rods – this would be most likely for lunar alignments where a shadow would be difficult to detect. One rod would be placed in a cup mark that would always be the same (shown outlined by a green circle), the other rod would be moved about by an assistant until it lined up with the spot on the horizon where the event happened, and a mark made at that point. Over several years, a pattern of marks would build up until the position was finalised. The red lines show alignments that could be marked using the plumb line shadow method. Here the red circles show the cup mark to hold the weighted bob over, the red line show the shadow cast by the line, and the dotted line shows the direction of the event itself.
Please note that I am not using professional surveying equipment here, and besides it was near-impossible to get a decent view through the trees, so these alignments are mere suggestions based on the azimuths at this latitude given a level horizon and would require a lot more study to be regarded as genuine. But I think they are tantalising enough to warrant further study, and this at least demonstrates the importance of always seeing these sites in their original landscape setting. Hopefully if a replica of the stone is completed, as it the plan, it will be placed close enough to the original to facilitate further study of these alignments.
Ludovic Mann was captivated by these markings, particularly the large pair towards the western edge of the stone, which he used to bolster his theory (developed from earlier observations of two other rock art stones at Whitecraigs and Langside) that the symbols recorded a total solar eclipse over Glasgow in the year 2983 BC. Mann was even precise enough to pinpoint this event as occurring “six days after the spring equinox and at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.” This claim was apparently checked at the time by astronomers in Berlin and the editor of the scientific journal ‘Nature’, but to my knowledge has not been subject to modern computer analysis to see if it is correct. It is notoriously difficult to calculate eclipses at such a remote date, and the NASA eclipse tables only extend back to 1999 BC.
Mann was of the opinion that the ancient peoples had manipulated their local landscape to mimic the heavens above by placement of their monuments, tombs and the alignments between sites – in this he was several years ahead of Alfred Watkins, whose theories on leys, popularised in ‘The Old Straight Track‘, have enthused generations of ley-hunters. Mann claimed that the sites around Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain had been laid out to mimic star constellations. He also averred that the sites around Glasgow conformed to a 38-radial system centred on the Necropolis, and saw the Cochno stone as a map of the heavens above the Clyde valley. He was very interested in ancient metrology, and found two common units of measurement in his surveys that he called ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’ units. A multiple of his beta unit is the same as Alexander Thom’s ‘Megalithic Yard’ – once again, Mann anticipated his successors by several years. Of key import to understanding his theories is that he thought that the units of length equated with units of time when applied to rock art, which is how he claimed to be able to calculate these early eclipses.
In 1937 he painted an elaborate radial grid on the Cochno stone to demonstrate his theory. At the time he had recently completed his excavation at Knapper’s a couple of miles to the south, called by him the ‘Druid’s Temple’, which he said was built to commemorate the aforementioned eclipse. Busloads of people were ferried out from Glasgow to see the site and hear Mann expound his ever more fantastic narratives of evil black serpents and dragons devouring the beleaguered sun in an epic saga, eventually to be rescued by the intervention of the five other visible planets. All of this legend, he said, was encapsulated in the fine double cup-and-ring marking to be found on the Cochno stone, which commemorated the eclipse event, and he included an interpretive depiction of the Cochno makings in his leaflet for Knapper’s.
Whether there is any truth in Mann’s theories remains open to interpretation. There is no doubt that he was embroidering things to popularise his excavations in an attempt to raise funding. Unfortunately his hyperbolic mythological expositions did little to enhance his reputation, and as he did not record his ideas well enough for subsequent researchers to understand, his work has largely been dismissed and very little of his writings survive. So it was tremendously exhilarating during the Cochno dig to see that remnants of Mann’s grid survived on the surface of the stone, and in at least three colours. We can only hope that the detailed scanning will pick up enough of this detail to enable a full reconstruction of his grid, which might allow a diligent researcher to reassess his work and restore his standing somewhat.
The Cochno stone was reburied again on September 20 2016, just a couple of days before the autumn equinox. It’s unfortunate that this important festival was missed, as it deprived me of the chance to check the equinox sunset alignment, but academic schedules and the availability of volunteer student labour dictated an earlier reinternment. However, it did witness a Harvest Moon penumbral lunar eclipse during the time it was exposed, which seemed appropriately symbolic at some level and made me wonder which, if any, of the markings might represent such an eclipse.
These were some of the things I pondered as I waited for Ferdinand, Kenny, and the dig crew including Stevie, the unofficial Guardian of the Stone, to arrive for the closing ceremony. There was an air of expectancy, as though somehow this moment stretched back across the millennia to when the ancient peoples first carved this stone and had called us all here at this time to bear witness to their work. Once everyone had arrived, I ritually smudged them with sage before calling the cardinal directions. I emphasised the importance of being here at this historic window in time, giving thanks and acknowledgements to everyone who had made the project possible. We were the first people to be able to stand on the stone in half a century, and it fell to us to preserve the memory of this moment so that we could tell our children and our children’s children about this once-in-a-lifetime event.
So as the Wheel turns towards the dark half of the year and the stone is returned to the womb of Mother Earth once again, our hopes are that this work will enable a replica to be manufactured, which will facilitate further study and a clearer understanding of the purpose of these enigmatic carved stones and the Neolithic peoples, and also the work of Ludovic Mann; and that the local schoolchildren who attended the dig will be inspired to take a greater interest in their history and develop more of a custodial appreciation of their local environment.
The ceremony was closed, with offerings made to the stone and the directions with sacred tobacco, before the surface was covered with a geotextile fabric and the stone returned to the earth for an unknown length of time – but not, we hope, forever.
Grahame Gardner is a professional dowser and geomancer specialising in house-healing work involving geopathic and technopathic stress, and the creation of sacred spaces. He is listed on the Professional Register of the British Society of Dowsers, and served as President of the Society from 2008-2014. He is also a founder member of The Geomancy Group. This article is from his personal blog Western Geomancy.
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