Under Mesolithic Skies

The late summer is a fantastic time for astronomy, nights drawing in a little but still nice and warm and some great celestial objects to explore. With this theme in mind we headed off to Abington Woods just south of Cambridge for our Mesolithic Skycamp, a fusion of astronomy, archaeology and history.

We kicked off the afternoon with our timelines, craftily set up to replicate the landscape, in the clearing for our Roman to Neolithic section, heading into the woodland to represent the hunting and gathering communities of the Mesolithic. Across the river and into the nicely landscaped park in the distance was our Upper Palaeolithic (which required a little more imagination to turn it into tundra).

Through artefact study at each bucket, we got a feel for what animals we might have been hunting, and how animals and humans respond to the changing climate. The artefacts included Roman pottery, an Iron Age coin, Bronze Age, Neolithic and Upper Palaeolithic axes and some Mesolithic microliths. These are all authentic items that were there at the time and have their own biographies. And it is so much better to examine them in the landscape than in a dusty museum.

The enthusiasm was fantastic, we spent over two hours on our journey through time discussing archaeological topics as diverse as vole clocks to Neanderthal empathy.

Come the evening we were ready for some astronomy and with obliging clear skies overhead we set off to our observatory. We pointed out some constellations and pondered what these may have meant in prehistory. Could the dots in the Lascaux bull painting really be recognising the Pleiades and Hyades in Taurus? In fact Taurus was not visible to us, but we navigated the summer triangle around Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila and of course the polar constellations.

But to use the telescopes we had to step out of prehistory and head into the seventeenth century and see what happened when we turned a telescope on the night sky.

We started with Saturn, to the prehistoric eye a bright orange star, to us, a beautiful ring surrounded disk. One of the group described the rings as ears, and this is pretty much how Galileo described them in 1610, although he used the term "arms".

We turned the telescope to some stars that revealed themselves to be not one, but two or more. We observed Achird in Cassiopeia and of course, Alberio in Cygnus with its fabulous gold and blue contrasting colours. From there we were off to the Ring Nebula in Lyra, the great globular star cluster M13 ("M" from the catalogue of the great Charles Messier), and finally the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) about two and a half million light years away. We were peering back in time. Indeed, if somebody on a planet around Albireo, 430 light years away, were looking at us, they could be watching the Spanish Armada.

Day two of our sky camp was dedicated to the arts and medicine. In the morning we headed to the Neolithic with some exploration into the world of pottery. First up we needed some clay. Some hunted in the river (Granta) whilst others preferred to keep their feet dry and headed into the woods. The latter was the most fruitful option and we soon had enough clay to start fashioning some pots.

We experimented, adding water to the clay, ash and small stones to improve, or diminish, the integrity. We fired them on the camp fire, again, experimenting. Was it best to place the pots in the centre of the fire for a quick burst of intense heat, or fire slowly towards the edge of the hearth? Somewhere in the middle seemed to work best, but it was easy to imagine a similar thought process from those early Neolithic potters. Some of had a go at decorating the pots using twigs.

The results were excellent and we soon had some very functional "Abington ware".

For the second phase of the day we headed back further in time to the Palaeolithic to create some art in the style of Lascaux. Using authentic red ochre and charcoal we explored the creation of zoomorphic and abstract art, together with positive and negative handprints. Once completed we put this to one side, to pick up again after dark.

Our canvas was designed to replicate a cave wall and the art experience in the light of the camp fire really brought it to life through the contours of the surface and the flickering firelight.

Our final topic was medicine and we set off gathering plants with medicinal properties, predominantly nettles and elderberries. This was fascinating. A number of the children had sniffles that seemed to be cured purely during the gathering process - one of the merits perhaps of "forest bathing". We were soon enjoying some nettle tea with a little elderberry infusion.

Following dinner around the campfire and some fireside philosophy we headed once again to our observatory for another view of Saturn and one of its moons - Titan. We then turned the telescopes on our own moon to explore the mountains and craters, and this became the inspiration for the following morning activities.

And so it was that on our final morning we were on a woodland art trail. Our objective, inspired by the previous evening's astronomy was to create our own interpretation of the Earth and the Moon, using natural material from the woods.

This was fantastic, ash and charcoal the perfect medium for the moon, and plenty of green for the Earth - we even had a ocean.

For the final half hour of the camp we watched video footage of the 1969 Moon landing together with the 2005 landing of Huygens on Titan - the very moon of Saturn we had been observing the previous evening.

And so concluded an excellent skycamp at Abington Woods - we are looking forward to the next one.

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