AstroNotes 2019 February Vol: 58 issue 02

Editor’s Message . Ottawa Skies . Outstanding Standing Stones . Eclipse Images . Monthly Challenge Objects . Estelle’s Pick . FLO Star Parties . Next Meeting . Centre Information



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The Newsletter of the Ottawa Centre, RASC

Volume 58 – No. 2 – February 2019

Editor’s Message

Here we are in February again. As winters go, this has been an interesting one with a little something for everyone. In the case of clear skies, very little. If winter were awork week, mid-February would be hump day so not much more to endure before weget the gloriously warmer, but equally unpredictable skies of Spring.We have not had much luck with the FLO Star Parties this winter. The only clearnight was for the February 9th event and it was far too cold for most people. With alittle luck, the event planned for March 9th will be clear with warmer temperatures. If you haven’t been out much this winter, this might be a good chance to get back at it.It is also very close to the time of Messier Marathons, so if you still have a few tocross off your list, this could be the night.

For most of us, the January Lunar eclipse was not visible due to heavy clouds and
very cold temperatures. Our planned event at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum was cancelled for
that reason. However, a few people did get enough of a break in the clouds to at least see some of the
eclipse. We have a couple of images for you this month.

If you were at the February meeting you heard part one of Dr. Janet Tulloch's presentation "Outstanding
Standing Stones". She has graciously provided us with a copy of her fascinating presentation. We look
forward to part two in April.

As well this month we have all our regular features: Ottawa Skies; Monthly Challenge Objects; Estelle’s
Pick of the Month.


Ottawa Skies

By Dave Chisholm

Full Moon on February 19th. This moon is also known as the Full Snow Moon or the Full Hunger Moon (as hunting is difficult). This is the second of three super moons for 2019. The next super moon is March 21st

The comet could become as bright as magnitude 7 when it swings 0.3 a.u. from Earth on February 12th, just 6 days after perihelion. On that date, it will sit in the Sickle of Leo with the Moon at first quarter. For a few evenings around that time, the comet's apparent speed will average 7° to 8° per day.

Everybody's favorite comet to pronounce, 29P/S-W1 hangs in western Pisces where it will be observable through mid-February. After conjunction with the Sun in mid-March, it returns to the morning sky in late May, still moving east in Pisces. The famed comet is subject to outbursts at any time, which can raise its nominal magnitude of 14–15 to as bright as 10.5. The cause of the outbursts may be due to pressurized pockets of carbon monoxide and methane beneath the crust that erupt explosively as cryovolcanoes due to solar heating. If you happen to catch 29/S-W early in an outburst, it often looks like a bright, compact planetary nebula. To keep tabs on it so you don't miss the show, subscribe to the Comets Mailing List.

Rise/Set 07:45/17:07 -> 07:15/19:20
Greatest Eastern Elongation on February 27th
Look for Mercury in the western sky just after sunset

Visible in the early morning.
Rise/Set 04:35/13:33 -> 04:57/14:07

Visible first part of evening.
Rise/Set 09:59/23:09-> 08:53/23:01

Visible just before sunrise.
Rise/Set 04:02/12:45 -> 02:34/11:14

Visible just before sunrise last half of month
Rise/Set 05:59/14:42 -> 04:23/13:09

Visible all night.
Rise/Set 10:20/23:45 -> 08:36/22:04

Visible early part of the evening first half of month.
Rise/Set 08:50/19:52 -> 07:06/18:11

Outstanding Standing Stones

By Dr. Janet Tulloch


I want to begin by saying a few words about the framework of religions from antiquity (800BC-200AD). This context will help us, by way of analogy, when we go further back in time to the Neolithic age (4000-2500BC).
Religions within antiquity were not focused on ideas but rather rituals. They are what historians of religion call “cults”. It’s critical to set aside any contemporary understanding of this term and keep in mind the ancient understanding of the word – namely, the worship of a deity or deities with some type of representation of the deity present, such as a carved statue or two-dimensional image. This image could be anthropomorphic, animal, or reptilian. Meteorites were also known to represent gods or goddesses in antiquity. For example, the eastern goddess, Magna Mater, came to Rome from Phrygia in 200BC represented as a block of black stone to assist the Romans in their war against Hannibal. Typically, a cult practiced animal sacrifice or food offerings on specific days connected to the deity. These rituals were led by priests or priestesses.
In Antiquity, distinct from today’s religions, discussions of ethics or morality were the provenance of philosophy - not religious scholars or theologians. Unlike their Near-Eastern equivalents, e.g. Israelite religion, Hittite religion, Akkadian religion, etc., western religions (Greece and Rome) in antiquity did not have written scriptures which is not to say there were no sacred stories; there were - of human origins, creation of the cosmos, or theogonies – the origins of the gods. Stories of this type were transmitted orally until a form for capturing them in writing was invented (e.g. Hesiod’s Theogony, ca.800BC; Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey ca.700BC). (Note, archaic Greek became the second Greek alphabet after the earlier Linear B script died out around 1150 BC.)

Greek and Roman surviving religious texts are concerned with rituals or spells, especially the correct way to perform a rite. It is probable however that recitation of sacred origin stories or hymns to gods or goddesses occurred on feast days much like the Akkadian Enûma Eliš or “When on high” dated to ca.1800BC and recited on the 4th day of the New Year’s Festival. The earliest written collection of hymns in western religion, The Homeric Hymns, date to the 7th century BC.

In ancient Egyptian religion (part of the Near East complex of religions), the best example of a ritual text is the Egyptian Book of the Dead or better translated as Spells for Going Forth by Day where by ca.1900BC, well-to-do Egyptians could purchase a collection of spells or rites from scribes written on papyrus to assist the deceased (buried with his/her own personalized texts) to navigate his/her way through the dangerous place of the underworld in order to reach the afterlife. (Note the underworld and the afterlife were conceived as two different physical places). Surviving ritual texts on the journey after death are corroborated by Egyptian hieroglyphs in the pyramids. Keep in mind that Ra or Re, the noon sun-god was worshipped by Egyptians around 2500BC (towards the end of the northern Neolithic period) and later by Greeks and Romans as the god Helios (Greek) or Sol (Roman). Historians of religion generally agree that Constantine I (272 – 337AD), the first so-called Christian Roman emperor, worshipped Sol as late as the early 4th century AD.
The conflation of Greek and Roman divinities with planets is well known but less known deities of celestial bodies include Eos (Greek) or Aurora (Roman), goddess of the dawn; Selene (Greek) or Luna (Roman), goddess of the moon; Aether (Greek – no Roman equivalent) god of the upper air, atmosphere, space and heaven.
Calendars in antiquity were not secular. Priests controlled the naming of the days and time was marked by various types of sundials and ingenious but simple water mechanisms. As late as 46BC, Julius Caesar (d. 44 BC) put a stop to priests’ manipulation of the Roman calendar by becoming the high priest himself, hiring astronomers from Alexandria, Egypt to correct the sacred calendar so that it had some semblance to the actual solar year. Later Roman emperors maintained this tradition.

To sum up then, when thinking about concepts of “religion” in the Neolithic age, we can, by analogy to western religions of antiquity, think about activities rather than creeds: rituals, festivals or “feast days”, recitation of hymns, and sacred calendars connected to divine beings who might have been conflated with celestial bodies.

What is an Ancestor Cult?

In general, ancestor cults were not controlled by priests or priestesses. They were the provenance of families or kinship groups who mourned and honoured the loss of their loved ones. Again, generally, the spirits of deceased family members were thought to require the assistance and nurturing of their living descendants through gifts of food and other items on days of celebration or anniversaries of their birth or death. In turn, if properly respected, the ancestors would assist their living descendants, perhaps even communicate with them. The Greeks had an elaborate hero cult. The Romans had an extensive ancestor cult where great feasts took place honouring the dead in the month of February at the Parentalia festival when the entire population dined with their ancestors at their tombs. Spirits of the dead (the manes) were thought to reside both in their tombs and in Hades (the Underworld). Like the Egyptians before them, the Greeks and Romans also conceived of the afterlife as a place. Only the spirits of illustrious humans, such as heroes and heroines, kings and queens, ascended to the stars when deceased.

Keeping the above framework for ancient religions and the cult of ancestors in mind, let’s turn to Neolithic Orkney where we have no language script, but we do have markings and “designs” on stone, ancient artifacts and archaeological sites dating to 3500-2500BC.

The heart of Neolithic Orkney, 3500-2500BC

The map on the left shows the area designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 1999: “the large chambered tomb (Maes Howe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites.” ( Note the above list of Neolithic sites on the right, from “Islands of History: the late Neolithic timescape of Orkney” in Antiquity (2017), excludes North Ronaldsay which boasts both a standing stone with a hole in it aligned to the midwinter solstice sunset, and a stone cairn at the south-west end of the island.

I believe the reason the North Ronaldsay monuments have been overlooked in the scholars’ analysis is because there is no scientific data available for the researchers to process. We will return to this tiny island in the North Sea below.

Scientific methods used in Neolithic Archaeology

Using the first and third of the above methods for dating Neolithic remains, that is calibrated radiocarbon dating and luminescence dating, the scholars who wrote “Islands of History” offer what is one of the best chronologies for Orkney’s Neolithic monuments to date, keeping in mind most of the monuments were excavated scientifically in the last quarter of the 20th century - excepting the Ness of Brodgar, whose excavation did not begin until 2003 and is ongoing. As the authors state, the chronology of the Orcadian Neolithic is poorly defined. Their study, based on 613 radiocarbon measurements and 79 luminescence ages from 31 sites, has allowed me to create the following chronological model. Without a sound chronology for Neolithic Orkney, we cannot create an authentic cultural narrative concerning the history of the people who occupied these sites.

I’ve added some Neolithic dates from other sources for comparison. To turn to a discussion of the heart of Neolithic Orkney and solstitial alignment, let’s look at Maeshowe on mainland, Orkney.


Maeshowe is a chambered tomb consisting of a grass covered mound 35m in diameter and 7m high. It sits on an oval platform enclosed by a wide ditch and outer bank. Including these features, the monument measures about 80m north-south by 70m east-west. The outer bank probably dates to the Norse period though some sample trenches excavated in the 1980s suggest an earlier phase of construction with a low stone wall.

Evidence of sockets (deep holes) for large standing stones around the outside of Maeshowe have been found. Carvings on some of the stones like the ones found at Skara Brae and the Ness of Brodgar are also present.
The entrance passage measures 14.5m long and 1.4m high. Its ceiling is outfitted with massive slabs of rock, the largest weighing in the vicinity of 30 tonnes. When opened in 1861, the building was empty except for a piece of human skull, and some horse bones. However, the Vikings had made an earlier intrusion during the 12th century and left one of the largest collections of runes in Britain, as well as carvings of a dragon, a serpent and a walrus.

The solstitial alignment of burial mounds such as Maeshowe with its long passageway before reaching its burial chambers lasts for about three weeks prior and after the midwinter sunset. On the day of the actual midwinter solstice, the sun reaches the back wall of the largest burial chamber. Of interest, the original stone blocking the entrance, found inside the passageway, is trapezoidal in shape. When butted up against the entranceway it does not completely block the midwinter sunlight regardless of its positioning.

The duration of time whereby the sunlight illuminates the tomb passage before and after the midwinter solstice sunset seems unusual for a solstitial alignment when compared to other chambered tombs such as Newgrange near Dublin, for example where solstitial alignment is more precise and only lasts for a few hours. However, a longer period of midwinter light illuminating the tomb passageway could have had both a practical as well as a metaphysical function. The living could inter the bodies of the recent dead and rearrange the bones of ancestors already buried in an unhurried, respectful way. On a metaphysical level, the midwinter lighting of the passageway would have assisted the spirits of deceased family members to find their way on an afterlife journey – much like the ancient Egyptians - that either began or ended at the tomb around the midwinter.
Unlike the hieroglyphs in the pyramids, we have not yet been able to decode the prehistoric markings or “designs” and finds from the Orkney UNESCO archaeological sites to state whether these Neolithic people believed in an afterlife, but further evidence discussed below, suggests they practiced some type of ancestor cult. Before turning to a discussion of Midhowe on Rousay, Orkney, I want to acknowledge that the Stan stone or “Odin” stone in North Ronaldsay is also aligned to the midwinter solstice sunset.
Like Maeshowe, there is a comparable margin of days where the sun passes through the hole in the stone before and after the winter solstice sunset. As seen in the above photo, the date is New Year’s Day and the setting sun can still be seen to be aligned with the hole in the stone. Folklore from the 1700s tell of Orcadians dancing around the stone on this day. To my knowledge, neither it nor the cairn on North Ronaldsay have ever been scientifically investigated.

Midhowe, stalled tomb, Rousay, Orkney

There is another passage burial mound called Midhowe on the island of Rousay, Orkney, just north of Mainland, Orkney, which is close in size and dating to Maeshowe, that did have undisturbed remains, and what archaeologists found there suggests my theory of an active cult of ancestors might be on the right track.
Unlike Maeshowe, Midhowe is a stalled-type tomb, with a rectangular chamber divided by upright slabs to create compartments, or stalls, for inhumation interment.
Originally, it was an oval mound covered by turf and sediment with 25 separate stalls. The tomb is 33 meters long (Maeshowe is 35 meters) and 13 meters wide. with a long, narrow central passage of 23 meters in length.

“When the cairn was first excavated in 1923, the archaeologists found the complete remains of 9 people in stalls, arranged on their sides, curled up, facing the central passage. Three more skulls were set upon a low stone bench on the north side of the chamber….” (David Ross, ed. “Historic connections: Midhowe Chambered Cairn” in Britain Express,
Archaeologists are unsure whether Midhowe was ever fully closed. Some theorize that when in use (3300-2700BC), the living might have been able to come and go inside the tomb arranging the bones of the newest ancestors to intentionally face the central passage while the bones of older ancestors were gathered into a heap and placed on a shelf, sometime with the skull sitting on top.
The tomb entrance is oriented to the south-west but there is no mention of either the rising sun or sunset traversing its passageway on solstice days. However, Midhowe has a horned-shaped forecourt adjacent
to the long axis of the tomb on the north side (see diagram above). If the forecourt’s curvature is extended, a space capable of holding hundreds of people for ceremonies is created.
When viewed together, Maeshowe and Midhowe tombs appear to be the remnants of a late Neolithic ancestor cult with emphasis on the passageway both in terms of the placement of bones and solstitial alignment. Whether the North Ronaldsay stone and cairn were part of this ancestor cult remains to be seen.

At April’s meeting I will discuss the Ness of Brodgar, a complex of Neolithic buildings, the stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and the 13 smaller burial mounds surrounding these sites on Mainland Orkney. Hopefully, we will learn what these archaeological sites can further reveal about Neolithic religion in Orkney and its relationship to solstitial alignment and beyond.

This article including images (except for the title image) was compiled with the assistance of the following sources: Antiquity, Journal of; The Antiquaries Journal; British Express; Current Archaeology Magazine; European Journal of Archaeology; Frontiers Magazine; The Geographical Review; Historic Environment Scotland (Statements of Significance); Historic Scotland; The Orkneyjar Heritage Site; Scottish Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF); and UNESCO. The title image was photographed by Drew Thomas Tulloch Pascoe.

Eclipse Images

Paul Klauninger had a break in the clouds and managed to this composite image.
I however, was not as fortunate. All I managed was an eclipse of the eclipse.

Monthly Challenge Objects

Estelle’s Pick of the Month


FLO Star Party Dates for 2018/2019

We will be continuing the Ottawa Centre’s Members Star Parties at the FLO through the winter this year. If you haven’t attended before, be sure to mark at least one of these dates on your calendar. You are welcome to bring family members or a guest.


November 10 – waxing crescent Moon – sets 7:03 PM NO GO
December 8 – waxing crescent Moon – 1.8% sets at 5:42 PM – can you spot it? NO GO
January 5, 2019 – New Moon & Partial Solar eclipse NO GO
February 9 – Waxing crescent – 19.5% sets at 10:09 NO GO too COLD
March 9 – Waxing Crescent – 8.4% sets at 9:05
April 6 – One Day Old Moon 1.7% sets 9:02 PM

Next Meeting

7:30 PM Friday March 1, 2019 at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum (directions). Note there is a $4.00 parking fee for museum parking. The meeting runs until 9:30 pm
PLUS: all our regular meeting features: Ottawa Skies, 10-minute Astronomy, Observer Reports, and of course, the beloved Door Prize!

All RASC monthly meetings are free and open to members and non-members alike. Refreshments will be available and this will be a wonderful opportunity to meet new friends who share a common interest and chat in a relaxed, stimulating and fun environment. Please join us!

Centre Information

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The Ottawa Centre 2018 Council

President: Mike Moghadam (
Vice President: Stephen Nourse
Secretary: Chris Teron (
Treasurer: Oscar Echeverri (
Centre Meeting Chair:
Oscar Echeverri (
Councillors: Carmen Rush, Gerry Shewan, Jim Sofia
National Council Representatives: Karen Finstad, Ingrid de Buda
Past President: Tim Cole

2018 Appointed Positions

Membership: Art Fraser
Star Parties: Paul Sadler
Fred Lossing Observatory: David Lauzon & Rick Scholes (
Light Pollution Abatement: OPEN
Public Outreach Coordinator: Danel Polyakov
Hospitality: Art & Anne Fraser
Stan Mott Astronomy Library: Estelle Rother
Ted Bean Telescope Library: Darren Weatherall
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AstroNotes Editors: Gordon Webster & Douglas Fleming (