Using Circumpolar Marker Stars

The marker stars within the circumpolar or arctic region of the sky have always included Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Great and Little Bear (arctic meaning “of the bears” in Greek), even though the location of the celestial North Pole circles systematically through the ages around the pole of the solar system, the ecliptic pole. In 4000 BC our pole star in Ursa Minor, called Polaris, was far away from the north pole and it reached a quite extreme azimuth to east and west each day, corresponding to the position of the sun (on the horizon in 4000 BCE at this latitude) at the midsummer solstice sunrise. This means angular alignments may be present to other important circumpolar stars in some of the stones initiating the Alignments at Le Menec, when these are viewed from the centre of the cromlech’s circle implicit in its egg-shaped perimeter.

This original “forming circle” of the cromlech could be used as an observatory circle, able to record angular alignments. Therefore the distinctive “table” stone which aligns to the cromlech’s centre at summer solstice sunrise, also marked the extreme angle (to the east) of Polaris, alpha Ursa Minor, our present northern polestar. That is, in 4000 BCE Polaris stood directly above the table stone, once per day – whether visible or not.

Such a maximum elongation of a circumpolar star is the extreme easterly or westerly movement of the star, during its anti-clockwise orbit around the north pole. Thus, if the northern horizon were raised (figure 5) until it passed through the north pole, the maximum circumpolar positions for a star to east and west would be equally spaced, either side of the north pole. If these extreme positions are brought down to the Horizon in azimuth, the angles between these extremes forms a unique range of azimuths on the ground between (a) the horizon (b) a foresight such as a menhir and (c) an observer at a backsight. Observations of these extreme elongations naturally enable the pole (true north) to be accurately established from the observing point as the point in the middle of that range. A marker stone can usefully locate a circumpolar star at one of these maximum elongations and come to symbolize that important star. A star’s location could have been brought down to the horizon using a vertical pole or plumb bob, between the elongated star and the horizon, at which point menhirs could later be placed, relative to a fixed viewing centre or backsight. This method of maximum elongations would have escaped the atmospheric effects associated with observing stars on the horizon which causes a variable angle of their visual extinction below which stars disappear before reaching the horizon.

Figure 5.The Maximum Elongation of Circumpolar Stars is a twice daily event when, looking at the horizon, the star’s circumpolar “orbit” momentarily stops moving east or west at maximum elongation in azimuth and reverses its motion.

At Le Menec the azimuths of the brightest circumpolar stars, at maximum elongation, appear to have been strongly associated with the leading stones of the western alignments (see figure 6). However, it is likely that only one of these circumpolar stars was used as a primary reference marker, for the purpose of measuring sidereal time at night when this star was visible.

Figure 6 Some of the associations between circumpolar stars and stones in the western alignments. These alignments are all to the maximum easterly elongations, perhaps established during the building of the sidereal observatory and only later formalized into leading stones at the start of different rows. Dubhe was then selected as the primary marker star for the Le Menec observatory.

To achieve continuous measurements of sidereal time from the circumpolar stars requires a simple geometrical arrangement that can draw down to earth the observed position of maximum elongation to east and west for one bright circumpolar star, the observatory’s marker star. A rectangle must then be constructed to the north of the cromlech’s east-west diameter and containing within it the observatory’s northern semicircle. The northern corners must align with, relative to the centre of the circle, the eastern and western elongations of the chosen marker star. For Le Menec the rectangle had to be extended northwards until it reached the first stone of row 6[1]. This stone is aligned, from the centre, to the maximum eastern elongation of Dubhe or alpha Ursa Major. The first stone of row 6 is therefore the menhir marking Dubhe. To the south, the initial stones of further rows all stand on the eastern edge of this rectangle, so that any point on the rectangle’s north face could be brought down, unobstructed, to the circumference of the circle.

Figure 7 shows how the form of the circumpolar region, within the “orbit” of Dubhe, is repeated by the cromlech’s forming circle. It is also true that the “northern line” then has the same length as the diameter of the forming circle, which has therefore been metrologically harmonized with row 6’s initial stone and the alignment to Dubhe in the east.

This arrangement has the consequence that wherever Dubhe is (above the northern line and when seen on a sightline passing through the centre of the cromlech) its east-west location in the sky can be brought down, directly south, to two points on the forming circle of the observatory – all due to the star observation having been made upon a length equal to the circle’s diameter (the Northern Line of figures 7 and 8). One of these two points, on the northern or southern semicircle of the observatory, must then correspond exactly to where Dubhe is in its “orbit” around the north pole, as in figure 8.

So, what is being measured here and what would be the significance of having such a capability? Whilst the movement of all the stars is being accurately measured, using this northern line and forming circle combination, the monument also has a reciprocal meaning. The forming circle also represents the earth’s rotation towards the east, the cause ofthe star’s apparent motion. This is because, when looking north, the familiar direction of rotation of the stars, when looking south, is reversed from a rightwards motion to a leftwards, anticlockwise motion. Circumpolar motion therefore directly represents the rotation of the earth. The Dubhe marker star would have represented the movement of a point on the surface of the earth, moving forever to the east. Perhaps more to the point, the eastern and western horizon are moving as two opposed points on its circular path, each moving at about the same angular speed as Dubhe. This deepens the view of the forming circle as representing those ecliptic longitudes in which the fixed stars, rising or setting on the eastern and western horizons, are fixed locations on the circle through which these horizons are moving as markers on the circle’s circumference.

These two views, of a moving earth and of a moving background of stars, could be interchangeable when understood and both viewpoints are equally useful and were probably relevant to the operation of this observatory. Whilst the circumpolar stars move around the pole, the eastern and western horizon move opposite each other, running along the ecliptic, as the Earth rotates. The first view enables an act of measurement which would have given astronomers access to sidereal time and the second view provided knowledge of where the eastern and western horizons were located viz a vis the equatorial stars and therefore knowledge of which part of the ecliptic was currently rising or setting.

Figure 8 Recreating the circumpolar region with marker star Dubhe at the correct angle on the forming circle of the western cromlech. The star’s alignment on the northern line is dropped to the south so as to touch the two points of the circumference corresponding to that location on the circle’s diameter: one of these will be the angle of Dubhe as seen within the circumpolar sky but now accurately locatable in angle, on the observatory circle.

Dubhe had, in 4000BCE, a fortunate relationship to the circumpolar sky and equatorial constellations which would have been very useful. When Dubhe reached its maximum eastern elongation (marked by the first stone in the sixth row) the ecliptic’s summer solstice point was rising in the east. However, Dubhe’s maximum western elongation did not correspond to the winter solstice, this due to the obliquity of the ecliptic relative to north. It is the Autumn Equinoctal point of the ecliptic that is rising to the east at Dubhe’s maximum western elongation. It was when Dubhe was closest to the northern horizon, that the other, winter solstice point was found rising on the ecliptic. It is important to realize that these observational facts were true every day, even when the sun was not at one of these points within the ecliptic’s year circle.



This paper proposes that an unfamiliar type of circumpolar astronomy was practiced by the time Le Menec was built, around 4000 BCE.

  1. Abstract
  2. Start of Carnac’s Alignments
  3. as Sidereal Observatory
  4. using Circumpolar Marker Stars
  5. dividing the Circumpolar stars
  6. maintaining Sidereal Time in Daylight
  7. measuring the Moon’s Progress
  8. as Type 1 Egg
  9. transition from Le Manio
  10. the Octon of 4 Eclipse Years
  11. building of Western Alignments
  12. key lengths of Time on Earth

[1] Thom’s row VI.

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