25th January 2024
Becky Burchell interviews dark skies advisor Steve Tonkin, to reimagine our ancestors’ views of the night sky.
Steve Tonkin has been instrumental in enthusing many local people in the delights of star gazing. As a passionate astronomer and regular contributor to BBC Sky At Night magazine, Steve is the Dark Skies Advisor to Cranborne Chase National Landscape.
I invited Steve to chat with me about our ancestor’s relationship with the night sky, as part of my research for developing a new events series called ‘Women of the Dark Skies’.
I was creating this storytelling pilgrimage to take place at night, leading women along the footpaths surrounding Chettle, connecting them to the history, ecology and spirituality of this land. The story I was writing was set nearly 2,000 years ago, in the late Iron Age, when our ancestors’ would have been far more familiar with the night sky than we are today.
To give authenticity to the story, I asked Steve to travel back in time to imagine how the Durotriges tribal people of this area may have regarded the same stars we know today…
Becky: How do you think our relationship to the night sky today differs from that of our ancestors?
Steve: It’s incredibly sad that up until 150 years ago, all humanity shared the same darkness and access to the stars, but now in so many urban areas this relationship has been wiped out. That sense of belonging that the night sky provides has been lost to so many people.
Becky: I recently discovered that the Aboriginals in Australia have their own constellations which include a platypus and an ostrich. I’m wondering what constellations, if any, our Celtic ancestors might have seen when they looked to the stars?
Steve: The constellations that were created in Australasia, were much bigger than the ones we have in the UK and this is probably because people there used them to navigate across vast oceans. Whereas in China, the constellations are tiny in comparison and there are hundreds of them! In the Iron Age in Britain, their culture passed on knowledge orally, so we just don’t know what constellations our ancestors would have seen. But we know that there was communication from this part of the world to places as far southern Europe, since long before the Romans invaded, so there would have been some crossing of cultures. The stories we find in the constellations in the sky relate to what is happening on the earth.
Becky: I imagine that our ancestors would have been much more aware of the subtle changes in the sky each night, where do we have evidence of that?
Steve: There is evidence of our ancestors having a deep knowledge of the night sky that goes back much further than the Iron Age. For example, some of the Orkney megalithic sites relate to night sky horizon phenomena at particular times of year, as well as relating to the sun and the Moon. And most of the horizon phenomena in this part of the world relate to the winter solstice, rather than the summer solstice.
Becky: In the past before there were torches, our ancestors would have been more familiar with traveling across the dark landscape. How might the night sky have assisted them?
Steve: Many people would have used the light of the full moon to complete specific journeys and this was still happening right up to the industrial revolution. Back then there were ‘Moon Societies’ who were groups (mostly men) who would meet up on a full moon so that it was easy for them to see when walking home at the end of the night.
Becky: The night walk I am creating is specifically for women, as many women (understandably) have deep fears of walking at night. Has this been an issue with the Cranborne Chase Dark Skies work?
Steve: One of the challenges we have with advocating for darker skies is that women and girls still feel unsafe to go out and about after dusk. In fact, going out in the daytime is not statistically safer, although it feels safer. This is something we really need to address and make people aware of.
Becky is a creator of festivals, films, plays, women’s circles, community gatherings, rituals and stories. She leads experiences that embolden people to live in ways that nurture our natural world and one another.
She will be leading a series of events called ‘Women of the Dark Skies’ in March 2024 on Cranborne Chase at Chettle. Tickets for this event can be purchased via Eventbrite here: