Articolo in corso di stampa sugli atti del Congresso internazionale “Représentations d’astres, d’amas stellaires et de constellations dans la préhistoire et dans l’antiquité” tenutosi presso il Musée Départemental des Merveilles, in Tenda (F) dal 24 al 27 settembre 2012.



Archaeoastronomical hypothesis about the “Capitello dei Due Pini”, Val Camonica, Italy


Mario Codebò, Henry De Santis



Une étude pluriannuel d’archéoastronomie a démontré que le Gravure Camun du Soleil, dans le Capitello des Deux Pins, en localité Plas (Val Camonica, Italie), peut être interprété comme une représentation stylisée de l'excursion annuelle du Soleil le long de le profile ouest de l’horizon visible - le coucher du Soleil aux équinoxes et des solstices - et le mouvement apparent de la Lune autour du Soleil. Il a également été constaté que les derniers rayons du Soleil couchant au solstice d'été ne s'allume que la partie supérieure du Capitello des Deux Pins, où est représenté le disque solaire. Les auteurs estiment que cela, avec d'autres éléments, confirme l'interprétation, déjà proposée par d'autres auparavant, de la localité Plas comme un lieu de culte du Soleil.



Uno studio archeoastronomico pluriennale ha dimostrato che il petroglifo camuno del Sole, presso il Capitello dei Due Pin in località Plas (Val Camonica, Italia)i, può essere interpretato come una rappresentazione stilizzata dell'escursione annua del Sole sul profilo occidentale dell'orizzonte visibile - i tramonti agli equinozi ed ai solstizi - e del movimento apparente lunare intorno all'astro diurno. Si è anche constatato che gli ultimi raggi del Sole al tramonto durante il solstizio estivo illuminano la sola parte superiore del Capitello dei Due Pini, ove è rappresentato il disco solare. Gli autori ritengono che ciò, unitamente ad altri elementi, confermi l’interpretazione, già proposta da altri in precedenza, della località Plas come antico luogo di culto del Sole.


The research

An archaeoastronomical research focused on Camunian site Plas, marked by very beautiful engravings (picture 1), was proposed for the first time by Elena Gervasoni in 1997. At that time, she invited Enrico Calzolari and Mario Codebò to make measuring in Valcamonica. During Valcamonica Symposium 1997 the same Gervasoni announced the next publication of this our research, which was still in progress at that time (Gervasoni, 1997).


Picture 1: The engravings of Plas (drawing by P. Barale)



While the 1997 survey ended with a first contact on the environment and with measuring about two churches’ orientation, Codebò thought to find in the site Plas the typical characterizations of prehistoric cult, basing on similar experiences (Codebò and Michelini, 1997a, pp. 341-358; Codebò, 1999). The characterizations are: rise on surrounding ground, panoramic view, heathen frequentation, and Christianization marks.

After studying the site’s geomorphology, with a steep left mountainside, and after considering the tradition of a sacred wedding between the male principle of Pizzo Badile Camuno and the female principle of Concarena, we thought Concarena were the focus of ancient observations (tradition of the wedding is reported by Fratti and Gervasoni; meteorological observations reported in Priuli, 1983, picture n. 1 and Brunod 1997, picture n. 23; astronomical observations reported in Beretta, 1997, pag.68).

After that, Barale and Codebò found a similar mountain hierogamy in the Cuneo county, where an idiomatic phrase sounds: “…Mount Monviso marries Mount Bisalta…”. In fact, watching from the surrounding lands, or even better from Mondovì hill, sharp and pointed Monviso and wavy and undulating Bisalta really look like male and female principles. Moreover, the fact that both couples of mountains in Piemonte and in Camonica Valley have male and female names, looked as a further proof of our hypothesis, also considering that female names for a mountain are pretty uncommon. We suggest to study the visual outline of every mountain with a female name.

We observed that behind Concarena’s outline we can watch the whole journey of sunset during the year and, given the fact that two engravings show the Sun, we concluded that it was the same Sun the object of the cult.

Moreover, Calzolari, Codebò, Fratti and Gervasoni were already able to observe, during September 1997, the evening projection of light and shadows behind the Concarena. This vision could have been intended as an epiphany of the mountain Gods, like the one that it is possible to observe sometime behind the Pizzo Badile Camuno during the morning (Priuli 1983 picture n. 1; Brunod, 1997, picture n. 23). These uncommon events can especially refer to the central engraving – commonly named the Sun’s (Camunian) Engraving – with three ring, placed side by side, the first one bigger and maked by three concentric rings and the two side ones littler and single, and three beams of rays from the central ring divergent to the bottom (picture 2 - 3):


Picture 2: The Sun’s (Camunian) Engraving (photo by M. Codebò)

Picture 3: The Sun’s (Camunian) Engraving (drawing by P. Barale)


The further step wanted us to verify our hypothesis and understand the reason for the three Sun rings, instead of one. So we began to observe and take pictures of the Sun during three key moments: equinox and solstices. This process went through winter solstice in 1997- summer solstice 1999. We used the following tools: graduated spherical surveyor’s cross with direct reading of 5’ centesimal; gravity inclinometer with direct reading of 1° degree; radio-controlled clock; Wilkie prismatic compass with direct reading of 1° and estimate of 0,5°. The data algorithms are the ones quoted in Codebò 1997 b, pp. pp.39-109, the final result of a series of texts quoted in the bibliography. The geographical coordinates of the site, measured through a series of triangulations on topographical maps (I.G.M. 1:25 000 and 1:100 000), resulted in lat. 46°02’24”N, long. 10°21’49”E, height above sea level 900 metres.

Furthermore we realized that on equinoxes (data of 20/03/1998) the Sun sets at tm[1] 5:30 p.m. in the saddle between the summit of Concarena in the south and the summit of Mount Elto (or Pizzo Garzeto) in the north (picture n. 4)[2].


Picture 4: The equinoctial sunset (photo by M. Codebò)


With the height above the skyline of 7°, the astronomical azimuth is 264° nowadays[3].

The magnetical azimuth resulted to be 260°.

Near winter solstice (data of 18/12/1998 and on the following days) the Sun sets 34.5° southward compared to the sunset-point on equinoxes, in a place of visible height of 7° on the southern side of Concarena (picture 5).

The magnetical azimuth was measured in 225°. Unfortunately, as the time of sunset wasn’t recorded we couldn’t measure the astronomical azimuth.


Picture 5: The winter solstitial sunset (photo by M. Castelli)


Near summer solstice (data of 18/06/1999) the final edge of the Sun sets (picture 6) at 7:41:40 p.m. behind the summit of Mount Elto (or Pizzo Garzeto). With the height of the visible horizon recorded in 14°, the astronomical azimuth is 290.5° nowadays and it was 291.3° in 2500 b.C.

The magnetical azimuth resulted to be 289°.


Picture 6: The summer solstitial sunset (photo by M. Codebò)


The range between the point of equinoctial sunset and the point of summer solstitial sunset was measured by means of our graduated spherical surveyor’s cross in 29°, while the range resulting from the difference between the astronomical azimuths was 26.5°.

We can therefore draw that the average range is 27,75°, with a standard deviation of ± 1,25° nowadays.

It results that solstitial setting amplitudes in winter and in summer (that is the two horizon arcs between the equinoctial, winter and summer solstitial sunset points), are 34,5° and 27,75° nowadays, while the total arc, which shows the annual local apparent range of the Sun, is 62,25° (the magnetical arc is 64°).

This is also what you can draw from the engraving which we are examining: the two angles between the central beam of rays, the one on the left and the other on the right (looking at the engraving) are, respectively, 32° and 28,5°, while the total angle is 60,5°.

We think that these data ratify our first hypothesis: the Sun’s (Camunian) Engraving reproduces, as stylized shape but with the quite same angular distance, the three basic sunset points (of equinoxes and of summer and winter solstices) on the local skyline.

Small rings close to the big one could represent: 1. Sun position during equinox and solstices; 2. Sun position at sunrise, midday and sunset; 3. Moon extreme positions at sunset, reached every 18,61 years, when orthiva and occasa[4] amplitudes are broader than Sun amplitudes during solstices. In these situations, we think that they represent the option No 3rd, i.e. the Moon to rise and set southern and northern than the Sunsets during winter and summer solstices.

Options 1 and 2 don’t look likely, because option 1 has already been represented by the light behind the rings, while option 2 is difficult, because of the morphology of the land, with a bad vision during sunrise. So we think that option 3 is the one pictured on Plas’ rock. Also considering that Moon extreme positions were the most observed during megalithism in Europe (Thom, 1971; Hadingham, 1978; Burl, 1988a, 1988b, 1993; Proverbio 1989; Cossard, 1993). For instance, if we consider the necropolis in S. Martin de Corleans (Aosta, Italy), we have 7 on 18 astronomical alignments pointed on Moon extreme positions (Cossard, Mezzena, Romano 1991; Romano 1992, pages 70-84).

As a further proof of our interpretation, on June 18, 1999 we observed that, during sunset in summer solstice, the sunlight hits the upper part of the Capitello dei Due Pini, before going down, behind M. Elto (or Pizzo Garzeto). In fact, the light hits exactly the Sun discus with 24 rays. Unfortunately, given the short time range, the operator wasn’t able to take pictures, but it is possible to see and to photograph this heavenly phenomenon during every summer solstice.

We also watched a field (picture 7), at the bottom of the valley, ploughed in a horseshoe way (Brunod 1997, picture n. 5). That made us think that similar engravings- Caven 3, Cornal, Borno 1, Ossimo 2- could represent the whole land-sky environment (see Brunod, 1997, pictures 74-75).


Picture 7:

The field ploughed in a horseshoe way from Plas (photo by M. Codebò)


P. Barale, while studying the rock of Plas, identified two other anthropomorphic engraving: an “orant” and a digging man, realizing that they are posted towards the magnetical west point, in front of sunset during equinoxes. If these pictures are late, even medieval according to Prof. Anati, they could testify the continuance of an extended archaeoastronomical usage in Plas, in different cultural situations.

Before the book of Brunod, Cinquetti, Pia and Veneziano printed in 2008, we thought that reproducing the different range of sunset amplitudes of wintry and summery solstice could have been realized using four wooden posts, one of them intended as an observation point and the other three posted where the three sunsets fallen. Using a rope, it was possible to take measurings of the amplitudes, and reducing the whole structure it was possible to obtain a “circular field”, where the proportions were the same. In this way, the rope was a measuring unit for the engraving. We can remember that similar, but more complex, explanations, have been proposed by A. Thom about the megalitical alignments in Britain and Scotland (Thom, 1971; Hadingham, 1978; Proverbio, 1989; Cossard, 1993) and by C. A. Newham about Causeway Post Holes in Stonehenge (Hadingham, 1978; Proverbio, 1989). Despite the experts don’t accept anymore the idea of “megalithical yard”, proposed by Thom, some measuring units have been used in S. Martin de Corleans (Mezzena, 1997). We thought that the four “cupels” on the contiguous rock could have been a representation of this measuring, but it is necessary to ascertain the age of its collapse without ambiguity[5]. If we cannot read these “cupels” as a representation of Moon phases, it is still possible to use this hypothesis about the cupels posted following an arc (Brunod, 1997, p. 112, fig. 166).

But nowadays we agree with the hypothesis of Brunod et Alii (Brunod, Cinquetti, Pia and Veneziano 2008) that the ancient engravers used – like a gnomon – the shadow of a wooden (or by some other material) stick leaned against the centre of the main ring and against the ground with an inclination of 45°. Brunod, Cinquetti, Pia and Veneziano showed that in these conditions the shadow of the “gnomon” is superimposed to the central beam of rays at the equinoxes and it touches the internal one of each beam of rays at the solstices. This is the simplest and the most careful method to engrave this figure! Thanks to this idea, our hypothesis that the Sun’s (Camunian) Engraving is a portrayal and a stylization of the sunset in its four main annual times – i.e. the equinoxes and the solstices – becomes probable and a probability can be calculated: it would be interesting to calculate how much it is probable that the angular range of the three beams of rays coincide randomly with the angular range of the three equinoctial and solstitial Sunset points on the visible skyline. But we do not agree with the hypothesis of Brunod, Cinquetti, Pia and Veneziano that the engravers’ aim was to build a sundial measuring not daily-time but seasonal-time. In their book 2008, the four authors write that the engravers could use the movement of the stik’s shadow to know the dates of equinoxes and solstices: but why to use this strange kind of sundial instead of to look at the sunset positions on the skyline? The skyline in front of Plas is the best yearly sundial and seasonal calendar because it allows to determine and to count each day of a year much more carefully by means of the shifting of the sun-setting position from one solstice to the other. Therefore, we think that the Sun’s (Camunian) Engraving is not a yearly sundial, although it was built using the gnomon shadow, but a stylized symbol (religious?) of the Sun.

Someone objected that the Sun’s (Camunian) Engraving is a jewel or a neck-lace, especially of a Goddess. In our view this is not in contrast with the precise astronomical significance as we proposed here. In fact, as is known, according to the orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis, the original symbolic representation of an "object" or of a pregnant event undergoes with time a separation from '"object" and its portrayal, it gets an autonomous development and, at the end, the meaning original symbol is completely forgotten or "repressed" while the symbol acquires its apparently independence. Therefore, the original relationship with the '"mother object" is recognizable only analytically (Freud, 1900; 1915-1917, ch. 10; Fromm 1982; Hinshelwood 1990, pp. 428 – 438; Laplanche and Pontalis 1990, pp. 564 – 569; Musatti 1977, ch. 6; Rycroft 1970, p. 171)[6]: the symbol becomes a forgotten language.

In our case, although in the presence of a very pregnant less motivation drive, we can assume a similar mechanism: forgotten with the passage of time and generations its original astronomical and religious[7] significance, the Sun’s (Camunian) Engraving could have turned into a mere ornament, thus losing the immediate contact with the event (astronomical) that had generated. A similar fate might have had the swastika from its original meaning (heavenly probably) to its spread as a simple ornamental figure (on vases, etc.)[8].

Therefore, we do not reject the explanation of the Sun’s (Camunian) Engraving as a jewel or a neck-lace, but we assert that firstly this engraving was probably a stylization of an astronomical and religious phenomenon (i.e. the yearly shift of the sun-setting point on the local skyline) and that it became a jewel or a neck-lace afterwards and as a result of its religious meaning, just like the cross in Christianity.

During our surveys, Adriano Gaspani studied as the same engraving as some others, which can suggest astronomical interpretation (Gaspani 2000, pp. 32-39). He suggest that it symbolizes a three-tails-comet between two stars. He names also two other interpretations: a solar eclipse and a three-planets-conjunction. As the same engraving is reproduced in other rocks (he mentions ten of them), also far from Plas place, he suggest that it symbolizes an extraordinary event “…really watched in the sky by far peoples with different cultures…”. We think these are weak interpretations, because they are founded only on a morphological likeness of a not just demonstrated but only guessing heavenly event. Really the presence of the same – or, better, alike - engraving in far cultural areas[9][10] put some questions and force to regard it as the representation of an important and diffused “thing” (like, for instance: the calcolithic dagger with triangular blade, central rib and half-Moon shaped pommel; the tongue shaped axe; the metal double spiral; the pintaderas; etc.). But we think that the collected (by us and by Brunod, Cinquetti, Pia and Veneziano) and up-discussed data back up more strongly the hypothesis that it symbolizes the sunset, which was much watched during the Metal Age, like the European and Mediterranean megalithic monuments show. If a surveys in these other places would show similar bearings towards the sunset (or the sun-rising) and similar correspondences between engraving angles and Sun movements on skyline, this hypothesis would be strengthened. Unluckily some of the more important menhirs with the alike engraving (as, for instance, Caven) were removed and it’s not possible to restore their exact position any longer. People who will decide a this kind survey in the future, will be obliged to get their data only from irremovable engravings.


The question of equinoxes: wilful or random?

During the archaeoastronomical international meeting Archaeoastronomy: a debate between archaeologists and astronomers looking for a mutual method taken place in Genoa (Italy) on 08-09 February and in Sanremo (Italy) on 01-03 November 2002 (see ) the question if the equinoctial alignments were wilful or random was discussed. The impossibility to identify the equinoctial event without proper instruments and knowledge (while the solstices are obvious) was emphasized. Nevertheless, the possibility to locate East and West points was admitted (really ancient peoples knew the space division in four parts, i.e. the templum).

A first method is to recognise, by means of a Polar Star (if there is in that time), the direction N-S, which is the polar axis: its orthogonal line is the direction E-W.

To recognise the North or South Pole in absence of a Polar Star can be made in the following ways:

a)       watching the starry sky very carefully during a large number of nights: a diligent observer can locate the point around which the starry sky turns;

b)       looking the rising and setting of a circumpolar star through an horizontal plane: as the circumpolar star describes a ring in the sky, the central point between the two extremes of the half ring is the sky pole (Romano 1992 pp.186-189).

c)       Looking at the highest height of the Sun, which coincides in the transit over the local meridian with enough approximation.

All these methods are simple, intuitive and within a diligent observer’s grasp.

A fourth method is to use the gnomon put upright in the middle of some horizontal and concentric circumferences, whose points, touched the first in the morning and the last in the afternoon by its shade, lie on the axis E-W (Romano 1992 pp. 37-38, 186-189).

It needs more knowledge than the first three methods, but it seems to be very ancient.

A fifth method is to calculate the mean time between two solstice: it is not exact because the not uniform speed of the Earth around the Sun (Romano 1992, 38-39; Proverbio 1989 pp. 190-194), but the mistake totals few days only. According to A. Thom a prehistoric calendar was got dividing in two the distance between the solstitial sun-rising or sun-setting points; than dividing in two each one of these halves and repeating this division till they got sixteen partitions, i.e. sixteen directions, i.e. sixteen months (Proverbio 1989, pp. 190 – 194). More probably the undeniable megalithic alignments E-W were made using a mixture of all methods: there are few doubts that old calendars began since the spring (or, less often the autumnal) equinox. See for instance the fragment 4Q318 from Qumran (Eisenman and Wise 2006, pp. 258 – 263; Codebò submitted) and the MUL.APIN (Hunger and Pingree 1989, pp. 153 – 154).

It is important that the archaeoastronomers do not mistake the astronomical equinox (which is not obvious) for the E-W alignment (which is easily building). We think that it would be useful the experimental archaeoastronomy, in order to test what prehistoric peoples could really see and understand about heavenly motions by the means they had.


Conclusions and synthesis

Plas was an exceptional “emplacement” of territory’s control for a wide beam, guaranteeing not only a visual dominion on fields, pastures and ways of communication, but also a place for the Copper Aged religious cult of Sun and visual width on local skyline, on which it was possible to follow the path of the sun-setting from the winter solstice to the summer solstice and back. The angular distance between the sun-setting points of solstices and of equinoxes is quite the same between the three rays bundles of the Sun’s (Camunian) Engraving, which we can therefore interpret as a stylized portrayal of Sun’s yearly movements. The two side minor circles may stand for the extreme Moon’s standstills. The engravers used probably the shadow of a gnomon to engrave it. This engraving became a “symbol” of the Sun religion and was exported elsewhere. First the Romanization and than Christianity caused the oblivion of its original astronomical meaning and this symbol – and many others – became incomprehensible. To understand prehistoric symbols and civilization we must recover their explanatory keys (De Santillana and von Dechend 2004), one of which is certainly ancient astronomy – heavenly bodies were probably the first “gods” – and it is up to archaeoastronomy – or better: up to palaeoastronomy – to reconstruct astronomical knowledges of prehistory.



We must thank the other authors of our first survey Piero Barale, Marco Castelli, Liliana Fratti, Elena Gervasoni (Codebò, Barale, Castelli, De Santis, Fratti, Gervasoni 1999; 2004; 2005) and all the people who contributed to any extent to the achievement of this research, particularly Enrico Calzolari, Elisabetta Casini, Giorgio Dimitriadis, Sandro Panteghini, Federico Troletti, Paolo Turelli.


Bibliographical references

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[1] tm means the mean time of the local time zone (different from the local astronomical time tv, resulted from the time of central meridian of local time zone ± the longitude of the place, i.e. L.H.A.) while Greenwich time is everywhere UT, or, in Italian, TU). Greenwich astronomical time is indicated in Italian as Tv and in English G.H.A. As the time zone in which Italy lies (central Europe time zone) is one hour before Greenwich time UT (western Europe time zone), central Europe tm has always one hour more than UT. In summer, there are two hours’ difference, due to the legal summer time. For further informations about these subjects, you can refer to: Flora 1987, Meeus 1990, Meeus 1998, Smart 1977, Zagar 1984.

[2] The two peaks, which appear in a slight alignment with Plas place and of a similar height, aren’t in reality easily distinguishable the one from the other.

[3] We used the Laskar formula to calculate the variations on the ecliptical obliquity, which modify declination and azimuth of mobile heavenly bodies within about 41 000 years (Meeus 1998 pp. 147-148). On equinoxes, the declination 0° and the azimuth of the Sun remain unchanged.

[4] orthiva, from Latin ortus = the rising; occasa, from Latin occasus = the setting.

[5] According some authors it collapsed in Prehistoric times; according others, it collapsed in Medieval times.

[6] The most conspicuous example of this "work of removal", completely analogous to that “dream”, is the loss of memory of the original purpose against the incest of the endogamy’s taboo (S. Freud 1912-1913 passim).

[7] Camunian Sun’s religion.

[8] We can understand the difficult to interpret the meaning of a symbol if we think to the Christian cross: if one does not know the New Testament and the death of Jesus, he cannot understand the “symbol” of the cross. It is a good example to show as a stylized simple symbol can signify a very complex content, the meaning of which can be understood only by people who knows its key (Veneziano 2009). It is very much probable that the immense amount of prehistoric symbols (engraving, paintings, etc.) is not simple “art” but a kind of “language” that we cannot understand anymore just because we lost its key.

[9] During Valcamonica Symposium 1999 prof. Anati told us it is present in several European places, included East Europe.

[10] Very important is Barale’s discovery that a Roman cippus near Augusta Bagiennorum (the modern Benevagienna, Cuneo, Italy) has an older engraving like the Sun’s (Camunian) Engraving under the Roman one (Barale submitted). Unfortunately, we do not know where it was found exactly. Therefore, it causes the same difficulties caused by the other engraved stones: Caven 3, Cornal, Borno 1, Ossimo 2 side C, ecc. This discovery shows that this “symbol” had a high circulation. Therefore, its meaning was certainly very important for peoples in Copper Age.