Archaeoastronomy - England

Stonehenge. The most famous megalithic site in the world. Construction was begun in about 2800 BCE. and continued for over 1000 years. It was first noted in 1721 that the central Avenue was directed toward the summer solstice sunrise. More recently, many other astronomical relationships have been claimed, to such an extent that some consider Stonehenge a sophisticated prehistoric astronomical computer.

I don't believe that such a conclusion can be made. It is important to realize that with the erosion of the stones, and their settling and shifting over several thousand years, it is not really possible to say with a high degree of precision what their original positions were, nor where exactly on the stones measurements should be made. With resulting position errors on the order of a degree or more, no complex astronomical relationships can be ascertained (or rather, any number of fanciful ones may be derived.) Certainly, like other early henges, the stones were set up to either predict or indicate the summer solstice, and possibly a few other seasonal events. The Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers who built it must have long understood methods of predicting the solstices given the importance of such knowledge to their agriculture. It seems likely to me that Stonehenge was not an astronomical site, but rather a religious one that was built the way it was in order to make a spiritual connection with the forces of nature that so determined the fate of its builders.

The Heel Stone
The Heel Stone. From within the ring of Stonehenge, the summer solsticial sunrise is seen over this stone.
Royal Greenwich Observatory
Royal Greenwich Observatory. Less ancient than Stonehenge by four and a half millennia, this observatory marks one of the birthing grounds of modern positional astronomy. It was chartered in 1675 by Charles II for the purpose of finding a method of determining longitude by ships at sea. It had long been possible to accurately determine latitude by measuring the altitude of Polaris, or the Sun or Moon crossing the meridian. But measuring longitude requires an accurate knowledge of the time, and accurate positions of the stars, Sun, Moon, planets, and even the moons of Jupiter. For most of its history, these measurements were central to the operation of the observatory.

Building Decoration
Building Decoration, Royal Greenwich Observatory.

© Copyright 2002, Chris L Peterson. All rights reserved.