Satisfied Visage

I do not know whether the builders of Stonehenge were ""barbarians'' or if they "howled.'' (When Italy won the 1982 Football World Cup, I painted my face blue and I howled. If that makes me a barbarian in the eyes of some, then so be it.) In any case, Hawkins irrefutably attracted attention to the fact that the celestial cycles held great interest for the builders of Stonehenge. The important point is that Hawkins's work, while controversial and bitterly criticized, sparked a rebirth of interest in the astronomical alignments of ancient constructions and in the concomitant astronomical knowledge the builders must necessarily have possessed, an interest that evolved into what we call today by the somewhat ungraceful—at least in my view—term of archaeoastronomy.

One of the most charming examples that fully demonstrates the enormous charm of this discipline is the discovery of the astronomical alignment at Newgrange. As we have seen, the central passageway of Newgrange is oriented toward the southeast, and a simple measurement shows that it is lined up with the point where the sun rises at the winter solstice.

Figure 2.11: Newgrange. Section showing the path of the sun light at winter solstice.

It is natural to assume that this was intentional—obviously so, I would say. However, because of the slightly upward incline of the passage, the sunlight that enters through the door, in alignment with the winter solstice, does not reach the central chamber, stopping short at some point in the corridor. It has therefore been thought that, even if there had been the intention to build an astronomically aligned structure—a dubious notion in itself—the builders of Newgrange just were not up to the task, and failed. This would mean that 5000 years ago, someone built a monument involving thousands of tons of earth and rock, covered it with quartz like a giant jewelry box, carefully measured the direction of the sunrise at winter solstice to line up a corridor built with stones as heavy as many elephants together, but the whole point of it—that the sunlight should reach the central chamber at midwinter—falls apart because the person who designed it miscalculated the inclination of the corridor.

Pity, he must have thought. Maybe next time. But then again, his failure should not surprise us, what with his being a "howling barbarian.''

Up until the restoration that took place in 1969, no one had ever realized that there is a narrow window above the entrance of Newgrange. Over the window is a slab inscribed with a diamond motif repeated eight times; on the sides of the opening are two blocks of quartz that served as shutters, and show signs of having been used repeatedly.

The window now freed from layers of sediment accumulated over millennia, on the night of December 21, 1969, Michael O'Kelly, head of the Newgrange restoration, entered the corridor, closed the door, found a comfortable spot in the inner chamber and, yes, waited for dawn.

As soon as the sun peeked over the horizon, its rays penetrated the corridor through the window for the first time after thousands of years, deftly traveled the length of the passageway—the slope of which, by the way, turns out to have been accurately calibrated with this aim by the architect (sorry, the howling barbarian)—to shine upon the satisfied visage of O'Kelly and illuminate the central chamber, exactly as it had been engineered to do.

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