From Norman Lockyer to Gerald Hawkins

Everyone "gets" Stonehenge; all you have to do is look at it. Wherever we happen to be standing, we have an intuitive sense of the cardinal directions, and this is all one needs to realize that the central axis of Stonehenge—that is, the line that splits the "horseshoe" symmetrically—is oriented east of north. And if you check to see at which point the sun rises on the day of the summer solstice, you will not be surprised to find that it corresponds roughly with this axis. Stonehenge is the first example we encounter in this book of a monument oriented astronomically: its central axis was aligned such that, on the day we call June 21st, the sunlight would make its way to the center of the circle, with the same phenomenon occurring at the winter solstice sunset. We could argue endlessly about the accuracy of this alignment, which is not good, but the fact that the phenomenon occurs, and that it does so because the builders intended it to, is undeniable, and that intention governed a priori the design of the monument's most magnificent part, the horseshoe.

This is therefore the only information that the builders left us in writing. Granted it is written in stone, and with stone, in the language of the sun and of the stones. But it is nevertheless written; it is there, forever. Consider this: if it is the only thing they left us in writing, maybe it would not be too heedless of us to assume that it might be important. Perhaps it allows us to read something else there, something we had not noticed.

The first person to think this way was the astronomer Norman Lockyer, toward the end of the 19th century (Lockyer 1906). Lockyer is mentioned quite often in this book, because he is the founder, or at least the precursor, of the study of the connections between ancient monuments and the astronomical knowledge of those who built them. Lockyer tried to date Stonehenge by considering the fact that the position of the point where the sun rises at summer solstice shifts ever so gradually over the course of the millennia, thanks to a slight variation of the ecliptic, which is the plane defined by the movement of the earth and the sun (see Appendix 1). He failed, and we will see why in a moment. But what is important is that it was the first time that anyone had tried to astronomically anchor the date of a monument, which is to say calculate the date of its construction on the basis of its astronomical alignment.

WGanVcd representation

To Iho S*>w , ,-Swil INK fias iwvor jrxj mflswrimef ivnrito ^_; twon disturbed

To Iho S*>w , ,-Swil INK fias iwvor jrxj mflswrimef ivnrito ^_; twon disturbed

Figure 2.10: Stonehenge alignments according to a famous work by G. Hawkins

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Figure 2.10: Stonehenge alignments according to a famous work by G. Hawkins

The variation of the ecliptic plane is an infinitesimal effect, so in order to determine the dislocation of a solstitial direction over the centuries, we need to know the original alignment with exactitude. Lockyer wrongly hypothesized that the alignment of Stonehenge was calculated using a small hill on the horizon, a hill that we now know is man-made and dates much more recently than the monument. Consequently, Lockyer's attempts have often been fiercely criticized, and still today one runs across sarcastic comments, such as the one present in the Stonehenge "bible"—or so it presumes to be—by C. Chippindale (1994). The authors of these comments, however, would do well to remember that the date of 1800 BC that Lockyer courageously proposed more than a century ago was a lot closer than anyone else was able to come before the era of radiocarbon dating.

After Lockyer (who was also a pioneer in the astronomical alignments of the temples of Egypt; see Chapter 4), the investigations of the astronomical content of ancient monuments were interrupted until the 1970s. Furthermore, as we have seen, anything resembling megalithic thought was dismissed out of hand, so the solstitial alignment of Stonehenge was seen as little more than a curiosity. The first person to rekindle interest in the astronomy of Stonehenge was Charles Newham, an astrophile whose work was followed by the "scandalous'' studies of a young astronomer, Gerald Hawkins.

In his famous book Stonehenge Decoded (1964b), Hawkins analyzed the configuration of Stonehenge partly from the idea that there could be, in addition to the solar alignment of the central axis, other astronomical alignments (see also Hawkins 1963,1964a; North 2007). And in fact Hawkins quickly found a great number of alignments, especially lunar ones. Being defined by stones only a few dozen meters apart, the alignments are not particularly precise, and today we know that most of them are likely to be casual. However, at that time, the young scholar's enthusiasm and his impetuous manner of presenting his findings made him easy prey for the unanimous criticism of the archaeological establishment, and it was in fact for Hawkins's benefit that Richard Atkinson (1966), one of the most active Stonehenge scholars, coined the historical phrase that its builders were nothing more than "howling barbarians.''

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