Ancient and Historical Astronomy
Prehistoric Astronomy: The Mysterious Stonehenge
Stonehenge is an ancient and strange site found in Britain that has massive stones arranged in circular formation that appear to have a relation to various astronomical occurrences, such as summer and winter solstices, and as a spiritual/astrological gathering place as depicted by the presence of mounds that are believed to be ancient burial sites. It was built under several construction phases for a period of 3,000 years but detailed research results showed that there had been evidence of activities held before and after it was constructed.
The construction of Stonehenge occurred in three phases labeled as Stonehenge 1, 2 and 3. Each of these phases have distinct characteristics however, determining the exact dates is not an easy task since most of the findings were acquired from excavations with no existing written accounts of how and when the revisions were done. Scientific dates were surprisingly unsuccessful in getting many of the important dates due to natural disturbances in the area such as periglacial effects and animal burrowing.
During Stonehenge 1 (3100 BCE), the builders dug a circular ditch in the open grassland where they dropped bones of deer and oxen at the bottom. The chalk dug from the ditch was used to build the bank that later caused the ditches to silt up naturally and the builders weren’t able to clear it. Later, a circle of 56 pits were dug (known as Aubrey holes) which were thought to contain timbers though there isn’t evidence of it.
During Stonehenge 2 (3000 BCE), the builders were believed to have built a timber structure inside the enclosure. These timber postholes were smaller that Aubrey holes. It lined the northeast entrance down to the south entrance. During this phase, the Aubrey holes were filled with cremation burials, including fragments of human bone, turning it into a funerary while the whole Stonehenge structure was used to be identified as an enclosed cremation cemetery. As a site of burial rites, Stonehenge is referred here as a religious place.
Stonehenge 3 is divided farther into 5 different sub-phases. During sub-phase 1 (2600 BCE), timber was discarded to favor stone and two concentric holes (the Q and R Holes) were dug in its center. The Altar stone was erected during this phase as a single monolith. Also, the northeast entrance was widened so that it will precisely match the direction the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset would take in the period.
From here Stonehenge was thought of as a site visited for the purpose of anticipating astronomical phenomena. The alignment with the sun and moon seemed to prove this idea. However, the project was abandoned unfinished with the Q and R holes backfilled and the stones removed.
Sub-phase 2 (2450 BCE – 2100 BCE) was the time when 30 enormous sarsen stones fashioned with mortise and tenon were erected around the bank in circular alignment. In the center were five trilithons of dressed sarsen stones assembled in a horseshoe appearance in a symmetrical manner. A certain stone marked number 53 was found to have carved images of a ‘dagger’ and 14 ‘axe-heads’.
Sub-phase 3 marked the beginning of re-erecting the bluestones. Sub-phase 4 made further rearrangements to the bluestones. Sub-phase 5 (2280 BCE – 1930 BCE) commenced the removal of the north eastern section Phase 4 Bluestones to create the Bluestone Horseshoe.
The mystery of Stonehenge lies in the hands of supernatural folktales such as the legend of Merlin the Wizard. In the legend, Merlin had a giant who built the structure for him. Having associated with King Arthur, Stonehenge became incorporated into the wider European medieval romance stories.
Finally, is the structure religious or is it scientific? In one perspective, it is scientific due to the sites’ alignment is directed along the direction of the heavenly bodies. The people learn about season phases just by looking through the alignments in sunsets and sunrise which was needed for agricultural reasons. In this way, Stonehenge was built as an ancient observatory. On the hand, the Celts who claim as the creator of the site, held religious festivals and ceremonies at different times of the year in the place. The summer solstice, which is the longest day of the year, is the time when sun worshippers gather in the site. It should be noted that much of the buildings that survived were all religious in nature. Stonehenge could have been built solely as an ancient observatory but the buildings were all deemed to be religious in nature. This leaves us to the think that there is no certain answer to this question yet, but whatever the structure’s goals are, building this massive stone structure is what should be appreciated.
Chippendale, C. (2004). Stonehenge Complete: Thames and Hudson, London.