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Archaeoastronomy and Stonehenge

Archaeoastronomy is a branch of science that studies the ancient relationships between archaeology and astronomy. When studying megalithic sites, such as Stonehenge, archaeologists need to understand the relationship between the ancient people who built it and their astronomical beliefs.

Stonehenge was built over a period of 2000 years. It was founded in the Neolithic Age, around 3100 BC, as a circular piece of ground about 116 metres in diameter. The circle was surrounded by a chalk bank and a ditch. In 1648, John Aubrey made a study of the circle and identified a number of depressions, or holes, around the perimeter. There are, in fact, 56 holes and they are known as the Aubrey holes. There is still much speculation about the function of these holes. Some people think they may have once been the support for wooden poles or pillars that were important in predicting lunar eclipses, but the subject is still under debate.

Between 2440 BC and 2100 BC the site was further developed. Thirty large Sarsen stones, from a quarry 30km to the north of Stonehenge, were erected in a 33 metre inner circle. The next phase of development, spanning about 250 years, saw the erection of a circle of bluestones inside the Sarcen stones. There is still debate as to whether these bluestones were brought from South Wales (250km away) or whether they were available locally.

 

Stoenhenge

Stonehenge © Shirley Burchill

 

At the Summer Solstice there is an alignment through the centre of the stone circles and a stone called the Heel Stone that stands about 35 metres outside of the main circle. Late Neolithic and Bronze Age people were farmers and their success as farmers was dependant on the seasons. Some people believe that Stonehenge is a "calendar" that is in alignment with solstice sunrises and sunsets, and perhaps other astronomical events.

In 1963, the astronomer Gerald Hawkins wrote a book that concluded that Stonehenge was used to predict eclipses. Hawkins had a lot of support from fellow astronomers at the time however, Richard Atkinson who had excavated the site in the 1950, did not share his view. Archaeostronomers are still in strong debate about the function of Stonehenge to Neolithic and Bronze Age man.

 

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