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Stonehenge Monoliths

Stonehenge Monoliths

By its monumental aspect and the mystery of its origin, the site of Stonehenge is the most popular monument of the British Isles. At the end of two centuries of scientific investigations in all directions, one thing is certain: the alignments of the monoliths correspond to astronomical plots.

The builders of Stonehenge are unknown to this day. We know for sure that the Celts, who have shown little respect for the building, are not at the origin of it and that it is even less of a Druidic ceremonial place. If the first traces of occupation dates back to 3500 BC with the "cursus" (a 3 km long stone enclosure), the construction of Stonehenge begins during the Neolithic period, 2800 BC to 2100 BC. The first site, which has a circular enclosure bounded by an embankment and a ditch, is where was discovered the skeleton of a man wearing a stone bracelet, flint and arrows, hence his nickname Stonehenge Archer.

The early explorers of Stonehenge

John Aubrey, in 1640, states a first theory on the usefulness of the Stonehenge site: it would be an astronomical building. He notes with interest the presence of a circle with 56 cavities spaced from each other by 5 m. Later, writer Alan Butler will rely on this discovery to try to prove the existence of a 366 degree megalithic geometry system; in astronomy, this system would give 166 meridians crisscrossing the globe, "lines of salt". One of those lines would be Stonehenge. According to him, the cavities, named since "holes of Aubrey", would be places of markers making it possible to calculate astronomical movements. But the element that will focus the efforts of archaeologists is the "Heel Stone", a stone located northeast of the Neolithic enclosure. In 1740, William Stukeley observes that at the time of the summer solstice the center of the stone is partially illuminated by the first rays, forming a "solar corridor". With this first certainty, Stukeley still notices a difference in alignment between the "Heel Stone" and the axis of the Sun. This difference could correspond to the variations of the obliquity of the ecliptic (inclination of the terrestrial axis). More clearly, the alignment of the "solar corridor" would have naturally "disrupted" since its construction under the effect of the movements of the globe. By interpreting this difference, it would be possible to date the monument. Scholarly calculations have given rise to various estimates. In 1864, H. Broome advances the date of 977 BC, year of the passage of the star of Sirius over the Stonehenge "Avenue", while in 1909 Norman Lockyer offers the date of 1680 BC. Archaeologists will eventually agree on a period of construction spread between 2800 and 1100 BC.

An archaic astronomical calculator

The debate is revived with the publication in 1963 of Stonehenge Decoded by Gerald Hawkins. His work consisted in establishing correspondences between the architectural characteristics of the monument and the estimated position of the axes of the stars in 1500 BC. The calculations, made by computer - a feat at the time - have highlighted 13 solar correspondences and 11 lunar correspondences. According to Hawkins, Stonehenge would have been used to predict the dates of eclipses. It also completes the interpretation of Aubrey's holes: moving markers from one hole to another would also predict lunar eclipses. The reaction of the scientific community, suspicious of the introduction of new techniques, quickly arrives. A year later, archaeologist Richard Atkinson delivers a contradictory version: the approximate alignment and nature of Aubrey's holes indicate that they are natural cavities. The fact that the "Station Stones" cover some of these holes disqualifies Hawkins' thesis. In addition, he believes that astronomical knowledge in the second millennium BC was not advanced enough to justify the use of such an elaborate "calculator". In 1965, the astronomer Peter Newham detects the presence of an alignment corresponding to the equinoxes (position of the Sun at the zenith of the terrestrial equator) between one of the "Station Stones" and an orifice located near the "Heel Stone". He finds a similar match between two Station Stones and the axis of the Moon at its highest point. But the alignment of the "Station Stones" between them seems most subjective. In addition, these megaliths, attributed to the Neolithic phase of the site, could actually have been built at a later date, which would call into question their function in the original building.

An observatory dedicated to the winter solstice

Historian Michael Postins has discussed the possibility that the five central trilithes (groups of monoliths forming a portico) represent the five planets visible to the naked eye at certain times of the year. According to him, the names of the planets were to be inscribed in the stone, indications erased since by erosion. The two smaller ones, aligned with the solar axis, would represent Mercury and Venus. The medium-sized trilites would be Mars and Jupiter, placed on the lunar axis, while the most imposing would be Saturn. It is the study of a site with architectural features close to Stonehenge that will allow to make significant advance. Newgrange, north of Dublin, Ireland, is a large tumulus converted into a burial chamber. A long corridor brings the sun's rays into the room each year - with disconcerting precision - during the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year). The symbolism is to awaken the soul of the ancestors to allow the days to flow again and the cultures to prosper. Therefore, archaeologists wonder: is the example of Newgrange transposable? Near the wall of Durrington, a few kilometers from Stonehenge, were found bones of slaughtered animals, according to the dating, in December or January of the year. Conversely, no evidence of the same kind can evoke a summer occupation. The human presence around the megalithic site would therefore be aimed at observing and celebrating the winter solstice. The reason is simple: in the Neolithic, winter is crucial for human communities, living mainly from agriculture. The days are short, and the activity of the Sun, allowing the germination of grains sown at the beginning of the year, is more important than in summer.

The virtues of "blue stones"

More recently, fanciful theories have multiplied about the origin and purpose of Stonehenge's megaliths alignments, responding to the growing popularity of the general public. Pagan sacrificial site, vestige of a disappeared civilization, even place of primitive communication between humans and extraterrestrials ... This flood of crazy and unfounded ideas must be swept aside. Didier Laroche, a French architect and archaeologist, considered the problem in a more down-to-earth way: according to him, the site would only be a burial tumulus similar to the buildings which were common in Great Britain in the first and second millennia before our era. The building would have had the particularity of having a central area delimited by five trilithes and to be covered with a wooden structure. What about the absence of burials? If only the remains of the Archer have been found to date, experts estimate at 240 the number of individuals buried on the site, which would significantly strengthen the thesis of a funerary vocation of Stonehenge. The longevity of the materials is also an important parameter to take into account: the builders of Stonehenge seem to have felt the need to make it eternal, because considerable efforts have been made to bring the blue stones of Southwest Wales, presumably by boat. However, the answer to the mystery could well be related to a certain mysticism. In 2008, following a search campaign, Timothy Darvill and Geoff Wainwright came to the conclusion that Stonehenge was a great religious and therapeutic sanctuary, dedicated to healing virtues lent to blue stones. Their conviction comes from the discovery of burials of individuals who died of diseases, including a young man buried with fragments of blue stones.