In recent months, I’ve concentrated my attention on Stonehenge and on the nearby Iron Age hill fort named Vespasian’s Camp. In my view, the two structures precisely fit the description of a notable temple and city, sacred to Apollo, as recounted by the ancient Greek mariner Pytheas of Massilia, after he visited Britain in the middle of the fourth century BC.
Judging from the number of visits to this site, as well as the extensive media coverage and the many messages I’ve received, this investigation into the enigma of a remarkable ancient temple has captured the imagination of people the world over. While this is extremely gratifying, all credit must of course go to Pytheas himself, because if this daring and visionary man had not taken the trouble to record the wonders he observed during that far-distant time when he ventured north beyond the relatively safe waters of the Mediterranean, we would have no tantalising mystery to ponder over and our lives would very much the poorer as a result.
All the evidence suggests that Stonehenge was in active use as a temple of Apollo when Pytheas saw the place in 350 BC, which is remarkable when we consider that from the standard archaeological viewpoint, it had fallen into disuse around thirteen centuries beforehand, in or around 1,600 BC. Be that as it may, it does not follow that Stonehenge had always functioned as a temple, as we can see from the following point made by Professor John North in his book Stonehenge, Neolithic Man and the Cosmos, when discussing the possibility of chariot races having taken place on the Cursus:
“It is hard to see what evidence one could ever find in support of these ideas, but when we consider the matter at all we are forced to acknowledge one important truth; from the fact that a monument was laid out with reference to the heavens it does not of necessity follow that it was always used with that reference in mind. The rituals of foundation are not necessarily the rituals of use.”
So, with this in mind, we return to what must surely be the most frequently asked questions about Stonehenge – what was it used for when it was first built? Is there one way in which we can describe an original function of these mesmerising ruins with confidence? Furthermore, would this be a description that the visionary and engineering geniuses who built Stonehenge would agree with, if we were able to have a conversation with them? In my opinion, the answer is yes.
One of my favourite observations on Stonehenge was made by another astronomer, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who once wrote, “Only one thing can be stated with certainty about such structures as Stonehenge: the people who built them were much more intelligent than many who have written books about them.” I entirely concur with this observation about the intelligence of the builders of Stonehenge, but I believe that it’s possible to state at least one other uncomfortable truth about Stonehenge.
The precise use of language is important, especially when it comes to Stonehenge, if only because it seems self-evident that accuracy and the truth go hand in hand. For example, rather than reply on a translation, I consulted others far more knowledgeable than myself on first century Attic Greek when I turned my attention to trying to locate Pytheas of Massilia’s temple and city of Apollo; as a result, what had previously been a somewhat mystifying and ambiguous passage became much clearer, then Stonehenge and Vespasian’s Camp finally loomed up at me out of the mists as I’ve described in detail elsewhere on this site.
Archaeology is plagued by wilful misinterpretation, but I would far prefer to put a positive contribution such as the matter of Inigo Jones’ Lost Altar Stone or the location of Pytheas of Massilia’s temple and city of Apollo into the public domain, rather than merely snipe at the ideas of others. However, there are some well-established theories about Stonehenge that to my mind don’t bear close scrutiny, so I’ll briefly explain why I have my doubts about some of them before continuing.
To begin with, Stonehenge wasn’t originally made of stone, because earthen and timber structures preceded the famous stone ruins that we’re all familiar with today. Neither was it a henge, strictly speaking, primarily on account of its internal bank, as Mike Pitts makes clear on pages 26 & 28 of his book Hengeworld. So, right from the start, it’s clear that some of the fundamental terminology relating to Stonehenge is misleading.
Does this matter? Not in this particular instance, perhaps, because the name is a generally accepted one and we don’t know what the builders of Stonehenge called the monument when they first constructed it. We use the name Stonehenge as convenient shorthand to describe something whose true nature is unknown to us, so it seems churlish to argue about something so patently obvious; nonetheless, the blunt fact remains that the original builders would not recognise their masterpiece from our modern description.
There is also the idea that Stonehenge was a calendar, but if this was the case, it was the only calendar I know of that required an interlocking circle of lintels in order for it to operate as such. The function of a calendar as a system by which the beginning, length and subdivisions of a given period of time are fixed may well have been incorporated into the structure of Stonehenge, but it’s hard to see this as the primary function of a monument that was under construction for almost two thousand years. Purely as a keeper of time, Stonehenge would only have been of any value to those who lived in its immediate vicinity, while it clearly possessed properties other than this to draw the man now known to us as the Amesbury Archer to the area from as far away as the Alps in 2,300 BC.
There’s a certain attraction about Stonehenge as a kind of prehistoric Lourdes, where the sick and the lame came to be cured. This idea arose from the existence of healing wells in the Preseli Hills in south Wales, from where the bluestones originated, but there remains the question of how the stones functioned without their most precious asset i.e. the healing wells themselves. However, my principle reservation concerns the vast sarsen uprights and lintels, structures whose sheer size, unique architecture and precision of engineering suggest that they were put in place for a purpose other than to simply enclose some supposed healing stones that had been uprooted from elsewhere.
As far as more general descriptions are concerned, one of the most common is that of Stonehenge as a temple, something that seems reasonable on the face of it, but I doubt that this was ever the case, at least in prehistoric times. A temple is a place where a deity is worshipped or else where a deity is believed to reside, but I’ve not seen any persuasive evidence for this at Stonehenge. There seems to be a general consensus that its builders revered the Sun and the Moon, or at least took a very close interest in their movements through the heavens, but this idea is a world away from the notion that these deities somehow resided within the monument, temporarily or otherwise.
As for any direct worship of a deity having taken place at Stonehenge in prehistoric times, I can’t see any convincing evidence for this, either. Two stones were described in later years as altar stones, but this was because seventeenth century observers imposed their own concept of order on the design of the ruins. We might think that the sacrifice of animals inside the monument would point in the direction of Stonehenge qualifying as a temple, but to my way of thinking, by far and away the most interesting animal remains were deliberately placed in significant positions in the surrounding ditch, rather than being carelessly disposed of.
These remains were an ox skull and two ox jaws, as well as the leg bone of a red deer, and these remains had been curated or kept above ground for as long as 500 years prior to their eventual burial or deposition. They were laid at the bottom of the earliest ditch at Stonehenge, which had been dug in or around 3,200 BC, while the ox jaws flanked the southern causeway entrance to the monument. To quote from Hengeworld once more, “Radiocarbon dating told of a structure, a ceremony, a ritual – something - that was older even than the oldest part of the Stonehenge monument…”
Now, I earlier quoted Professor John North when he wrote that “The rituals of foundation are not necessarily the rituals of use”, but these ox jaws and their placement would seem to be an exception to this rule, because we know that the concept and reality of a southern entrance to Stonehenge persisted from the earliest earthen phase, through the timber phase and into the sarsen monument itself, where the diminutive Stone 11 marks what must almost certainly have been a gap in the otherwise complete circle.
So, a notable element of the design of the monument was there from the very beginning, around a thousand years before the “healing bluestones” were put in place, while the animal remains that marked this enduring southern entrance seem to me to be of greater significance than any others that might possibly be the remains of sacrificed animals from a later date inside the monument.
As for the sacrifice of human beings at Stonehenge, it’s not out of the question, but Professor Mike Parker-Pearson, who directs the excellent and ongoing Stonehenge Riverside Project, believes that the human remains found at the monument were brought there on an annual basis, probably in winter. This ceremony doesn’t entirely rule out Stonehenge as a temple, but it suggests something more closely connected with the ancestors than with the worship or residence of a deity inside the monument. All things considered, I simply don’t believe there’s any compelling evidence for Stonehenge having functioned as a temple in prehistoric times in the sense that we understand the word today, but the description continues to be freely used in spite of its doubtful accuracy.
The question of how Stonehenge was constructed is separate from the question of why it was built, but a particularly depressing example of a spectacular lack of attention to detail recently surfaced on the BBC news website, under the heading “Stonehenge building riddle tackled.” The proponent of the theory, Mr Nick Weegenar, freely admitted that he had never visited Stonehenge, but this didn’t stop the BBC putting together a graphic display to illustrate how his “Litho Lift” would have worked there.
To give credit where it’s due, it was an ingenious exercise in lifts, wheels and counterweights, but the major drawback was that it could not possibly have been used to construct Stonehenge; mercifully, my former colleague Tom Goskar took the time and trouble to explain and illustrate this exceedingly simple point, while you can see the results for yourself here.
Considering the huge global interest in Stonehenge and the BBC’s reputation as sticklers for factual accuracy, we might reasonably expect them to take some time and trouble when writing about the place, but sadly, there are even worse examples than the “Litho Lift”. On this link, you can see a BBC news feature on a proposal to build a new Stonehenge, which contains the following observation “An ambitious project to recreate Stonehenge as it would have looked 4,000 years ago is being planned. Fragments of only three circles remain, but quarry firm Preseli Bluestone wants to build all seven from scratch.”
To put the matter beyond all possible doubt, a graphic illustration accompanying the article shows a complete Stonehenge with its sarsen circle and lintels in place, surrounded by a double circle of stones capped by lintels in the Y and Z holes; all well and good, but there is no suggestion whatever that such a double outer circle capped by lintels ever existed.
Colin Shearing, the man behind this project, has never claimed that it did, but if someone with a casual interest in Stonehenge – and there are many such people – were to see this BBC feature, then they could be forgiven for thinking that other books and sites covering the subject had somehow omitted to mention a major architectural feature of a completed Stonehenge.
However, even this is not the worst example of inaccuracy when it comes to describing Stonehenge, because the inner arrangements of stones at Stonehenge are described everywhere as “horseshoes” or as “the horseshoe.” As with the name Stonehenge itself, I realise that this is a convenient shorthand, but the inescapable fact remains that these stones were put in place around 2,300 BC, or roughly 2,700 years before the first known horseshoe in Britain.
As such, the people who put these structures in place could not possibly have envisaged the designs as horseshoes, because such an artefact simply did not exist in their time. There are plenty of reasonable alternatives to describe this design, such as a crescent or a womb, for example, or horns or even a cup, yet the usage of the completely misleading and anachronistic “horseshoe” persists and shows no sign of going away.
Does this matter? Well, in this instance, I believe it does. Our civilisation won’t suddenly come to an end if the arrangements of stones continue to be called horseshoes, but one of the cardinal rules of archaeology is not to apply a modern interpretation to an ancient structure of unknown function. As Stonehenge is one of the most baffling and enigmatic sites in the world, then it hardly helps the investigative process if notable aspects of its architecture continued to be named after objects that weren’t in existence when the monument was first built.
I might be over-stating the importance of this horseshoe business, but when we add it to the less than convincing arguments for Stonehenge being a calendar or a temple, and then include other archaeological descriptions such as the virtually meaningless “ritual meeting place”, it’s fair to say that a confused picture emerges. Worse still, back in 1620, Inigo Jones muddied the waters by suggesting that an additional or sixth trilithon had once existed at Stonehenge, but nearly four centuries later, the BBC have left Inigo Jones far behind by solemnly informing us that an extra thirty trilithons once stood at Stonehenge. On virtually any other subject, from astronomy through to zoology, the BBC invariably provide a wealth of accurate detail for the layman, so it’s disappointing to see a monument that attracts a million visitors a year treated in such a casual manner.
So, is there at least one factually accurate way to describe what took place at Stonehenge in prehistory? It seems to that one indisputable function of the monument has been staring everyone in the face for centuries, yet it is a description that “dare not speak its name.”
Every serious writer that I know of has concentrated their gaze on the heavens when writing about Stonehenge. In 1995, Professor John North wrote a superb study of the astronomical aspects of the ruins and landscape in a book entitled Stonehenge, Neolithic Man and the Cosmos, in which he concluded that “the evidence is overwhelming that early religion was intimately bound up with the stars, Sun, Moon and the heavens in general”, while elsewhere, he suggests that the builders of Stonehenge may have regarded the stars as their stellified ancestors and the Moon as a destination for the dead.
Well, I personally have a high regard for what Professor John North’s studies, but what do others think of his ideas? Writing in the Spectator, John Michell had this to say “The mass and quality of his new evidence point inevitably to the conclusion he reaches, that the builders of Stonehenge and their Stone Age ancestors were adepts at astronomy and ritual magic.”
This view is echoed by the renowned astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, who wrote, “We have long waited for a proper treatment: that is to say a book which is entirely factual and very readable. Professor North has provided a masterful survey of the whole subject which, in my view, will supersede all earlier works.”
In his 1991 book Stonehenge, Julian Richards wrote, “In brief, Stonehenge is far removed from the modern concept of an observatory, with its high scientific overtones. Instead, it may mark the beginnings of an astronomical awareness…” while the British astronomer Sir Norman Lockyer wrote of the narrow gaps between the upright stones of the trilithons at Stonehenge as “…the walls of a dark, observing place like the passage of a chambered tomb.”
In his 1987 book The Stonehenge People, Aubrey Burl dwells on the veneration our ancestors had for celestial bodies such as the Sun and the Moon, while in Hengeworld, Mike Pitts speaks of the early timber phase of Stonehenge as being a place where the earth was replete with the dead, while the space above was alive with spirits.
Indeed, so self-evident is the connection between Stonehenge and the entities who inhabited the heavens that even Inigo Jones, in the seventeenth century, clearly saw the ruins as a temple dedicated to Caelus, the Roman Sky God.
Finally, in a discussion with the archaeologist Professor Vance Tiede, the late astronomer Gerald Hawkins spoke of Stonehenge in the following terms: “There seems to be no practical value in what was going on at Stonehenge. One does not need Stonehenge to know when to plant seeds or when to breed cattle. Perhaps part of the purpose might have been for the handmaiden of astronomy – astrology.
Astronomy has grown out of astrology, though we may hate to face that fact. Uncanny powers were placed on celestial objects, and predictions were made which directly related, whether they came true or not, to human lives and events. There may have been some prognostication at Stonehenge.
The sun could have been the god of life and the moon the god of death. Stonehenge might have been connected with the spirits, with the afterlife, birth and all the things that made life and existence important for people in Neolithic times.
In light of Atkinson’s Stonehenge survey and the ancient accounts cited above, we conclude that the inspiration of astronomical phenomena sparked Neolithic architects’ celestial vision on Salisbury Plain.”
And so it goes. I could quote such examples at great length, but there’s no doubt whatsoever about the fascination that the night sky held for our ancestors who built Stonehenge. All the evidence I’ve presented and all the eminent sources I’ve quoted speak of our ancestors gazing at the heavens and fervently calling out to the black void in an attempt to make contact with sentient beings in the form of gods, spirits and ancestors. At the same time, they were trying to make sense of the Earth and Sky around, beneath and above them, all the while wondering at the true nature of striking phenomena such as comets, shooting stars and other visitors from the depths of space.
In other words, if Stonehenge was anything, it was a place where our ancestors undertook a prolonged search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, whether you define intelligence as information that we glean from repeated observation, or whether you regard it as any form of sentient existence in the gulf of space beyond this world.
Of course, the term “the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence” immediately conveys images of visiting alien spacecraft or of distant civilisations on worlds orbiting other stars, which is probably why no other archaeologist would dream of using such a description of Stonehenge, but is a highly accurate one nonetheless. In exactly the same vein, no one argues with highly evocative but entirely appropriate terms like “The Pillars of Creation” to describe distant cosmic wonders such as those captured below, by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Our modern SETI programme began life in 1960, using an increasingly sophisticated array of technology to scan the heavens for signs of intelligent life elsewhere, whereas the people who built Stonehenge used the naked eye to seek out supernatural entities such as gods and stellified ancestors, as well as omens like inverted rainbows, portents, harbingers and a meaningful design behind the celestial bodies and phenomena they observed. To my mind, given the gap of 5,000 years or so between the two sets of “watchers of the skies”, the two activities are virtually indistinguishable.
The late Carl Sagan frequently emphasised the need for a scrupulous examination of the facts, and rightly so. The description of Stonehenge as a manmade structure where our ancestors searched the skies for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence or non-human entities had long seemed a blindingly obvious one to me, but rather than run the risk of persisting in a delusion, I decided to get a second opinion.
The Vatican has an observatory in Arizona that regularly organises international conferences on astronomy. While the staff at the Vatican Observatory are self-evidently men of profound religious beliefs, they also possess extensive qualifications in their chosen field, so I thought that this combination of learning, experience, science, religion and highly disciplined thinking would be the sternest possible test of my ability to make a convincing case for Stonehenge to be defined or classified as an early SETI structure.
I wrote to Christopher J Corbally, the Vice President of the Vatican Observatory and a man with an impressive list of qualifications that includes a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics with Honours, a Master of Science in Astronomy, a Doctorate in Astronomy and a Bachelor’s Degree in Theology with Honours, in addition to the various posts he’s held, such as Dean of the Vatican Observatory Summer School.
I pointed Chris towards this site, as well as inviting him to make whatever enquiries about me he chose to, on the internet and elsewhere, and he was good enough to find the time to reply. As the time period under discussion is prehistory, a period without written records, he naturally qualified what he had to say by pointing out that “this is speculation, based on a sense that humans have been asking the same kind of questions over the ages, even though our scientific tools have changed”.
I wouldn’t expect anyone applying themselves to a serious consideration of this matter to ignore the aspect of a lack of written records, but Chris also wrote “I think that you are correct in thinking those people who built Stonehenge would have pondered about life, and intelligent life, elsewhere.”
When I presented my case to Chris, I mentioned the Moon on a number of occasions, including the concept of the Moon as a destination for the dead, although with the benefit of hindsight, there was no real need for me to remind a senior Vatican astronomer of the existence of this huge, silver world orbiting in such close proximity to our own. Be that as it may, Chris also observed, “From the Greek Atomists on (and no doubt before them), it seems that anyone who thought that our Earth was not unique would have entertained ideas about extraterrestrial life.”
Well, it seems that Inigo Jones wasn’t completely wide of the mark when he described Stonehenge as a temple to a Sky God. Many other practises, observances and ceremonies doubtless took place at Stonehenge, but despite the unavoidable science-fiction overtones, I’ve long seen it primarily as a place where our ancestors embarked on a search for extra-terrestrial intelligence in the literal sense of the term.
Does the classification of Stonehenge as Britain’s earliest manmade SETI structure conflict with any other strongly held views about the place? On the contrary – to my mind, it compliments them all.
There are those who place Stonehenge firmly in the domain of the Druids, but this cult were recorded as being fascinated with the movements of celestial bodies, so I can’t see any contradiction here with my description of the ruins.
There are those who regard Stonehenge as a purely spiritual place, regardless of their ability to articulate the reason for it. There can be precious few of us who do not gaze at the heavens without some accompanying sense of wonderment and perhaps yearning, so I suspect that this uplifting “watcher of the skies” sensation is identical to that felt by our ancestors.
There are those who believe that Stonehenge was primarily a place designed for the observation of celestial bodies as they were perceived by our ancestors, a pursuit that was almost certainly astrological in nature, so this function of an early observatory is hardly at odds with a search for meaning, design and intelligence in the skies.
If we envisage Stonehenge a place of the dead, then the suggestions of the air above the monument being alive with spirits, or the evidence that the Moon and stars were regarded as destinations or guardians of the dead, all concur with the sense of searching the skies for sentient life, while the concepts of Stonehenge as either a calendar or a temple broadly correspond with the notion of the ruins as a SETI structure.
PART II – “IT’S FULL OF STARS”
On certain nights, a curious phenomenon occurs at Stonehenge that has neverbeen reported before, to the very best of my knowledge, least of all by any archaeologist. I’ve always made a point of listening to what local people or non-professionals have to say about the ruins and the surrounding area and I’ll continue to do so, because this approach has provided me with a great deal of original material to look into.
For example, in early 1997, I was introduced to a retired man who used to regularly work in the security detail by nights at Stonehenge. He had a passing interest in the ruins, but what had struck him most about his time at the site was a visual phenomenon that he and his colleagues had observed on many occasions over the years, particularly on clear, moonless nights, while I’ve since heard the same phenomenon described by others, including custodians working for English Heritage.
This phenomenon doesn’t observe a strict timetable, from what I can gather, while it is a subtle and variable one dependent on conditions that don’t include lights from vehicles on the nearby roads, I might add. The best way I can describe it is this:
If a person that we’ll describe as the Watcher is standing on the perimeter of the stone circle looking out, while another person we’ll call the Visitor is approaching the ruins, then the Watcher is able to see the Visitor before the Visitor can discern the Watcher and sometimes before the Visitor can even discern the huge stones themselves. All the people I spoke to thought that this occurrence was worth remarking on and while I was certainly interested, I was particularly struck by their description that “it was as if the stones were drawing down starlight.”
I was of course fascinated to hear of an ongoing and otherwise unknown phenomenon at Stonehenge, regardless of how subtle or unpredictable it was, but I know very little about the properties of light or night vision. So, I spoke to my friend Professor Paul Hill, who has been kind enough to help me out in the past when I was baffled by other matters involving perceived phenomena. Paul referred me to Dr Ian Smith of Salisbury College, who was most helpful, while he in turn referred me to Weston D. Kemp, Professor Emeritus at the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Professor Kemp has spent a great deal of time photographing Stonehenge for a forthcoming book, while I also spoke to the cinematographer John Simmons, who spent his early years in the Salisbury area and who visited the ruins on a number of occasions by night before they were enclosed. These learned gentlemen were kind enough to patiently explain the most likely cause of the phenomenon to me, but as I cannot hope to do it justice without a firm command of the terminology involved and without graphic illustrations to illustrate the point, it shall just have to wait until another time.
It is, apparently, a phenomenon that can be observed in other locations if the conditions are right, but the circumstances are naturally restricted as it requires conditions with no artificial light and a scenario whereby a stationary observer is looking out into the darkness with their back to or in amongst a solid backdrop of rock or soil, all the while looking out for another person approaching their vantage point by starlight. Gamekeepers, serving soldiers, wildlife photographers and possibly security staff at remote locations might be familiar with this occurrence, but it is understandably highly restricted in our day and age, with Stonehenge being one of the few places where it regularly occurs.
Of course, the ability of one human being to recognise another human approaching in the darkness involves light, but there is no means by which the stones at Stonehenge are capable of “drawing down starlight”, least of all away from the stones and towards someone approaching them. Everyone I spoke to who’d experienced this said that it was as if the stones drew down starlight, without stating their belief that this was actually taking place.
I’ve had an unusual experience involving lights by night at Stonehenge myself. On December 5th 2006, I was part of a group of people allowed in to the monument after dark to witness and photograph the northernmost moonrise over the Heelstone, an event I’ve described elsewhere on this site. I took about ten photographs, including the one reproduced below, which seems to show a streak of light in front of the bluestones.
When I first saw the photo, I was naturally taken aback by the beam of light, which seems to grow in intensity as it curves up to the right, although on closer inspection, the bluestone is visible through the light on the left hand side of the picture, but not on the right. Furthermore, the light isn’t moving in a smooth curve, as it seems to move in a straight line at first, before curving sharply upwards. I initially thought it must have been an insect flying past at the moment the flash went off, while I paid little attention to the blob of light at the top right of the picture, because I assumed it was the Moon.
However, the shape that looks like a purple waxing Moon is nothing of the kind, because the Moon wasn’t visible from where I was standing, while it was of a different shape as can be seen from the photograph below. I’ve posted all the camera details at the bottom of the static page marked “Stargazers of Stonehenge” at the top of the site, so if anyone can explain the streak and the asymmetrical purple light, then please submit a comment, as I’m sure I’m not the only person who would be interested to know what these things were and how they were caused.
Another thing of note that took place during that particular visit was my discovery of a young dead hare on the southern outer side of the monument. It is not at all uncommon for the security staff and English Heritage custodians to come across dead animals and birds in the ruins in the mornings, but why these creatures choose to make their way to Stonehenge and why they die there is something I know nothing about, nor am I aware that anyone has ever seriously looked into this matter. The ruins retain a potent, majestic gloom after dark, but it was nonetheless a melancholy sight to come across a warm-blooded creature now lying as cold as the stones surrounding it, while the sight of it brought to mind the idea that Stonehenge was the tomb of Boadicea, who had released a hare in an attempt to divine the future before pitting herself against her Roman foes for the final time.
These matters aside, Stonehenge is a unique setting, which means that there is nowhere else on Earth like it, and it was certainly one of a kind when it was built. If the stones possess the power to inspire wonderment in us today, as they self-evidently do, then it follows that the monument had an even more profound effect on our ancestors. The perceived phenomenon of the stones “drawing down starlight” that I’ve described was noticed within a short time of security staff being present on a regular nightly basis at Stonehenge, so it’s unavoidable that over the course of two thousand years or so, when the monument was in active use, our ancestors would have perceived this effect as well.
It seems equally unavoidable that they would have described it unscientific terms such as “the stones drawing down starlight”, but that’s “savages and howling barbarians” for you, as Professor Atkinson memorably described the builders of Stonehenge. Be that as it may, I cannot see how this phenomenon, however subtle or unpredictable, would not have been spoken about as a notable aspect of a brooding and potent monument already inextricably linked with the celestial bodies, while its very transience and unpredictability would have further suggested the existence of a sentient, non-human entity or entities in the night skies.
In addition to the eerie phenomenon of the stones apparently drawing down the light of the stars, there is a rock-solid indication of our ancestors’ fascination with and reverence for the night sky inside the outer circle of lintels. Many of the smaller bluestones overshadowed by the sarsen uprights consist of spotted dolerite, a rock that when freshly quarried, bears a striking resemblance to the night sky on account of the white inclusions that resemble stars set against a darker background.
This idea of the bluestones symbolising the night sky is not a new one; you can see further details on the website run by my friends at Celtworld, or you can read what Colin Shearing has to say on the subject. Otherwise, if need to be convinced by the thoughts of an archaeologist, you can read in Current Archaeology what Professor Timothy Darvil has to say about the bluestones being the abode of the gods, rockbound equivalents of the stars of the night sky, or a Milky Way trapped in stone.
These bluestone columns stood roughly six feet high and when the arrangements inside the sarsen circle were complete, there were perhaps as many as ninety of them, arranged in a circle and crescent, most of them glittering with their own unique sets of constellations. This effect of a vast ring of individual monoliths, each offering their own unique vision of a cosmos, would have been enhanced under favourable conditions after sunset.
As I’ve noted on many occasions, there was without a doubt something sufficiently compelling about Stonehenge to entice the man now known to us as the Amesbury Archer to Britain from as far away as the Alps in 2,300 BC, although we cannot know what he had been told about the site and its remarkable properties. In the film of Sir Arthur C Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is a striking scene where the astronaut Dave Bowman approaches the infamous black monolith and peers into its depths, gasping his utter astonishment at the vision before him:
“The thing’s hollow – it goes on forever – and – oh my God! – it’s full of stars!”
When we consider the potent aura that Stonehenge undoubtedly possessed, when we bear in mind its immense, unique architecture, and when we envisage the silent monoliths displaying mesmerising galactic visions arranged in a ring beneath the cold, distant stars, then I suspect that any awestruck wanderer or pilgrim whose first sight of the imposing monument took place by night would have uttered an exclamation almost identical to the one imagined by Sir Arthur C Clarke, over four thousand years later.
Nonetheless, there is at least one other almost totally-neglected aspect of Stonehenge that may very well have a direct bearing on the fascination that the ancient stargazers who built the monument had for celestial bodies. On the upper surfaces of some of the surviving lintels are curious disc-shaped impressions, which Aubrey Burl supposes were the holes left by tree roots as the sarsen formed.
I’ve heard from other archaeologists that they may have been deliberately ground into the incredibly tough rock, which naturally implies that they held some great significance for the people who frequented and used the monument. The photograph above shows sighting rods placed into four of these circular depressions during the course of experiments carried out at Stonehenge in the 1960s by Professor Gerald S. Hawkins, but whatever these markings were, they certainly engaged the close attention of Professor Richard Atkinson and his associates.
Finally, for now, we would do well to remember that this matter of our ancestors’ fascination for the night sky was not simply a matter of a rabble of drugged-up or drunken primitives clad in animal skins banging on drums, gnashing their teeth and howling at the full moon as the fancy took them. To quote Sir Arthur C Clarke once again, “Only one thing can be stated with certainty about such structures as Stonehenge: the people who built them were much more intelligent than many who have written books about them”, while in the words of Professor Vance Tiede and Professor Gerald Hawkins “…the inspiration of astronomical phenomena sparked Neolithic architects’ celestial vision on Salisbury Plain.”
This “celestial vision” was a monument like no other on the face of the Earth, before or since. The last attempt to transport a bluestone from Preseli to Stonehenge in the year 2000 got as far as the southern coast of Wales, but over four thousand years earlier, our ancestors managed to bring as many as ninety such stones, weighing as much as three hundred tons in total, from the mountains of south-west Wales to Salisbury Plain, then uprooted them and moved them around several times before they were satisfied with the final arrangement.
As for the intricate and massive architecture of the sarsen circle and trilithons, with its various planed surfaces, engraved surfaces, mortice and tenon joints, tongue and groove joints and raised circle of interlocking lintels, it was rightly described by Aubrey Burl on page 179 of his aforementioned book as an achievement that was “almost a miracle”, while the ruins continue to attract one million wondering visitors every year.
And if there was one indisputable function to this truly astonishing structure, it was a place where ancient astronomer priests and others endeavoured to commune with entities not of this Earth using the most advanced technology available to them. Or to do simple justice to the tenacity, ingenuity, imagination, ambitions, aspirations, yearnings, skills, intellect and desire for knowledge possessed by the builders of Stonehenge, it was a precisely crafted miracle of prehistoric engineering that was at the dark heart of an enduring and uneasy search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.
UPDATE: When writing about Stonehenge, there are a few precious occasions when I feel as if a benevolent deity is looking over my shoulder. In the same week that I published the above study of Stonehenge as a SETI structure, a highly unusual visitor from the depths of space appeared in our skies.
This comet suddenly increased in brightness a million times over, and as it continues on its path after what appears to have been a gargantuan explosion, it will leave a trail behind it. If one of the “watchers of the skies” at Stonehenge in prehistoric times had witnessed such a bizarre event, as they certainly would have done over the thousands of years the monument was in active use, what would they have made of it?
This particular comet acted like few others. A prehistoric observer would have seen a new star or planet appear from out of nowhere, burst into radiant life, then wander back into the black void from whence it came, all the while trailing an ethereal veil in its wake. It would be hardly surprising if an ancient astronomer priest interpreted this rare event as clear evidence of some form of life and some form of intelligence in the night skies, while the remarkable sighting would have doubtless spurred a search for further such prodigies.
Perhaps better still as far as synchronicity is concerned, this particular comet or “wandering star” is named Holmes. In his superb book entitled “The Fountains of Paradise”, Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote of mankind’s First Contact with an alien civilisation, but rather than depict a scenario wherein men encountered life as a result of their explorations on other planets, he wrote of a visitor from interstellar space that wandered into our Solar System, while the name he gave to place of origin of this visitor, as coined by a Welsh poet, was Starholme.