Author: Robin Heath
Abstract: Archaeoastronomy is a complex discipline. Even though its origins date back to William Stukeley’s survey of Stonehenge in the 1720s, its modern history is essentially thirty-five years old, commencing principally with Gerald Hawkins’ Stonehenge Decoded (1965), with its debt to Peter Newham’s work, and Alexander Thom’s Megalithic Sites in Britain (1967). Since then the discipline has seen an initial rejection by archaeologists, changing to a brief flurry of interest as the sheer depth of Thom’s work became clear, followed by a final rejection. An academic discipline of archaeoastronomy is now emerging which largely rejects both Hawkins’ and Thom’s theories, leaving their theories to what, for want of a better term, we know as ‘alternative’ archaeoastronomy. However, the ‘academic’ v ‘alternative’ polarity is compounded by another, which is equally deep and often more bitter; the clash between astronomical and archaeological methodologies. Both make claims to being exact sciences – and each challenges the others’ claims to a monopoly of truth. The fundamental difference between the two is that astronomy is often unable to test its hypotheses under controlled conditions and instead frequently relies on mathematical proofs, while archaeology relies on the analysis of artefacts from the past which can be weighed, measured and, roughly, dated, but often with little real idea of the cultural context from which they emerged. Hence, while astronomers have made claims on Stonehenge’s age which have later been overturned, as did Norman Lockyer in the 1900s, archaeologists have also utterly misunderstood the site’s history. When Jacquetta Hawkes, subsequently a leading opponent of archaeoastronomy, wrote confidently in 1945 that British megaliths were based on Mediterranean models, (1945:16) she had no idea that the British sites were later shown to be much older and that her self-assurance was not partially, but completely and utterly misplaced. Thus we can predict that archaeologists will not like Heath’s latest book. That is not to say that there is not much in it that they could learn from.
Heath has set himself the task of maintaining the Thom/Hawkins position, namely that Stonehenge, and many other megaliths, were precisely designed to measure not just the solstices, but lunar standstills, eclipses and some stellar risings, all quite reasonable hypotheses to any simple observational astronomer. Like Thom he is an amateur astronomer and professional engineer and he works from the same mathematical principles, placing a higher emphasis on the structure of megalithic monuments than the nature or dating of associated artefacts. His is the big picture.
Heath’s Stonehenge is simple structured with simple one page ‘chapters’, all with an illustration on the facing page. In fifty-six pages of text he describes some of the main features of Stonehenge’s history together with theories about its origins and function, including its location in the immediate landscape, its orientation with the Preselli hills (home of the ‘bluestones’) and the significance of its latitude. He includes other researchers’ theories, such as Guy Underwood’s dowsing experiments, and his own, such as the ‘lunation triangle’ (covered in more detail in his Sun, Moon and Stonehenge 1998), and covers some features of the site’s construction which are uncontroversial (the erection of the stones) and others which are more radical (Fred Hoyle’s simpler and in some ways fundamentally different version of Hawkins’ eclipse predictor theory).
Heath’s writing is fluid, articulate and suffused with a very gentle wit, and his latest contribution to the ever-expanding corpus of literature on Stonehenge is an ideal introduction for the ignorant and a valuable aide-memoire for the cognoscienti.
Keywords: Archaeoastronomy, Stonehenge, megalithic sites, arechoeological methodologies, astronomy, archaeolog
Issue: Volume 19 Number 2