Monday, June 6, 2011

Stonehenge - why?

Have been mulling over a visit to Stonehenge in April. Amazing that those neolithic farmers could devote such time and effort to something essentially pointless. But perhaps I've gone too far. So is a cathedral pointless, or the Parthenon. But we don’t ask why the ancient Greeks devoted time to building the Parthenon which was essentially pointless. We could do. But I don’t think we do. Though spookily we might possibly speculate on the ancient Egyptians building essentially pointless pyramids. So is there a double standard at work here - maybe we can see the mote in another’s eye so long as the other is sufficiently distant; yet we can't see the beam in our own eye.

The photos were taken between 8 and 9 am on Saturday 16th April on a Cork Astronomy Club outing. We were allowed to wander amongst the stones, something which is denied nowadays to most visitors. But you can gain access if you're an astronomy club. Or witches it seems, since we met some Dutch witches who were similarly privileged. Maybe the management misread our application. Category 3b: astrology, witchcraft, and sim.

pic 1 above: My figure helps gauge the size of these enormous stones. pic 2 below: a group photo, with (top left) a severely eroded tenon carved atop an upright stone. For mortise and tenon see pics 3 and 5.

So. About its purpose. No doubt Stonehenge served as a means of connecting Neolithic people to the universe. One answer to the perennial question of what it means to be human. It's been suggested it was an observatory. Never! Though the king who ordained it may have offered that as a pretext.

They would indeed have done astronomy. That’s for sure. They needed a calendar to know when to sow their seeds in the spring. (A calendar would be handy at harvest too, but I imagine it’s less important then, since you can inspect your crop to determine if it’s ready.) But my point is they would have done astronomy with wooden posts and instruments, not with 25-ton stones.

No. Stonehenge served as a means of controlling the population in the interests of an élite. The astronomy connection can be summed up in this way, that the astronomical alignments would have been a way for the priests to impress the peasants, in religious ceremonies. The most staggering fact about Stonehenge is the vast amount of labour which that society of Neolithic farmers 4,500 years ago was able to divert from tilling the soil, in order to hew these enormous stones out of the quarry, to trundle them 15 miles, and then to erect them in precise configuration. For all this to be done must have required a centralised state with the ability to command and organise squadrons of labour.

Stonehenge was erected about 2500 BC. For a detailed chronology see this Wikipedia article. A separate article covers the archaeoastronomy debate.

And there's a brief history on the official website
pic 3 above: Eithne with a fallen cap stone, showing the severely eroded mortise into which the tenon (pic 2) fitted. pic 4 below: nesting crows

pic 5 : diagramme of mortise and tenon joint (mortise brown, tenon blue)
… and then … after hewing and transporting the stones, to chisel out the mortise in the cap-stone, the tenon on the upright, and drop the cap-stone on to two uprights, with each mortise and tenon pair matched up …

pic 6 : panorama of Stonehenge with dramatic cloud formation and bright sunlight throwing clear shadows (Wikipedia 2004)

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