Star-Gazing

Tom Shippey

  • Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmas by John North
    HarperCollins, 609 pp, £25.00, July 1996, ISBN 0 00 255773 8

What is the secret of Stonehenge? Bonnie Gaunt, the author of Stonehenge, a Closer Look: The Mystery and Marvel of the World’s Greatest Wonder (1980), says that if you align the Heel Stone and the rising of the Passover Moon, and see where the line intersects the Aubrey Circle of post-holes, then the date-points indicated are the spring of 3473 BC and the spring of 33 AD. ‘Jesus hung upon a lonely cross atop Golgotha’s hill on the afternoon of 3 April 33 AD,’ at the age of 33, while 3473 BC was the date when Enoch (also translated in the body) reached the same age. And the symmetries of Stonehenge are also those of ‘the Great Pyramid, the New Jerusalem and the universe’. If one starts from the premise that scientists have discovered almost everything there is to know, the likelihood that there are connections between the little bits that aren’t known begins to seem very high. So flying saucers come from the Bermuda Triangle, the Pyramids must confirm the Resurrection and crop circles arise on ley lines. Stonehenge, alas, is part of this mysterious periphery, which makes it very hard for someone writing about it to be taken seriously.

The truth is that Stonehenge – especially now that it has been thoroughly walled-off and sales-complexed by the Department of the Environment – is not very impressive. Just old stones, in no clearly discernible order. John Fowles, in The Enigma of Stonehenge (1980), quotes a child saying worriedly: ‘Why are there so many doors?’ That is how it now seems: a lot of big doorways leading nowhere. Yet it yields some intimidating statistics. Its outer circle and its trilithon horseshoe are made of sarsen stone, three times as hard to work as granite, and capable of turning the edge of anything but the most modern steel-alloy. But the stones have been dressed, pounded level, apparently with hand-held sarsen mauls. In 1923 it took a professional mason an hour to remove six cubic inches. Since at the very least three million cubic inches have been removed, that’s 500,000 man-hours, 250 man-years, several long working lifetimes. The stones had to be moved to the site, too, and opinion has swung back to the idea that the bluestones of the inner ring and the inner horseshoe were hauled to Wiltshire from the Prescelly Mountains in Pembrokeshire, admittedly largely by sea and river, but in the end by sledge and roller, demanding teams of up to a hundred men. And perhaps one of the most surprising things about Stonehenge is that although the site itself slopes several feet east to west, the height reached by the lintels varies by a mere three inches. Somebody surveyed it, and kept the masons at work till they got the right result. Somebody also thought it worthwhile to do the immense amount of digging necessary to create the ditches and banks of the two-mile cursus running from Stonehenge: 450,000 man-hours in them, it’s estimated; the enclosure at Durrington Walls took 900,000.

There are between one and three hundred known ‘henges’ in Britain, depending on how you define them. Explanations of their existence have long focused on astronomy. Modern druids still turn up (by permission) for the midsummer sunrise ceremony, and every book on Stonehenge, including this one, has a picture of the rising or setting sun caught between uprights and lintel. On the presumption that the axis of the whole monument is laid out according to sunrise at midsummer, attempts have been made to calculate exactly when in history the sun would have risen dead on line. One reason for the plausibility of astrological explanations, however, is that modern city-dwellers have virtually no idea at all about the movement of heavenly bodies. They rarely see the Sun rise, rarely notice it set; even more rarely do they see a natural horizon. Their views are almost always cut off by buildings, and once night falls light pollution makes it impossible to see stars anywhere except high up, on a clear night. The phases of the Moon remain familiar – you can buy moon-phase watches – but hardly anyone ever watches the Moon as opposed to glimpsing it momentarily; that stars rise and set is barely recognised. Millions of people know their birth-sign, but because the stars have moved since the Zodiac was invented half of them know it wrong. I doubt whether in an average sample of educated people you could even get a general agreement on when the seasons begin and end, or more than a toss-of-the-coin opinion on whether the Sun sets further north or further south in summer. As a result, vague statements like ‘the sun rises over the Heel Stone at midsummer’ can take root. What is meant by ‘rises’? First shows? Is bisected by the horizon? Shows clear of the horizon? Viewed from where? How high up? Forty years ago, R.J.C. Atkinson grimly observed that the difference between the bearings of first glint and showing clear would be about four thousand years. So much for dating by astronomy.

John North’s book has several qualities likely to reassure the doubtful reader. One is that if the reader is sceptical, the author is a good deal more so, and in briskly dismissive style. Thus: the ‘impressionistic classification of long barrows with respect to summer and winter sunrise and sunset is more or less worthless’. Or: ‘Stonehenge was indeed built to an astronomical design, or rather succession of designs’ but ‘the real test of honest druids hereafter will be their readiness to face the elements on Salisbury Plain in midwinter’; and ‘since Stonehenge is now seriously outdated, the most honest of them will learn the necessary techniques ... and build another temple far away from it.’ Another good quality is that North obviously walks round things, looks at them for a long time and walks across country while examining the map. Stonehenge, after all, is not on its own. Besides Woodhenge and Avebury not far off, and all the other henges in southern England, there are 14 long barrows within an hour’s walk. Stonehenge is also, he points out, an object best studied not in plan, but by walking round it and up to it and away from it, to work out sight-lines. And, of course, the whole thing is four-dimensional. It was erected and altered at different times for different purposes, and those purposes are not well understood by looking at it as it is now (a multi-stage ruin), and treating it with vaguely nostalgic veneration. You have to try to imagine these monuments as they were.

Consider Wayland’s Smithy on the Berkshire Downs. It is impressive from a distance – the green mound with the tall trees round it and the air of still being a temenos, a holy place. Duck through the stone lintels, though, and you find yourself in something like a Neolithic bus-shelter: no sense of plan, nothing much to look at. The sarsen pavement is under the turf, the standing stones have gone, and perhaps most important, the ditches round it have long since been filled in. To us, ditches are just things you dig earth out of, a necessary by-product of banks and mounds. North argues that they are vital as places from which observers can look up at ground level over a regular artificial horizon, which is the barrow. The underlying structure of Wayland’s Smithy, like that of many barrows, is not oblong but trapezoidal, though this is all now blurred by turf. Were its builders just not very good at regular shapes or did they deliberately build irregular ones? North argues that in their original shape, with their giant D-section split tree-trunks, the barrows provided absolutely accurate sighting-points on the stars; the trapezoidal layout is not the product of inept construction, but to give sight-lines on different stars. Alpha Crucis rising shone (at one time) into the north-east corner of the burial chamber, and beta Crucis rising aligns with the chamber’s other diagonal.

There are of course a lot of stars, and given that all of them move over the centuries, any bearing in any direction will at one time or another indicate the rising or setting of something. From southern Britain there are only nine bright stars (whose visual magnitude is more than 0.9) that rise and set, together with Deneb, special for its constancy, and some of the familiar constellations. A statistically significant series of bearings on these, North argues, would indicate design. But when it comes to statistical significance, there again the modern city-dweller is at a loss. I have no idea how many significant bearings I could take on the night sky, nor what would happen if I stood in a midwinter ditch and looked for a long time along sighting-posts on the edge of a barrow. Perhaps a measure of North’s success, aesthetically if not scientifically speaking, is that the idea begins to have some appeal.

Some of North’s suggestions are intrinsically charming. He sees the Uffington White Horse – arguably, he says, a bull – as a marker for the horn-shaped constellation Taurus, incorporating Aldebaran, one of the nine bright stars. If Dragon Hill were ten feet higher (as it might have been) it would have been a perfect rising marker for zeta Tauri, with beta above it. Wilmington Long Man in East Sussex was there to mark the movement of the Orion constellation across the ridge above it. The figure itself, he points out, has once more been laid out carefully: it looks like a stick-man from the air, but seen from the ground falls into proportion, and mimics the stance of the striding giant in the sky. Furthermore – and this is a property of the natural horizon set by the surrounding downs – at one time, between the rising and the setting of the bright star Rigel, and to an observer from the path below the Long Man, Orion would have seemed to rise and then ‘walk along the ridge’. For people used to watching star-drift, this must have been an impressive and seemingly supernatural phenomenon.

North considers barrows and avenues and chalk-figures and enclosures at something like exhaustive length as a preliminary to his discussion of Stonehenge, seeing them all as products of the same star-gazing, labour-intensive Neolithic culture. Accepting all that, what are henges for? A first point is that they are a lot easier in wood, and that must have been the original idea: the stones at Stonehenge have mortice-and-tenon joints, or tongue-and-groove ones, both carpenters’ devices translated to stone at fearful cost in labour. The Woodhenge site looks as if it was indeed laid out along the axis of midsummer sunrise, and also as if the builders wanted to have a line of sight exactly at 90° to that pointing to midwinter sunrise, something that can only be achieved by creating an artificial horizon for the sun to rise over. At the central point excavators discovered a child’s skeleton, its skull split by an axe. The midwinter sun sets between two posts to shine over the child’s grave. A little to the north lies the vast enclosure of Durrington Walls, with its five or six concentric rings of posts. North’s reconstruction of this brings out a further counter-intuitive point about Stonehenge: we see henges, or feel them, as open doors, places for the wind to whistle through. They are not open if you try to look through them. Durrington, with its six rings of posts, would have presented an almost solid obstacle to the eye, broken by just a few chinks or ‘windows’. Significant windows? At the Mount Pleasant henge North finds eight significant alignments, on midwinter and midsummer Sun, on furthest south rise and set for the Moon. Six of them ‘pass through an area no bigger than a human hand at the centre of the monument’. In use, he says, one would see ‘a brilliant gleam of light piercing a dark wall’ (i.e. the pseudowall of the henge-posts). The gleam would mark the moment when the Sun or the Moon began its vital and mysterious seasonal turn; it would shine on people in the central area, picked out once more against a dark background.

Henges, in short, are there to confine lines of sight and to shut out glare: they are more like sun-visors than doorways. As for Stonehenge, North reminds us repeatedly that it is a multistage construction, which at all times required an active observer. Anywhere along the axis, he says, when the midwinter Sun is dropping, you can (or could) see it as a dark mass pierced by a single slit. The setting Sun is kept in view through the slit by walking slowly forward up the slope from Heel Stone to Aubrey Circle to the sarsen ring. It’s significant, too, that not all the uprights were finished with equal care. Those that were (stone 56, for example) were the sighting-edges. They gave a string of solar and lunar alignments, now disturbed by time and by the disappearance of so many of the stones. Nevertheless North’s principle at least is clear. Stonehenge is a kind of observatory, as has long been thought, designed not to discover (as modern observatories are), but to embody knowledge acquired slowly over centuries, if not millennia. North treats that knowledge with attractive respect. Not only is it a great deal more than almost any modern person has, it also requires unusual geometrical skill in choice of site: ‘Gradients of one in ten to sunrise and one in twenty to sunset, contrived to be at right angles to one another, cannot have come easily ... it is hard to conceive of a clearer instance of the quite brilliant way in which data over which man has no control ... were made to conform to a pattern of strict geometrical perfection.’

Can we say anything about the people who built Stonehenge (a question, as John Fowles remarks, about as welcome to modern archaeologists as the suggestion that the place should be turned into a disco)? Were they the fierce head-hunting early Celts imagined by Leon Stover and Bruce Kraig in Stonehenge: The Indo-European Heritage(1978)? Do we need to think of a Mediterranean clerk of works drifting up with the tin-traders from Mycenae, or even Egypt, as the axe and dagger-carvings on some stones seem to suggest? One final point North makes is that barrows looked very different, when first built, from their soft half-natural outlines now. On Normanton Down, a kilometre south of Stonehenge, stands Bush Barrow, domed originally with shining white blocks of chalk and visible from the henge on the horizon. Inside it was a skeleton bearing mace, axe, spear and daggers of stone, bronze and gold. On its breast lay a gold lozenge with complex geometrical patterns: a real, or maybe a symbolic astronomer’s tool, a sort of proto-astrolabe. Maybe these are the remains of one of the men who directed the masons, who sent out the boat-and-roller teams, who set gangs to work year after year chipping out chalk with antler picks and pounding unyielding stone, men who derived their authority not just from mace and spear but from a conviction, a millennia-enduring conviction, that they understood the universe as revealed in the sky and as embodied in their constructions.