The mystique of the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge has long stoked people’s imaginations.
Theories as to what the Neolithic monument was used for include everything from a burial site to a place of healing.
Now a team of Australian researchers believes that the bluestone circle and similar formations of standing stones in the UK may actually have been built to track the movements of the sun, moon and stars thousands of years ago.
LINKING ANCIENT STONES WITH THE STARS
A team from the University of Adelaide analysed ancient standing stones on the Scottish isles.
They found strong alignments between the placement and orientation of the stones with the paths of the sun and moon and other features in their surroundings.
Experts believe the analysis provides the first evidence to support theories that stone circles were used to measure or track the movement of heavenly bodies.
They believe such accurate placement indicates the stones were erected based on astronomical knowledge of the time and shows their ancient architects had a strong connection with their environment and the skies above.
The UK has its fair share of ancient stone formations, stretching from Stonehenge in Wiltshire to standing stones on the Orkney Islands off of the Scottish mainland.
By looking at their positions and orientation and comparing this against the astronomical alignments around the time they were built, researchers at the University of Adelaide have provided evidence to support the theory that these stones were placed in relation to the movement of celestial bodies.
‘Nobody before this has ever statistically determined that a single stone circle was constructed with astronomical phenomena in mind – it was all supposition,’ said Dr Gail Higginbottom, project leader at the University of Adelaide Visiting and who is also a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.
‘This research is finally proof that the ancient Britons connected the Earth to the sky with their earliest standing stones, and that this practice continued in the same way for 2,000 years.’
The team looked to some of the most ancient stone formations on the British Isles, including Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis, and Stenness, Isle of Orkney.
It is believed that some of these sites could predate Stonehenge, where construction was thought to have begun around 3,100 BC.
The analysis revealed that the stones were strongly aligned with the movements of the sun and moon.
But beyond this, they found a relationship between the horizons and how the sun and moon passed across the landscape and surrounding markers.
The choice of location would have been key to how the stones were ordered, affecting the observations that could be made from the site.
‘These chosen surroundings would have influenced the way the Sun and Moon were seen, particularly in the timing of their rising and setting at special times, like when the Moon appears at its most northerly position on the horizon, which only happens every 18.6 years,’ Dr Higginbottom says.
Amazingly, the Ancient Greeks wrote that ‘Albion’, the ancient name for Britain, had a temple to which the Sun God Apollo came down to visit every 19 years!
‘For example, at 50 per cent of the sites, the northern horizon is relatively higher and closer than the southern and the summer solstice Sun rises out of the highest peak in the north.
‘At the other 50 per cent of sites, the southern horizon is higher and closer than the northern, with the winter solstice sun rising out of these highest horizons.’
The researcher added: ‘These people chose to erect these great stones very precisely within the landscape and in relation to the astronomy they knew.
‘They invested a tremendous amount of effort and work to do so. It tells us about their strong connection with their environment, and how important it must have been to them, for their culture and for their culture’s survival.’
The findings are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.