The power and persistence of a good idea constantly amazes me. Once an inspired perception of human activity takes root it is impossible to wipe it out and only with difficulty modified.
It is this quality of man’s mind that makes the study of ancient history so fascinating. Most of what we accept as modern had its beginning thousands of years ago. Much of what puzzles us today is understandable when we know how it started and how it reached us.
A case in point is the celebration of New Years Day. It began before there was writing, but it has changed little over the centuries. It is an important holiday to all civilized peoples because it embodies the important idea of a new start, of trying main to do better. It’s human and it’s important, thus it persists.
I have been led to these somewhat philosophical observations during the closing hours of 1968 by a Christmas gift book, “Stonehenge Decoded,” by Professor Gerald S. Hawkins.
Stonehenge is that mysterious circle of giant stones in southern England which was erected by an unknown people for an hitherto unknown purpose.
Dr. Hawkins, professor of astronomy at Boston University and research associate at the Harvard College Observatory, has proven to my satisfaction that Stonehenge was a stone age astronomical observatory and the world’s first computer.
I became acquainted with Stonehenge a little over a year ago during a visit to England. I arrived at Amesbury, nearest village to the famous monument, in midmorning. No taxis were available and the only bus of the day did not leave until mid-afternoon. As Stonehenge was only four miles away by well marked path I decided to walk.
In retrospect I recommend this approach to the ancient circle. Amesbury is the kind of British village you see in travel folders. Little shops crowding the sidewalk, cottages with well tended lawns and flower beds, a low bridge over the gently flowing Avon River then a long slope up Lark Hill to Salisbury plain.
As I reached the open countryside it started to rain softly. The wet grass soaked my feet but otherwise I was adequately protected by a rain coat and hat. On the horizon I could just make out the grey clump that was Stonehenge. The slow, silent walk in a drizzle, through a strange land, conditioned me to a proper awe by the time I arrived at Stonehenge.
Because of the rain there were only two other visitors at the site and they soon fled to their car and departed. I walked around and under the huge, glistening rocks, each up to 50 tons bulk. How had men with only their own power and primitive tools raised these giant stones? Why?
I stood motionless in the center of the ghost-like stones to absorb the mood of mystery and desolation. After awhile the guard at the gate left his little ticket house and squished toward me. “Like me to show you around a bit?” he said.
It was obvious to the guide that I was more interested in Stonehenge than the average tourist for he braved the rain with me for nearly an hour explaining as much about the stones as now is known.
A horse shoe of head-high stones is encompassed by another horse shoe of 24-foot trilothons — two upright stones capped by a horizontal stone. These are enclosed by a circle of slightly smaller uprights originally consisting of 30 stones and a continuous lintel across their tops. Next are two rows of postholes, then a ring of 56 white chalk spots. Finally around the whole is a low mound.
In all, the arrangement is some 300 feet in diameter.
The white spots, called Aubrey holes after their discoverer, are four-foot holes packed with chalk and—in many instances—cremated human bones.
By radiocarbon dating of the charred bones, and a piece of deer antler found under one of the upright stones, Stonehenge has been accurately dated. It was built over a three hundred-year period from 1900 B.C. to 1600 B.C. This was a thousand years after the building of the great pyramid of Egypt, Troy had not yet fallen to the Greeks and Abraham was still living in Mesopotamia.
The predominant people in Britain at that time were the “Beaker People” but no one today knows where they came from or what happened to them. They left no other monuments or records, and their numerous burial mounds reveal only a primitive culture.
Was Stonehenge their single, supreme example of a superior intelligence, or were wise foreigners living amongst them to supervise the erection and operation of a holy temple?
It is probably significant, said the guide, that the altar stone and the heel stone alignment point to the mid-summer sunrise or solstice. For this reason the monument was thought for hundreds of years to be a Druid temple. However Stonehenge was ancient and deserted when the Druids came over from the European continent. I finally ran out of questions so the guard gave me a lift back to town. We shook hands solemnly, he appreciative of my respect for his ancient monument, I appreciative of his time and courtesy.
It is easy to see how Professor Hawkins — who grew up near Stonehenge — would apply his astronomical knowledge to the mystery. He returned to his birth land to make measurements and sightings of the Stonehenge stones.
Back at Harvard, members of the computer staff programmed Hawkins’s measurements into an IBM 7090 then reversed the sky electronically —and in less than a minute — to the stone age. The alignments of paired stones pointed unerringly to every extreme movement of the sun and moon.
For more details I suggest you get the book published by Doubleday. It’s better than a detective story.
Which brings us back to New Year’s Day.
Hawkins points out that the June 24 summer solstice alignment also points in the reverse direction to the December 22 winter solstice — the time when the days start to get longer. This was the beginning of the new year to the ancient sun worshippers.
Stonehenge was likely a ritual tomb for the sun and a temple to its rebirth. Elsewhere it is known that this was the beginning of a four-day festival ending Dec. 25. It was a time or rekindling the hearth fire, gift giving, merry making and resolutions to live a better life.
Whether your present remembrance of Jan. 1 is a throbbing head or a glowing heart, the idea has been handed down from your ancestors with the unspoken wish you will resolve to improve. After four thousand years of trying, we must be making progress, aren’t we? I mean, we are!
January 1, 1969
Lindsey Williams is a Sun columnist who can be contacted at:
Website: http://www.lindseywilliams.org with several hundred of Lin’s articles written over 40 years, and his book “Boldly Onward,” about the original explorers of America.