Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Stonehenge

The ancient peoples of the Far East and the Middle East had no monopoly on the stars. The endlessly fascinating Stonehenge, built in stages between about 2800 B.C.E. and 1550 B.C.E. on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, seems almost certainly to have been designed as a kind of astronomical observatory or, as some scholars have argued, a computer of astronomical phenomena. Various features of Stonehenge are aligned on the positions of the sun and moon where each rise and set on particular days known as solstices (the days of longest and briefest daylight, which begin the summer and winter, respectively). Thus it is widely agreed that Stonehenge was at least in part used for the keeping of a calendar.
Elsewhere in England and on the continent other circular stone monuments, akin to Stonehenge, are to be found. These have also been studied for the relation they bear to astronomical phenomena.
The New World, too, has its celestially oriented ancient structures. Around C.E. 900, at Cahokia, in southern Illinois, a Native American people known to us as the Mound Builders erected more than a hundred earthen mounds, the layout of which seem to mirror a concept of a cosmic plan. Farther south, the Maya of Mexico built magnificent stepped pyramids, like the one at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan, clearly oriented toward the sunset at the winter solstice, as if to mark the annual “death” of the sun.
The Maya (and later, the Aztecs) used celestial observation to formulate a calendar as accurate as that which the Chinese had developed. A host of North American, Mesoamerican, and South American Indian monuments reveal careful orientation toward specific astronomical events. For example, the great kiva (a subterranean ceremonial chamber perhaps dating from C.E. 700 to 1050) at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built by the Anasazi, ancestors of the Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo, is oriented to mark the sunrise on the day of the summer solstice. Mayan and Aztec structures found throughout Mexico, such as the Hall of Columns at Alta Vista, dating to about C.E. 700, seem to be oriented to mark sunrise on the days of the equinoxes (the days of equal night and day, which mark the beginning of spring and fall). Monte Albán, built by the Zapotec of ancient Oaxaca, Mexico, as early as the eighth century B.C.E., seems to be oriented to the sun at zenith and to the rising of the star we call Capella.

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