By Aveni, Anthony F.
History Today , Vol. 58, No. 6
Stonehenge, Teotihuacan, Beijing, Washington DC: far-flung places spanning 5,000 years of history but, with many others across the world, sharing a common origin. Their placement, their arrangement, their very existence, was mandated in the cosmos.
People who live in close contact with nature commonly believe that the gods are our ancestors. Creation stories often suggest that, having made the world fit for people, the gods retreated to heaven where they live, regulating the climate cycle, moving the sun, moon, planets and stars in their orbits. They can give us indications about the future, so we look to them for answers to life's questions, and make sacrifices to them to pay our debts. The gods speak through omens that can be interpreted by those appointed to watch the sky. The channel of communication is the temple.
For hunter-gatherers, sun-watching shrines can be modest: lodges, grottoes, hilltops, bends in rivers, wells or special places by the sea, whatever offers awe-inspiring access to the sky. As people band together to form semi-sedentary societies, they have time to construct more elaborate temples. They might build altars in a sacred cave whence their ancestors came, or on a sacred rock; or construct a house of the sun, perhaps a pyramid, next to the sacred mountain that gives access to their gods. As permanent habitation results in growing social specialization, the conduct of ritual is delegated to a priestly class. The place of worship becomes still more elaborate, to serve a multitude of needs. Glans meet in the inner sanctum to bond, not just by worshipping the same gods in the same manner, but also by sharing food and trading goods. An excellent example of such a place can be found in southern Britain.
It is mid-winter's night on Salisbury Plain, 4,500 years ago. People have come from miles around to celebrate the ones in heaven who have sustained them, the gods of nature--the sun, and the moon.
The rites begin when the full moon rises along the main accessway of the monument we call Stonehenge ('hanging stones' or 'stones on edge'); the people know precisely when it will appear in the 5m (16ft) high stone gateway 100m (320ft) northeast of the circle. They are aware that the midwinter full moon (the one nearest the solstice) will rise opposite the setting sun, providing ample light for a night-long ceremony to honour the celestial deities come to earth.
Today only the right-hand standing stone of the 4,500-year-old gate, the Heelstone, remains, but the midwinter moon still keeps its ancient appointment. In the opposite season of the year, on midsummer's day, the sun rises over the heelstone, marking its other extreme or standstill point on the horizon.
The earliest stage of Stonehenge (before the stones themselves were erected) dates to approximately 2950 BC, probably erected by several extended families each consisting of fifty to a hundred people. Although their descendants mismanaged their environment, denuding the landscape of trees, the sun- and moon-watching tradition would continue here for over 1,500 years. Over that time Stonehenge would be constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. First came the ditch-and-bank structure containing fifty-six 'Aubrey' holes, likely timber settings later used as offertory pits, and the solstice gateway. The earliest structures were probably of wood. At that time Stonehenge may have been a simple place of assembly, with a built-in solar clock telling people the best time to gather.
By 2500 BC, the population tended towards pastoralism and intensive farming. These cultures, which erected the huge trilithons that marked the lunar and the solar standstill positions at the horizon, must have been highly stratified, with specialized groups each assigned their own role in the project.
Of all the aspects of Stonehenge, the astronomical tradition captivates the most interest today. …