Let’s get this out of the way first: H2’s press release about The Universe: Ancient Mysteries Solved scouring the world for the “megalithic yard” wasn’t just deceptive—I’m happy to say it was completely wrong! Nary a word about the “megalithic yard” was uttered on The Universe, and perhaps the PR officer for the network has drunk the Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed Flavor Aid a bit too deeply and now sees even serious and sober science through the lens of the network’s lunatic fringe offerings. I do wonder, though, what happened. My on-screen cable guide also listed the megalithic yard (“just one unit of measurement”) as the subject for the show. Did someone realize after America Unearthed that the unit was a fiction and erase it from the more “serious” show, thus accounting for all the astronomical repetition? Why was all of PR information wrong?
The Universe: Ancient Mysteries Solved episode 1 “Stonehenge” opens by asking a bunch of questions about Stonehenge and its origins. Because this series is The Universe, it plans to seek an answer in a connection between Stonehenge and the stars, specifically its use as an observatory or calendar. This is archeoastronomy, the use of astronomy to understand archaeological sites. But it may not be the best way to use exclusively to examine Stonehenge. Also, because this is The Universe, the show is also very big on explaining the science of astronomy, for which I am very clearly not the target audience. This seems to be a show for people who are primarily interested in astronomy and its application to ancient sites rather than those who are primarily interested in ancient people and their use of astronomy. Your enjoyment will vary depending on your interest in astronomy in the absence of anthropology.
The program outlines the history of Stonehenge with a radio astronomer, perhaps not the most authoritative source for the site, but she feels that the sun and the moon must have been “quite a show” for the ancient people of Salisbury Plain. We review the well-known alignment between the center of Stonehenge, the external heel stone, and sunrise on the summer solstice. To determine whether this is a coincidence or intentional, the show uses computer graphics to recreate Stonehenge as it would have looked at its height. But again, it’s an astrophysicist rather than an archaeologist explaining the monument’s construction and materials. The show thinks “the power of state of the art computer graphics” is inherently interesting, but I don’t think that’s been the case since Jurassic Park (1993). Even Ancient Aliens has a computer-generated recreation of Stonehenge, so I could have done with less techno-babble about computers being an “electronic time machine.” But that’s just me. Perhaps it’s still new to the show’s core audience, more than half of whom are over the age of 50.
This is nitpicking, but I didn’t appreciate the sexist language about “modern man” instead of “modern humans” or “modern people.” Do women not care about science? It seems like there was at least one woman on this show.
After the first break, we hear that the sun set behind a now-ruined trilithon on the winter solstice and this is meant to be news: to which, it’s not. The sun sets on the winter solstice exactly opposite the summer solstice sunrise, so any site aligned to one is by definition aligned to the other. I would think that both alignments were probably intended. The winter solstice sunset was particularly important in ancient times because it marked the “death” of the sun and the rebirth of the year. A little bit of anthropology thrown in among the physics might have helped give a little more context to Stonehenge: It was built by actual people, not machines, and this context might help us go beyond the mechanics to understand the reasons for them. The show’s insistence in relying primarily on astronomers for its expert testimony hobbles the show in this respect. (There is an archaeologist on the show—Vance Tiede—but he has very little to say.) Later I will talk a bit about why the show went so lightly on the archaeological perspective.
Following this we get a lesson on the apparent motion of the moon and how Stonehenge marked the moon’s various positions in its monthly cycle and, in the longer term, its 19-year range cycle. Again, this is material that people who like astronomy more than me must find deeply interesting. It’s well presented, and the graphics do a good job of showing the material. I’ve read Gerald Hawkins’ 1961 book, as well as later refinements of them, but it still didn’t make me care about this. I have trouble with some of the claims for reasons I will discuss below. Here again, though, I am slightly annoyed with the presentation. The narrator asks how primitive people with no written language and only oral traditions could have figured out the lunar cycle, and instead of asking anthropologists or archaeologists to answer the question, they turn to a physicist who says they might have just told each other. One might suggest that since the project took centuries to complete, they might have put temporary markers in place to keep track of things, perhaps with wood, as with nearby Woodhenge, and adjusted as needed. Indeed, the show itself will contemplate this later in the hour.
After the second break, we are halfway through the show and at this point they take us through the process of how stone holes and wooden pole holes could be used to reconstruct what Stonehenge once looked like. And Bryan Penprase, an astrophysicist, delivers a somewhat facetious claim that future people could easily mistake modern technology like radio telescopes for ritual or religious monuments if our culture collapsed. This plays off the well-known archaeological in-joke that if you don’t understand something you’ve dug up, label it a ritual object.
At this point, the show discusses how wooden posts were probably used to plan out the stones and make sure they aligned correctly. Ha! I called it.
Once again, the show uses an astrophysicist to describe the anthropology of the people who built Stonehenge, which continues to be an odd choice. The show then tries to determine whether the Stonehenge people were scientists or a “secret cult” founded on science. A secret cult that built a giant stone temple with material imported from far away. Yup, secret. Neither is true; for ancient people science and religion were not separate in those days, as the astrophysicist later explains. I sincerely dislike the choice of the narration to characterize Neolithic and Bronze Age religion as “strange gods.” I’m not quite sure how these gods could be considered much stranger than, let’s say, the Hindu pantheon worshiped today by 1 in 5 human beings—a pantheon that originates in, yes, Bronze Age gods of the Vedas. The lack of anthropological consultation in the writing of this script keeps manifesting in strange choices of language that can be considered mildly offensive.
A discrepancy between the position of the sunrise on the solstice in 3000 BCE and the position of the heel stone is explored next, bringing in evidence that there had once been a second heel stone that framed this sunrise. This was discovered in the 1970s, but it isn’t quite clear whether this is evidence for or against the question of the “precision” of Stonehenge that prompted the exploration. The takeaway seems to be that the site is accurate to about one degree’s tolerance.
After the final break we look at several rings of stone holes, which have various numbers of holes. These correlate to the moon’s monthly and 19-year cycles. A 56-hole ring called the “Aubrey holes” may or may not be related to efforts to predict eclipses during the moon’s 18.61-year eclipse cycle. Thus, the 56 holes represent 19+18+19, which averages out to 18.67, apparently close enough to predict eclipses. The show notes that archaeologists are not convinced that this was intentionally linked to the eclipse cycle. It’s possible, but not proved.
The show ends by asking whether the Stonehenge people were the first space scientists.
Overall, this is a competent show that treated a serious subject seriously—and without a single mention of the megalithic yard. I suppose that must come in a later episode. But the lack of an archaeological perspective lets the astronomers run wild, probably far beyond the evidence. The University of Leicester archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles notably declared that there is simply no evidence that any alignment was deliberately encoded into Stonehenge, and the show fails to explain that there is very little supporting evidence for any of the alignments other than the winter-summer solstice line, the only one that is undoubtedly real.
A few years ago Anthony Johnson wrote a book called Solving Stonehenge (2008) that I feel offers one of the most compelling explanations for how the stones were arranged in stages over centuries using principles of basic natural geometry—not astronomy—based on very simple construction principles. I won’t discuss all of his findings—read the book; it’s great—but the long and short of it is that misalignments and errors in the layout show that each ring of stones was set out at one time, using simple geometry and not the position of the moon or the stars. The 56 Aubrey holes, for example, are also the maximum number that can be laid out using a single piece of rope and simple geometry.
Johnson also talked about the astronomical claims for Stonehenge and said the following:
One of the very real problems that archaeologists have with astronomical interpretations of Stonehenge or other prehistoric monuments is that there always appears to be something in the heavens that will align with just about anything else on the ground, if the spectator stands in the right place.
He notes that many of the theories about astronomical alignments involve the supposition of moveable parts or non-existent objects, stones, or poles to make the “computer” work. Worse, any attempt to judge alignments by the current position of the stones begins with a problematic premise, since the stones have been moved, righted, and changed many times throughout history. In the 1950s and 1960s virtually every stone was removed from the ground and reset. This produced small but significant variations from their first recorded positions from 1740. Even if you do not buy all of his claims for Stonehenge geometry (indeed, some seem overly complex), the basic point is undoubtedly true: You cannot deduce alignments without carefully studying the history of the stones and holes you are using to make them.
So, in sum, The Universe: Ancient Mysteries Solved over-promised. While it offered some good information and some interesting astronomical perspectives, it would have been much stronger had it also considered the archaeological objections to the alignment theory as something more than just knee-jerk skepticism. Then, of course, it wouldn’t be The Universe, a show whose mission is by definition to find astronomy everywhere. The bottom line: The show presented in a compelling way one perspective on Stonehenge, but it leaves the impression that this perspective is better supported than the archaeological literature actually allows.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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