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Revision by Erasure

Edith Sylla

Stonehenge: A New Interpretation of Prehistoric Man and the Cosmos. John North. 609 pp. The Free Press, 1997. $35.

This is the most thorough, authoritative and historically and archaeologically grounded book on the astronomical significance of Stonehenge yet to appear. North's book is a refutation of Gerald Hawkins's and Fred Hoyle's theories about Stonehenge. Yet North's dismissal of the others' views is indicated not by direct attack but by erasure: In a huge compilation of relevant evidence, Hawkins's name appears only in two passages.

In fact, North agrees with Hawkins that Stonehenge is a monument full of orientations to significant rising and setting points of the sun and moon, but here the similarity ends. Whereas for Hawkins and many others (including the modem day Druids) the most obvious fact about Stonehenge is that the direction from the center of the monument to the heelstone points in the direction of the midsummer sunrise, North claims that, quite the contrary, the people who built Stonehenge almost certainly stood near the heelstone and sighted from the heelstone through the monument to the midwinter sunset, which occurs, taking lines of sight in three dimensions into account, 180 degrees from the midsummer sunrise.

Stonehenge, according to North, was "a geometrically ordered monument aligned on the universe of stars, Sun and Moon, and an embodiment of the spiritual forces they represented to most of mankind." North attempts to justify this claim by describing in detail the observing procedures that were very probably used at Stonehenge and at related monuments from as early as the 5th millennium b.c. After the briefest of introductions, the book begins with a 120-page chapter on long barrows, after which it turns to monuments labeled cursus, enclosure, avenue and row, as well as to large chalk figures like the Uffington White Horse. Not until Chapter 9 does North begin to write in a concentrated way about Stonehenge, beginning with a very brief survey of historical work.

North argues that (in addition to other orientations) long barrows on the British Isles are often oriented so that if a person of average height stood in a ditch, such as are often found at the sides of barrows, and looked over the barrow, as an artificial horizon, at right angles to either the near or the far side, then a significant star might be seen rising or setting at that azimuth. Likewise, North argues, chalk figures, when viewed from designated viewing places, would have indicated significant stars and constellations rising and setting on the horizon. At monuments with circular design, the risings and settings of stars or of the sun and moon were likely framed not only by stones or wooden posts to the right and left, but also by artificial horizons below and by lintels above.

The heavens must have occupied a central place in Neolithic and Bronze Age religions, North concludes, because of the scale of these early monuments constructed to mark astronomical alignments. To construct these astronomical alignments as they did, preliterate societies must have reasoned in a highly logical way. The book closes with appendices explaining radiocarbon dating, giving the astronomical framework, providing tables of variations of directions, helical rising and setting, and so forth—a bare-bones skeleton of the information one would need to check North's arguments (for the most part he does not provide his calculations).

Whether archaeologists will be persuaded has yet to be seen, but North's book deserves and will repay patient study. Archaeoastronomical enthusiasts take heed!—Edith Dudley Sylla, History, North Carolina State University

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