Stonehenge: A New Interpretation of Prehistoric Man and the Cosmos Hardcover – 24 Nov 1997
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Argues that Stonehenge's scientific purpose was to observe the setting midwinter sun, and that astronomical observations made by the ancient Britons were as rational and methodical as they are today.
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With firm conviction, illustrated by numerous graphic images, North demonstrates how early burial sites acted to mark stellar risings. Neolithic burials took place in a variety of sites: gallery graves, passage graves and dolmens, among others. The prevailing final step was the practice of covering the site with a mound of stones and earth. This could result in long barrows, mounds or other structures, but the one thing they had in common was to elevate the top above the surrounding horizon. Using the surrounding ditch remaining from relocating the soil and rock, observers could note certain stars appearing over an "artificial horizon." North postulates a possible shift in focus from ancestors and stars to gods or spirits associated with the sun and moon. This "advance" in thinking resulted in stone monuments like Stonehenge in Britain and sites in Western Europe.
In tracing the growth of religious thinking and its manifestations in Neolithic Europe, North sees consistency without unity. What he does stress is the advanced thinking that must have been taking place during passing years. Wood and stone circles were positioned with uncanny accuracy to perform their tasks. He provides reconstruction drawings of many of the sites to display the limited fields of view they allowed. Peering along the post alignments, only a brief glimpse of rising or setting sun was available to the observer. Lintels, whether wood or stone, were designed to cut down on glare during sunrise or sunset observations. The graphics illustrating these points require careful study, but are rewarding for that.
Some of his contentions seem implausible. He uniformly places observers of stellar risings in ditches. If these were religious leaders, this would seem a diminution of priestly status not seen elsewhere. North has gone to considerable effort to demonstrate just how complex the sites are and what that says about the motivation and abilities of Neolithic peoples. How much of this effort is his, and how much derived from others is difficult to assess. There are frequent references to various authors in the text, but no direct citations. His "Bibliography" is by chapters and too vague to pursue sources without excessive toil. The appendices, on carbon dating, astronomical issues and geographical positioning are helpful, particularly if you have the maths. Overall, this is a useful book, even if it must be read with a sense of caution. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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But it is a serious attempt to understand the minds of early architects and their society's relationship to the heavens, and as such is a very welcome addition to the growing archaeo-astronomy corpus.