Surely one of the most frequently asked questions about Stonehenge is: what was it used for when it was first built? Is there one way in which we can describe an original function of these mesmerising ruins with confidence? Furthermore, would this be a description that the visionary and engineering geniuses who built Stonehenge would agree with, if we were able to have a conversation with them? In my opinion, the answer is yes.
One of my favourite observations on Stonehenge was made by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who once wrote, "Only one thing can be stated with certainty about such structures as Stonehenge: the people who built them were much more intelligent than many who have written books about them." I entirely concur with this observation about the intelligence of the builders of Stonehenge, but I believe that it's possible to state at least one other uncomfortable truth about Stonehenge.
In a discussion with the archaeologist Professor Vance Tiede, the late astronomer Gerald Hawkins spoke of Stonehenge in the following terms: "There seems to be no practical value in what was going on at Stonehenge. One does not need Stonehenge to know when to plant seeds or when to breed cattle. Perhaps part of the purpose might have been for the handmaiden of astronomy - astrology.
Astronomy has grown out of astrology, though we may hate to face that fact. Uncanny powers were placed on celestial objects, and predictions were made which directly related, whether they came true or not, to human lives and events. There may have been some prognostication at Stonehenge.
I could quote examples at great length, but there's no doubt whatsoever about the fascination that the night sky held for our ancestors who built Stonehenge. All the evidence I've seen, and all the eminent sources I've researched, speak of our ancestors gazing at the heavens and fervently calling out to the black void in an attempt to make contact with sentient beings in the form of gods, spirits and ancestors. At the same time, they were trying to make sense of the Earth and Sky around, beneath and above them, all the while wondering at the true nature of striking phenomena such as comets, shooting stars and other visitors from the depths of space.
In other words, if Stonehenge was anything, it was a place where our ancestors undertook a prolonged search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, whether you define intelligence as information that we glean from repeated observation, or whether you regard it as any form of sentient existence in the gulf of space beyond this world.
Of course, the term "the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence" immediately conveys images of visiting alien spacecraft or of distant civilisations on worlds orbiting other stars, which is probably why no other archaeologist would dream of using such a description of Stonehenge, but is a highly accurate one nonetheless. In exactly the same vein, no one argues with highly evocative but entirely appropriate terms like "The Pillars of Creation" to describe distant cosmic wonders such as those captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Our modern SETI programme began life in 1960, using an increasingly sophisticated array of technology to scan the heavens for signs of intelligent life elsewhere, whereas the people who built Stonehenge used the naked eye to seek out supernatural entities such as gods and stellified ancestors, as well as omens like inverted rainbows, portents, harbingers and a meaningful design behind the celestial bodies and phenomena they observed. To my mind, given the gap of 5,000 years or so between the two sets of "watchers of the skies", the two activities are virtually indistinguishable.
The late Carl Sagan frequently emphasised the need for a scrupulous examination of the facts, and rightly so. The description of Stonehenge as a manmade structure where our ancestors searched the skies for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence or non-human entities had long seemed a blindingly obvious one to me, but rather than run the risk of persisting in a delusion, I decided to get a second opinion.
The Vatican has an observatory in Arizona that regularly organises international conferences on astronomy. While the staff at the Vatican Observatory are self-evidently men of profound religious beliefs, they also possess extensive qualifications in their chosen field, so I thought that this combination of learning, experience, science, religion and highly disciplined thinking would be the sternest possible test of my ability to make a convincing case for Stonehenge to be defined or classified as an early SETI structure.
I wrote to Christopher J Corbally, the Vice President of the Vatican Observatory and a man with an impressive list of qualifications that includes a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics with Honours, a Master of Science in Astronomy, a Doctorate in Astronomy and a Bachelor's Degree in Theology with Honours, in addition to the various posts he's held, such as Dean of the Vatican Observatory Summer School.
I pointed Chris toward my website, as well as inviting him to make whatever enquiries about me he chose to, on the internet and elsewhere, and he was good enough to find the time to reply. As the time period under discussion is prehistory, a period without written records, he naturally qualified what he had to say by pointing out that "this is speculation, based on a sense that humans have been asking the same kind of questions over the ages, even though our scientific tools have changed".
I wouldn't expect anyone applying themselves to a serious consideration of this matter to ignore the aspect of a lack of written records, but Chris also wrote "I think that you are correct in thinking those people who built Stonehenge would have pondered about life, and intelligent life, elsewhere."
When I presented my case to Chris, he observed, "From the Greek Atomists on (and no doubt before them), it seems that anyone who thought that our Earth was not unique would have entertained ideas about extraterrestrial life."
Does the classification of Stonehenge as Britain's earliest manmade SETI structure conflict with any other strongly held views about the place? On the contrary - to my mind, it compliments them all.
This editorial is excerpted from the Eternal Idol website, and is used here by the kind permission of the author.
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this page last updated 7 June 2008
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