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The Sun shining through the Stonehenge monument. Sun rise on the summer solstice was the most important time the Sun would shine through the monument.
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Astronomy at Stonehenge

Some people would say that advanced astronomical astronomy was practiced at Stonehenge. But, it is not likely that ancient observers were able to make advanced predictions such as when lunar and solar eclipses would happen. It is more likely that the astronomical observations made at Stonehenge were of a simple kind carried out for the religious and ritual practices of the people.

Stonehenge does exhibit alignments with the Sun and the Moon. In fact, the main axis of the monument faces the horizon where the Sun rises midsummer morning, the longest day of the year. But the axis really only lines up roughly. The Sun actually rises to the left of the Heel Stone (the marker for the axis). And because of the Earth's precession, 4,000 years ago, the Sun would have risen even farther off the center axis. This failure to REALLY line Stonehenge up demands an explanation if these people were practicing exact astronomy. It is possible that since these people were only using such knowledge for ritual purposes, their standards of accuracy were different from our own.

It is clear that the placement of stones in Stonehenge was planned. This could have been Stone Age brilliance or it could have been just the moderately observant farmer's knowledge of the sky. Because we haven't found any written records from its makers, we just don't know!

Last modified September 15, 2000 by Jennifer Bergman.

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The Summer 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist, available in our online store, includes articles on rivers and snow, classroom planetariums, satellites and oceanography, hands-on astronomy, and global warming.

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