March 2010


>”The sun rises over Stonehenge as druids celebrate the Spring Equinox at Stonehenge near Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Several hundred druids and pagans were granted special access to the ancient monument to mark the date in the calender when the length of the day and the night are equal (this happens twice a year, at Spring and Autumn Equinox). To the druids Spring Equinox celebrates the renewed life of the Earth that comes with spring and attribute the changes that are going on in the world to an increase in the powers of their God and Goddess.”

>2010
Vernal Equinox: The Morning of Saturday March 20th – Sunrise is at 6:03 am. Gates will open around 5:30 am *
 
This Saturday marks the point at which the sun rises directly over the equator – the Spring Equinox. And while most of us will be wrapped up warm in bed at 5am, up to five thousand hardy souls will be braving the Wiltshire weather to welcome in the equinox at Stonehenge – including us.

We will be at the stone circle bright and early for two special Ancient World in London videos, speaking to Druids (including the inimitable King Arthur Pendragon), archaeologists and revellers as the sun rises over Britain’s best-known ancient landmark.

But what can we expect to see on the day? Here’s a video of sunrise last year taken by everyone in the office:

From a technical standpoint the Vernal Equinox is an astronomical event, it’s one of the four quadrature days of the Earth’s orbit. However for people both modern and ancient, the Vernal Equinox marked the transition from winter into spring. The Vernal Equinox occurs on March 20th or 21st and is one of two days during the year when there are 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness, the other day is the Autumnal Equinox.

People have been marking and celebrating the Vernal Equinox for thousands of years. The Great Sphinx which was constructed over 4500 years ago on the Giza Plateau in Egypt, faces due east on the Vernal Equinox. The monoliths located at Stonehenge, which are estimated to be over 3000 years old, mark the position of the rising sun on the Vernal Equinox. In Central America the Ancient Mayan Caracol Tower and Temples of the Sun and Moon also have alignments that coincide with the sun’s position on the Vernal Equinox.

Most historians believe that this knowledge was important to ancient cultures in choosing a time to plant their crops. In Iran they celebrate Norouz (which roughly translates to “new day”) on the Vernal Equinox. In China they celebrate Chunfen on the Vernal Equinox. In ancient Europe they celebrated the arrival of the goddess of spring Ostara on this day. Ostara was also known as Ostera and Eostre in different parts of Europe. Many historians believe the Christian holiday Easter gets its name from Eostre, as she had an enchanted rabbit that could lay eggs. In more modern times the Vernal Equinox marked the first Earth Day celebration in 1971.

One of the odd traditions that that occur on the Vernal Equinox is egg balancing. The story goes that it is possible to balance a raw egg on its oblong end on this day. There is no truth to this rumor it’s just as easy (or hard) to balance an egg on its end on this day as it is any other day. This story is perpetuated by the media who usually run a small segment on it, during news shows on this day.

Stonehenge Stone Circle

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Im going to start adding Stonehenge film clips – this 1954 film is a classic – click here

>The first of our new series of weekly walks, provided by the National Trust, is a ramble around mysterious Durrington Walls in Wiltshire, with views towards Stonehenge.

View Durrington Walls: Walk of the week in a larger map
THE EXPERT’S VIEW

Mike Dando, Head Warden: “The walk starts at the largest henge monument in the country and takes you past ancient monuments such as Round Barrows and the ‘Cuckoo Stone’ where it is easy to imagine the landscape as it was some 4,000 years ago. The walk takes in beautiful grazed grassland, strips of mature Beech trees and offers fantastic views across the Stonehenge Landscape.

Download an OS map of this walk

“My favourite part of this walk would have to be walking past the New King Barrows, the large Bronze Age burial mounds. A stop here on a warm summers’ day, listening to the skylarks and the beech leaves rustling, is hard to beat, especially on top of the view over to Stonehenge itself.

“Unique to this walk is the sense of being in an ancient and sacred place; the combination of the natural and historic sights is simply spectacular. My top tip for first time walkers would be to bring binoculars to take in the wildlife and views.”

ESSENTIALS
Start: Woodhenge car park
Grid ref: SU151434
Map: OS Landranger 184

Getting there
Bike: National Cycle Network route 45 runs south-east of the property. See http://www.sustrans.org.uk

Bus: Wilts & Dorset 5 or 6, between Salisbury, Pewsey, Marlborough and Swindon. Service 16 from Amesbury, request stop at Woodhenge

Rail: Salisbury station, 9 miles from Woodhenge car park

Road: Woodhenge car park is 1¾ miles north of Amesbury, follow signs from A345

Distance, terrain and accessibility

4 mile (6.4km) across open access land, including Rights of Way, with gates, at several points. The ground is uneven in places, with a few short, steep slopes. Sheep graze the fields and there are ground-nesting birds, so please keep dogs under control.

Local facilities
Picnic area (not NT) and information panel at Woodhenge car park
WCs
Outdoor café
Picnic area (not NT) at Stonehenge car park, 0.75 miles from this walking route.
THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR

Durrington Walls: The largest complete henge in Britain is 500m in diameter and encloses a natural valley. It once contained timber circles and what appear to have been shrines. The area outside the ditch and bank was once a settlement, perhaps containing hundreds of houses, making Durrington Walls potentially the largest village in north-west Europe at the time. People travelled for miles to feast and take part in ceremonies, probably at the midwinter solstice. Woodhenge stood nearby as an impressive timber circle surrounded by a bank and ditch.

The Cuckoo Stone: This standing stone now lies on its side, but over millennia it has been a focus for Bronze Age urn burials, an Iron Age boundary line and Roman remains. It is made of sarsen, a kind of sandstone, the same as the largest stones in the Stonehenge stone circle. The reason for its name remains a mystery.

The Stonehenge Avenue: A two mile long ceremonial way linking Stonehenge with the River Avon and crossing King Barrow Ridge. Interestingly, Durrington Walls is also connected to the river, leading experts to believe the Avon symbolically linked the two monuments, forming part of a ritual journey; maybe leading to the afterlife.

DIRECTIONS

Download an OS map of this walk

1. At Woodhenge car park, go through the gate nearest to you and into a field. Walk downhill into Durrington Walls (taking care of rabbit holes).

2. At the centre of Durrington Walls, looking around you, you can appreciate the nature of the henge as an enclosed valley. Standing here 4,500 years ago, you would have been viewing several “shrines” around the slopes. Next, turn left and walk to the corner of this field. Pass through gates either side of the road, heading towards a low rock.

3. The Cuckoo Stone is one of very few stones in the area that is made from sarsen – most local rock is chalk or flint. From here, continue forwards to the next gate.

4. You are now on the route of the old military railway between Amesbury and Larkhill; turn right and follow the path.

5. When you reach a crossroads and National Trust sign to King Barrow Ridge, turn left and follow the shaded bridleway.

6. At the junction, turn right through a gate to continue along the ridge, crossing the Stonehenge Avenue on your way to a line of 200-year-old beech trees and a fine view of Stonehenge. At winter solstice, Neolithic people may have marked the occasion of the midwinter sunset at Stonehenge, before travelling to Durrington Walls to celebrate the new sunrise.

7. Continue forward to New King Barrows, a fine row of Early Bronze Age burial mounds, originally capped in white chalk so they would have been visible from a far distance. Return to point 6, turn right and follow the stony track to point 8.

8. Take a left turn through a gap in the hedge, to join the old military railway once more. This leads back to the gate in the corner of the Cuckoo Stone field.

9. Head across the grassland to Woodhenge and back to Woodhenge car park.

STONEHENGE STONE CIRCLE

>Ive had a number of questions recently about ‘Radio carbon dating at Stonehenge’ Here is a comprehensive anwser:
Radio carbon dating determines the age of ancient objects by means of measuring the amount of carbon-14 there is left in an object. A man called Willard F Libby pioneered it at the University of Chicago in the 50’s. In 1960, he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. This is now the most widely used method of age estimation in the field of archaeology.

How it works

Certain chemical elements have more than one type of atom. Different atoms of the same element are called isotopes. Carbon has three main isotopes. They are carbon-12, carbon-13 and carbon-14. Carbon-12 makes up 99% of an atom, carbon-13 makes up 1% and carbon-14 – makes up 1 part per million. Carbon-14 is radioactive and it is this radioactivity which is used to measure age.

Radioactive atoms decay into stable atoms by a simple mathematical process. Half of the available atoms will change in a given period of time, known as the half-life. For instance, if 1000 atoms in the year 2000 had a half-life of ten years, then in 2010 there would be 500 left. In 2020, there would be 250 left, and in 2030 there would be 125 left.

By counting how many carbon-14 atoms in any object with carbon in it, we can work out how old the object is – or how long ago it died. So we only have to know two things, the half-life of carbon-14 and how many carbon-14 atoms the object had before it died. The half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years. However knowing how many carbon-14 atoms something had before it died can only be guessed at. The assumption is that the proportion of carbon-14 in any living organism is constant. It can be deduced then that today’s readings would be the same as those many years ago. When a particular fossil was alive, it had the same amount of carbon-14 as the same living organism today.

The fact that carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years helps archaeologists date artefacts. Dates derived from carbon samples can be carried back to about 50,000 years. Potassium or uranium isotopes which have much longer half-lives, are used to date very ancient geological events that have to be measured in millions or billions of years.

>The team which discovered the site of a second stone circle, 500 years older than the nearby Stonehenge has won a prestigious archaeology award.
The sensational discovery of a 5000 year-old “Blue Stonehenge” was made by a team led by archaeologists from Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol Universities on the West bank of the River Avon last year.
The Stonehenge Riverside Project – as they are known – won the Research Project of the Year award at the Current Archaeology awards held at the British Museum.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Royal Archaeological Institute.

The award was given following an online vote by readers of Britain’s biggest archaeology magazine.
The new circle was 10m in diameter and was surrounded by a henge – a ditch with an external bank.

However, the stones were at some point removed, leaving behind nine uncovered holes. The team believe they were probably part of a circle of 25 standing stones.

The outer henge around the stones was built around 2,400 BC, but distinctive chisel-shaped arrowheads found in the stone circle indicate that the stones were put up as much as 500 years earlier.
When the newly discovered circle’s stones were removed by Neolithic tribes, they may, according to the team, have been dragged to Stonehenge, to be incorporated within its major rebuilding around 2500 BC.

Archaeologists know that after this date, Stonehenge consisted of about 80 Welsh stones and 83 local, sarsen stones. Some of the bluestones that once stood at the riverside probably now stand within the centre of Stonehenge.
Professor Julian Thomas, from The University of Manchester and a co-director of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, said: “We are delighted to win this award – and it’s a tribute to the team who have done such a great job.
“We are still coming to terms with this truly sensational discovery: it’s amazing the circle of bluestones were dragged from the Welsh Preseli mountains, 150 miles away around 5,000 years ago.

“It adds weight to the theory that the River Avon linked a ‘domain of the living’ – marked by timber circles and houses upstream at the Neolithic village of ‘Durrington Walls’ – with a ‘domain of the dead’ marked by Stonehenge and this new stone circle.

“The Stonehenge Riverside Project also discovered a Late Neolithic settlement outside the enormous henge at Durrington Walls, upriver from Stonehenge, and a series of contemporary timber buildings and other structures in and around Durrington which may have been ceremonial in character.”
Notes for editors

The Stonehenge Riverside Project is run by a consortium of university teams. It is directed by Prof. Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, with co-directors Dr Josh Pollard (Bristol University), Prof. Julian Thomas (The University of Manchester), Dr Kate Welham (Bournemouth University) and Dr Colin Richards (The University of Manchester). The 2009 excavation was funded by the National Geographic Society, Google, the Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Society of Northern Antiquaries.

Most of the circle remains preserved for future research and the 2009 excavation has been filled back in.

Stoneheneg Stone Circle

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