Framing the Sun

By Charles Henry posted

Second in the Beveled Mirrors Series

Today the most prominent interpretation of Stonehenge argues that it was an astronomical observatory. The tall brackets that the carved rocks create were meant to frame the sun at various times of the year. Off to a distance, between two of the uprights, is a large singular, somewhat egg-shaped rock referred to as the heelstone. At the summer solstice, the sun would rise directly above it, clasped figuratively in the narrow window of the stone arch. Nearby, in the ground around the once-circular stone trilithons, are holes filled with what was probably chalk. These are thought to have allowed for the calculation of the phases of the moon and eclipses. Among the many extraordinary aspects of Stonehenge is the sheer feat of quarrying the great rocks—which came from sites as distant as 150 miles—then bringing them (dragging, rolling, floating?) to their present location.

Upon reflection, we can begin to imagine how it was possible to garner the energy and commitment needed to build such a monument. This circle of stones and chalky rounds preserved the knowledge of probably generations of observations of the skies. In that pre-literate culture, knowledge would have to be passed down through the generations by word of mouth. At some point, the society of Neolithic Britain decided to instantiate what they had learned in an astonishing fashion: to construct a kind of engine that would serve as a permanent record of their knowledge, and that could, in turn, serve annually as a device that validated that knowledge. Because this complex of stone marked exactly where the sun, moon, and perhaps the stars were supposed to be at specific times of the year, it served as a spatial archive. If the sun did not rise at midsummer above the heel stone, or if the moon was found to be out of cycle, the portent for the society would have been catastrophic.

Across the sea in Ireland stands Newgrange, another megalith of wondrous engineering. Unlike Stonehenge, Newgrange was a passage tomb, a burial mound for what we may assume to be the leaders of the local society. Like Stonehenge, it also framed the sun, though in this case it was the winter solstice that was captured, for a few hours, in a transept carved above the main door. Newgrange is enclosed, its passageway mysterious and its purpose, other than a burial site, more difficult to fathom. An abundance of symbolic, abstract shapes and patterns surround the mound and line the passageway and internal chambers. This proliferation of symbols suggests that Newgrange was not simply a passageway to a set of tombs but a portal into and through another world. The spirals, hash marks, and cantered geometric shapes can only suggest the intent—tease us out of thought, prepare us for a transitional journey.

Newgrange, as a framing device, was thus also a brilliant mechanism for preserving knowledge and, perhaps, for connecting society to a place that lay beyond the senses in the way that Stonehenge connected the earth with the sky, silently monitoring and marking their alignment. We can infer that these stone and earthen works were built by cooperation and collaboration on the grandest scale; that they must have been understood as essential to the stability of the society, and that they were thus communal goods. In this we can see something of our own intentions as we work to create a large digital environment, which in part will preserve and archive our most important knowledge, help guide us, and interconnect distant worlds (now understood as vast repositories of differentiated information). Such achievements now, as then, are possible only by working concertedly and assiduously together. As for the wheeling spirals and mysterious shaped carvings, five thousand years after their creation we remain, in anthropologist Terrence Deacon's term, a uniquely symbolic species.

Previous blogs in the Beveled Mirrors series:
Beveled Mirrors (Oct. 11, 2012)