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Chapter 4 Journal Activity

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A temple to rationalism

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As Professor Davis noted, Stonehenge can serve as a "universal temple". The religion of Stonehenge's original builders is unknown, so people with can incorporate the monument into their own diverse world views. However, it is not just religious people who see the stones and feel an intimation that the ancients must have shared their beliefs. Rationalists (especially astronomers) also look at Stonehenge and gain inspiration from the feeling that its builders must also have been guided by science. Indeed, Stonehenge has had a strange influence on British scientists, turning them (at least so far as Stonehenge is concerned) from rationalists into romantics.

Stonehenge's alignment with the sun on the solstices allows scientists to feel a romantic kinship with its builders. The alignment is taken as evidence that ancient Britons were interested in time, astronomy and the other mysteries of the universe that today's scientists ponder. This potentially dubious assumption leads contemporary scientists to feel some connection with the ancients. For example, in a lighthearted article, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking states "I' the people who built Stonehenge. I'm obsessed by time."

Sometimes, the connection that scientists feel with the builders of Stonehenge goes beyond lighthearted affinity. Scientists often assume that the builders of Stonehenge were more technologically advanced than they actually were. This assumption goes back at least to Edmond Halley. Halley was a friend of William Stukelely, and Stukelely enlisted him to assist with his early investigations into Stonehenge. Halley assumed that the builders of Stonehenge approached its construction with the same level of precision that he himself used when measuring the path of his comet. Indeed, he reckoned that the builders of Stonehenge must have used magnetic compasses to align their monument with the sun. Based on this faulty assumption and on assumptions of how magnetic compasses have varied over time, Halley calculated that Stonehenge must have been constructed in
460 B.C.

Of course, scientists no longer attribute knowledge of the compass to ancient Britons. Articles nonetheless still appear attributing advanced knowledge of geometry to the Ancient Britons. It will be interesting to see if this attribution holds up.

Finally, assumptions about Stonehenge has led scientists to make assumptions regarding why Stonehenge was built. Just as neopagans may feel that Stonehenge must have been built as a temple to their belief system, some scientists feel that Stonehenge must have been built as a scientific instrument. In this course, we have learned about Gerald Hawkin's theory that Stonehenge was a complex astronomical clock and also about the subsequent debunking of that theory. Could the feeling that the builders of Stonehenge must have been rationalists account for the theory's lingering resonance?


David Keys, "Stonehenge builders had geometry skills to rival Pythagoras", The Independent Online, 25 May 2008 (

Stephen Hawking, "How to build a time machine", Mail Online, 27 April 2010 (

William Stukeley, Stonehenge: A Temple Restor'd to the British Druids, London: Innys & Maney (1740), pp. 64-66.


2 months ago

Excellent distillation.

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