Today, we find mystery and education beside a road.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
We came over the hill on a gusty wet January
morning in 1975. We'd slept briefly in Dover the
night before. Now we were driving to a new home in
Southwest England. My family was tired. Sightseeing
was far from our minds. But all at once, as we
gazed out over the Salisbury plain, we saw ancient
gray rings of rock under the gray sky. It was
Falling unprepared into Stonehenge was like trying
to recall something we'd experienced, long long
ago. You ask, "What was I thinking when I built this thing?"
Everything we know about Stonehenge was written after the
Normans came. Since then we've asked, over and over,
what those stones are trying to tell us.
In 1666, John Aubry showed that the main Stonehenge
corridor aligns with sunrise, at the Summer
Solstice. That fit the 17th century fascination
with astronomy. Then an 18th century writer claimed
Stonehenge was the work of Druids. That's utter
poppycock. Druids only appear as a tiny footnote
in Roman history, thousands of years later. Yet, to
this day, people still imagine Druids dancing among
In 1900, Norman Lockyer realized that the position
of the Solstice has varied. So he figured
Stonehenge was built in 1680 BC when the alignment
was perfect. But the old rocks are so badly worn
that he could've been off by thousands of years.
Astronomers came back to Stonehenge armed with
computers in the '60's. Now they found near
alignments of stones, holes, and markers with the
moon and its eclipses. Even Fred Hoyle flung his
fertile mind into the game. A curious war followed.
The Archaeologists were furious. They didn't have
the math to challenge astronomers, but they could
see facts being swept under the rug. For example,
other monuments have the same features, but they
don't point to the moon.
Carbon dating of artifacts at Stonehenge finally
set the age of the site. Construction began in 3100
BC. Then it was built and rebuilt until 1000 BC.
Today we know where Neolithic builders quarried
the various stones. Some smaller pieces came all
the way from Ireland.
Yet the purpose stays mysterious. If Stonehenge has
features of an observatory, it also has features
of a burial ground and of a temple. It hasn't
explained itself, but it has taught scientists to
show each other greater respect. In the end, an
English archeologist writes,
This ravaged colossus rests like a cage of
sand-scoured ribs on the shores of eternity, its
flesh forever lost. Stonehenge grudges its
secrets. Its spiraling complexity even now eludes
our understanding ...
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds