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The strange and ancient stone circles that reside on the British Isle have long remained a mysterious occurrence, with no one knowing quite why the circles were erected, or for what purpose. Built in two locations in Scotland, the strange structures pre-date Stonehenge by an estimated 500 years. They are responsible for sparking a 2,000-year-long practice of creating astronomical monuments in the region. But now researchers from Australia have finally answered some very important questions.

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For the first time, the team has found statistical proof that the earliest standing stone monuments in Britain were built 5,000 years ago in order to line up the movements of the Sun and the Moon. “Nobody before this has ever statistically determined that a single stone circle was constructed with astronomical phenomena in mind – it was all supposition,” explained project leader Gail Higginbottom from the University of Adelaide. “This research is finally proof that the ancient Britons connected the Earth to the sky with their earliest standing stones, and that this practice continued in the same way for 2000 years.”

Higginbottom and her team analyzed Britain’s oldest great stone circles of Callanish and Stenness, which they determined were probably built with tall, thin slabs of stone around 3000 to 2900 BCE.

Their research, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, looked at many of the great circles with 2-D and 3-D technology in order to run quantitative tests regarding their alignment. The team discovered that the sites share a combination of astronomical and landscape cues similar to smaller Bronze Age sites erected more than 1,500 years later, on the nearby Scottish islands of Coll, Tiree, and Mull.

Even more intriguing is the revelation that the Standing Stones of Stenness were actually built in the exact reverse order of the Callanish Stones. The team discovered a specific pattern in the stones and the landscape at the Callanish site, identifying seven unique ‘cues’ that determined what they classified as a “classic” layout. Among these cues is the fact that the water occurred in the south. They also discovered that the northern horizon was the closest and the southern horizon the farthest. The highest points of the horizon were distinguished by specific mountains or hills. The summer and winter solstitial Sun and standstill Moon were found to typically rise out of and set into these high markings. Examining the sites in detail led the team to find that about half the sites were surrounded by one landscape pattern, and the other half by the complete reverse.

“These chosen surroundings would have influenced the way the Sun and Moon were seen, particularly in the timing of their rising and setting at special times, like when the Moon appears at its most northerly position on the horizon, which only happens every 18.6 years,” explained Dr. Higginbottom.

“For example, at 50% of the sites, the northern horizon is relatively higher and closer than the southern and the summer solstice Sun rises out of the highest peak in the north. At the other 50% of sites, the southern horizon is higher and closer than the northern, with the winter solstice Sun rising out of these highest horizons,” she continued.

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The builders likely had to use an imaginary sphere in order to determine the position of the Sun and Moon at certain times. The celestial sphere has been an important tool for astronomers for centuries, as it allows them to track the constant movement of starts and planets.

The original builders invested a hefty amount of effort and work to erect these great stones meticulously within the landscape, and in relation to the astronomy they were aware of. This reveals these people’s strong connection with their environment, and emphasizes the importance it had on their culture’s survival.


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