The New Yorker and Stonehenge

A friend sent me a seven-page article on Stonehenge from the April 21 edition of The New Yorker magazine. It’s good background information and completely in keeping with the story told in The Stonehenge Scrolls. I’m always intrigued that Stonehenge continues to fascinate us after four thousand plus years, especially in these times when the latest trend or hot news story becomes so quickly outdated or replaced by the next newest thing.

Unlike the hype surrounding the summer solstice sunrise at Stonehenge, The New Yorker article focuses on a winter solstice visit. I believe the winter solstice was more important to the Stonehenge builders than the summer–as evidenced by the fact that the tallest trilithon at Stonehenge is aligned with the winter sunset. But the numerous modern-day Druids the article describes gathered at the wrong time of day, sunrise instead of sunset.

The author had the privilege, as I did, of entering the circle and standing alongside the huge forty-ton stones. That truly awesome experience inspired several scenes in The Stonehenge Scrolls

New exhibition center at Stonehenge

Just in time for winter solstice celebrations, a new exhibition and visitors’ center opens today 1.5 miles from Stonehenge. Over 250 objects from the Stonehenge era will be on display, including a reconstructed face of a Neolithic man like Gwyr in The Stonehenge Scrolls. A 360-degree virtual “stand in the stones” film lets visitors experience the solstices at Stonehenge.

There’s more to come. In January English Heritage will begin building a village of Neolithic houses, set to open Easter 2014. Can’t wait to visit, but after February 1, advance booking is recommended.

Are modern-day Druids wrong about the summer solstice at Stonehenge?

As they do every year on the summer solstice—which this year falls on Friday, June 21—modern-day Druids and assorted revelers will gather at Stonehenge to watch the sun rise over the heel stone outside the entrance to the circle. But I think these New Age Druids have it wrong.    

The winter sunset, not the summer sunrise, is what the Stonehenge builders were more likely celebrating. The very design of Stonehenge itself confirms my conclusion, because the tallest upright stones in the monument were aligned to the winter sunset. 

It makes sense to me that the Stonehenge builders would have considered the tallest structure in their design as the most important. That would have been the center trilithon, which is composed of two 25-foot tall upright stones with a third stone connecting them at the top. The Stonehenge Scrolls calls them doorways, because that’s what they resemble. Four thousand years ago, the sun would have set between the uprights of this huge doorway during the winter solstice. Unfortunately, we can’t witness that today because only one of the stones of this structure is still standing.

Many other stone circles and other ancient monuments throughout the UK, Ireland and Brittany are aligned to the winter solstice, the start of the solar new year when days begin to lengthen again. In effect, Stonehenge was the site for New Year’s Eve celebrations.

So why do so many persist in flocking to Stonehenge on the first day of summer?  The Stonehenge Scrolls offers a fictional explanation. Hint: It’s somebody’s birthday.

Questions for Book Clubs

At the request of several readers who recommended The Stonehenge Scrolls as a selection for their book clubs, today www.TheStonehengeScrolls.com launches a new section, Book Club Questions. I’m honored by those who see enough “meat” in the book to offer it up for discussion.

The suggested questions prompt readers to probe the relationships between the main characters, Myrddin, Sulis and Gwyr as well as to to ponder several recurring themes of the book, including religious rituals supporting political power, the definition of genius and attitudes toward death. One question raises issues about women’s rights, then and now.

If you’d like to suggest a question, email me at info@TheStonehengeScrolls.com.

I’m available to attend book clubs in the Washington, DC metro area to discuss The Stonehenge Scrolls and will be meeting with a club in Fairfax, VA later this month.

New Stonehenge Discoveries

Several readers sent me a link to recent Associated Press story about new theories of Stonehenge. I’m always amazed that, after 5,000 years, Stonehenge still makes news! Many of us continue to be fascinated by this wonderful structure from the Neolithic age.

I’m happy to report this latest theory from University College London supports many of the ideas in The Stonehenge Scrolls, including that the Stonehenge site was used for generations before the stone circle was erected. And that building the circle took only a decade or so. And that the building project served to unite the clans of Britain.

When I was writing and revising and re-revising The Stonehenge Scrolls, I was always terrified that some new archaeological discovery would completely undermine the premise of my novel. Of course, since the building of Stonehenge occurred in pre-history, no one can really say for certain what happened. But fiction can sometimes contain more truth than readers suspect!

Equinox Holy Days

Why did the Neolithic people go to all the trouble of moving and erecting giant stones to build ancient monuments like Stonehenge? I think it was to to set the correct days for their religious rituals. The positions of the stones allowed them to track the movements of the sun and moon and so determine the  solstices and equinoxes, or what we now call the first days of the seasons. The vernal equinox, or first day of spring, is one such day.

If you think it strange to time religious holidays according to the sun and the moon, consider this. Easter is always the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox this year is March 20, the next full moon occurs on March 27, and so Easter is the following Sunday, March 31.  Unlike Christmas, the day for Easter varies every year because it is essentially a lunar, not a solar, holy day.

 

 

Did Irish Builders Design Stonehenge?

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, The Stonehenge Scrolls claims that Irish builders designed Stonehenge. The novel describes a guild of monument builders who trained at Ireland’s Newgrange and then traveled the British Isles to supervise construction of ancient sites, including Stonehenge.

I got this idea by noting  similarities among the many stone circles, cairns and tombs I’ve visited and studied in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany over the years. If there was a traveling fraternity of prehistoric architects and general contractors, where would they have originated? As the fictional archaeologist Maeve Haley writes in  The Stonehenge Scrolls, “Even though not at all centrally located at the very western edge of Europe, Newgrange was the center of the action in Neolithic times, as evidenced by the wealth of beautifully carved stones there and at nearby Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley. Several centuries older than the stone circle at Stonehenge, Newgrange hints that the Irish may have started western civilization, not just saved it.”

Both Stonehenge and Newgrange are World Heritage sites, but archaeologists say the  latter is at least 500 years older. At Newgrange, located north of Dublin, a huge burial mound covers a passageway leading to an interior room large enough to hold 20 people. During the winter solstice sunrise and only then, sunlight travels down the passage and illuminates the interior. If that sounds like something from a Hollywood movie, keep in mind that Newgrange was built over 5,000 years ago.

Stonehenge is also aligned to a solstice, although there is some disagreement as to whether it’s the summer solstice sunrise, as modern-day Druids claim, or the winter solstice sunset.

Perhaps the Irish builders theory also occurred to me because I wrote the first draft of The Stonehenge Scrolls while living in Ireland near another noted archaeological site, Carrowmore in County Sligo.

The Stonehenge Carvings

Many Neolithic stone tombs and monuments display elaborate carvings of spirals, lozenges, waves and other beautiful abstract designs. Some of these monuments are centuries older than Stonehenge, such as Ireland’s Newgrange and Loughcrew or the Carnac tombs in Brittany, France. The meaning of these carvings eludes us. Some think they represent the sun, moon, stars and planets. Possibly they had ritual significance or were  prehistoric versions of family crests.

But despite its otherwise elegant design, Stonehenge remains unadorned, except for  mysterious carvings on some of its uprights of axe heads, shapes unlike those on any other Neolithic monument. Furthermore, these carvings are closer to ground level than to the tops of the stones, suggesting they were made after the stones were erected.

Scroll XI of The Stonehenge Scrolls offers a possible explanation of what these axe head carvings mean and how they came to be.

The Mysterious Skeleton at Stonehenge

In one of my many trips to Stonehenge, I visited the  museum in the nearby city of Salisbury. On display there was an ancient skeleton excavated from the ditch that surrounds the Stonehenge circle. Based on radiocarbon analysis, the skeleton was estimated to have been buried around 2000 BC, when the stone circle was being erected.

Archaeologists identified the remains as belonging to an strong, tall man approximately twenty-seven years old. He was shot with arrows in his back and sternum. Some have speculated that this was evidence of a ritual execution. But I had another idea, which became part of the plot in Scroll X of The Stonehenge Scrolls.

What’s the message?

A reporter writing about The Stonehenge Scrolls asked  me if I had a message or theme I wanted to convey in the book. I told him I just wanted to tell a good story about compelling characters and give readers food for thought.

If there’s a message in the book, it’s probably that people are psychologically much the same today as they were 4,000 years ago. I said that people then and now devise ingenious solutions, plot and scheme, adore their children, fall in love, and confront envy and opposition.

On further reflection, the book does have an underlying theme: intangible ideas you can’t see or touch are just as important to creating a common culture, a society and a civilization as tangible structures like Stonehenge.