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Friday, June 14, 2024
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Moonraker

I am a ‘Moonraker’, born in Wiltshire, but with a Dorset Mother and grew up a couple of miles from the supposed Moonrakers site, a large pond at Devizes. The story is that about 200 years ago, smugglers were there at night with their contraband when they heard that the Excise Officers were hard on their heels. The smugglers threw their barrels of  goods in the pond and held them under the surface with hayrakes. The Officers said “What are you doing ?” and the smugglers replied that the full moon had fallen in the pond (where could be seen its reflection) and they were trying to rake it out to restore it to the sky. The Excise men rode off, saying “You silly lot of … Moonrakers”, but the smugglers raked out their contraband and had the last laugh. Since then we have been known as Moonrakers.

In earlier times many of the early Wiltshire monuments, like Avebury and Stonehenge are thought to be related to the positions of the moon, as well as the sun.

Some months ago a TV programme ‘Pagans’ described a bronze disc, 12 inches (about 30 cm.) in diameter, 3,500 to 3,800 years old, found at Nebra in Saxony-Anholt, East Germany in a Bronze Age tomb in a forest. The disc was inlaid in gold with images of the sun, a crescent moon, and stars, including seven believed to represent the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. The Pleiades set in the west at dawn about 10th March and in the east about 15th October, which coincides with the periods of sowing and harvesting. The disc was edged with a segment of gold around 82 degrees of the rim, suggested to represent the way in which the sunrise point on the horizon moves from midsummer to midwinter. So the disc could be a solstice indicator. On the opposite side the centre of the segments indicate the equinoxes. It must have resulted from observations over many days and nights. (At the latitude of Stonehenge the solar swing is between 80 and 81 degrees). The significance of the ‘Sky Disc’ is that it shows the celestial knowledge in Central Europe in the Bronze Age,  earlier than the astronomical images in Egypt and about the same time as the Heel Stone and Station Stones of Stonehenge, probably our first indicators of the solstice.

The same programme also described a gold “Wizards Hat” found in Berlin dating from about 1,000 BC. The hat had depictions of the sun and moon and a calendar covering 19 years.

Sir Patrick Moore writes that Sun worship goes back a long way, because we depend on what it sends us. He says that between 1387 and 1366 BC the Egyptian Pharaoh, Amenophis IV changed his name to Akhenaten and built a new capital city. Apparently, he or one of his minions wrote his ’Hymn to the Sun’. But obviously interest in the Sun went back further to Neolithic and Bronze Age times, perhaps associated with the beginning of agriculture.

The star cluster in Taurus the Bull, the Pleiades, is called the Seven Sisters because the average person can see 7 stars with the naked eye, although there are more to be seen by telescope. This group has been known from early times and was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey and there is a legend in mythology that the seven beautiful sisters, strolling in a forest, were pursued by the hunter Orion. The gods placed them in the sky for safety, but they are still not far from Orion!

In a Radio 4 programme last year the astronomer Heather Couper described a bronze box, containing gears and believed to be an early mechanical computer, to determine the movements of  the moon, sun and planets. It was suggested that it may have been designed by Archimedes, or copied from Rhodes in about 200 BC. This is even more amazing than the ’Sky Disc’ or the film ‘The Golden Compass‘.

Years ago we always looked for the Man in the Moon, but now we all know the name of the first man on the moon – Neil Armstrong, followed by Edwin Aldrin, in 1969. But, as mentioned earlier, interest in the moon predates the written word and we have to look at the stone monuments to understand how our ancestors viewed it.

It is far easier now for us to look at and understand the heavens, with modern telescopes and television images from Hubble and so on. Also, we can see the whole of our stars in daylight, or on a cloudy night, by going to a planetarium. Telescopes and a planetarium are available at the Norman Lockyer Observatory at Sidmouth, which Bridport History Society will visit on 14th July. Pre-booking essential, contact 01308  488034.

Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society, tel : 01308 456876

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