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History & CommunityA Natural Coincidence

A Natural Coincidence

Last autumn English Heritage told us that a new theory of the origin of Stonehenge had been proposed. This results from the closure of the A344 road which cut across the Stonehenge Avenue near the Heel Stone. Archaeologists have excavated this section of road and discovered natural fissures in the earth, believed to have been created by water when ice melted after the Ice Age. These fissures are in the form of fairly straight lines which coincidentally line up with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. I am grateful to friends who find me newspaper cuttings related to such things!

It now seems possible that this natural marking in the soil caused the Neolithic people to consider this to be a special place, and they went on to create Stonehenge in consequence, with several modifications over the years. They marked the line taken by the melting ice by digging ditches and banks on each side, throwing the earth into the centre to raise it a little above the surrounding land. Many years later in 1721 the antiquarian Stukeley gave it the name “Avenue” and assumed it was a processional way towards the monument. Stukeley also said it would disappear due to ploughing, and it almost has. Grass has grown over it, and the most impressive view of the Avenue now is after a light snowfall with shadows accentuated by the banks. Professor Michael Parker Pearson says that the significance of the natural land formation caused by the Ice Age thaw happening to be on the solstice axis brings heaven and earth together, and so the monument was fashioned about the solstices. The midwinter solstice was last month, 21st December, when the sunset is framed by the Stonehenge Great Trilithon. It must have seemed magical in ancient times to walk down the track which became the Avenue from the River Avon, into sunset on the shortest day, or to feel the rising sun on one’s back in midsummer.

The new theory has upset previous ideas about the building of Stonehenge, as half a dozen books in my collection state that the Avenue was created several hundreds of years after the first part of the monument was laid out. It has also made erroneous a flip-chart which I drew up about twenty years ago for a talk about the stones of Wessex! I notice now that those books cannot agree on the width of the Avenue, varying from 12 metres (40 feet) to 21 metres (70 feet) across.

The recent excavations at Stonehenge also uncovered three holes where stones have disappeared from the outer circle of sarsens. This discovery resulted from parch marks, dry areas of grass, being seen recently.

During 2014 the A344 road will be grassed over, partly returning Stonehenge to its original appearance.  A new visitor centre is due to open this winter, a “must see” experience for many of us!

So far this article has been about dividing the year into two lengths, between midsummer and midwinter, some thousands of years BC.  If we fast forward to the 14th century we can find an instrument in the Dorset County Museum which shows the time by the daylight hour.  It is called an Horary Quadrant, a fan shaped gilt brass of 8cm, 3.2 inches across, dated 1398 and used to tell the time using the height of the sun in the sky, before clocks and watches were available. A plumb line is attached to one corner so that it passes across a scale, with the fan held vertically.  There are two sights, presumably used to sight the sun. Several different scales are engraved with hours for different months, since the height of the sun changes during the year. At midday on midsummer’s day it would be easy to check its calibration with the sun directly overhead. Apparently in the 14th century the day was divided into twenty four equal parts, or hours, but the device could only be used in daylight. The curved edge was also engraved with 0 to 90 degrees, as a protractor.

On the reverse of the quadrant is an engraving of the white hart of Richard II, this being the badge of the King’s half brother, John Holland, Duke of Exeter, who was probably the original owner. It is known that he visited Dorchester.

The quadrant is the third oldest surviving British scientific instrument. Only four of them are known, dating from 1396 to 1400, and made in England. (Thanks to the Dorset Natural History Society and Archaeological Society Newsletter, spring 2012, for the information).

The quadrant is a type of mobile sundial. The fixed sundial which we see when visiting stately homes was probably used by the Romans and ancient Greeks, but had the disadvantage of being unable to be used whilst travelling. Perhaps the quadrant could have been used on horseback, whilst stationary.

Bridport History Society will hold its first meeting of the New Year on Tuesday 14th January at 2.30pm in the Main Hall of Bridport United Church, East Street, when the speaker will be Dr Diana Trenchard, who will talk about “Hemp and flax becoming rope, sail and sackcloth”. All welcome, visitors fee £2.50.

Happy New Year to all.

Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel: 01308 – 456876.

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