Finding Astronomical Alignments in Ancient Monuments (or anywhere else) (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Thu, 13 Jun 2019

Finding Astronomical Alignments in Ancient Monuments (or anywhere else)

Dave and I will be presenting a free program on Stonehenge at the Los Alamos Nature Center tomorrow, June 14.

The nature center has a list of programs people have asked for, and Stonehenge came up as a topic in our quarterly meeting half a year ago. Remembering my seventh grade fascination with Stonehenge and its astronomical alignments -- I discovered Stonehenge Decoded at the local library, and built a desktop model showing the stones and their alignments -- I volunteered. But after some further reading, I realized that not all of those alignments are all they're cracked up to be and that there might not be much of astronomical interest to talk about, and I un-volunteered.

But after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that "not all they're cracked up to be" makes an interesting topic in itself. So in the next round of planning, I re-volunteered; the result is tomorrow night's presentation.

The talk will include a lot of history of Stonehenge and its construction, and a review of some other important or amusing henges around the world. But this article is on the astronomy, or lack thereof.

The Background: Stonehenge Decoded

Stonehenge famously aligns with the summer solstice sunrise, and that's when tens of thousands of people flock to Salisbury, UK to see the event. (I'm told that the rest of the time, the monument is fenced off so you can't get very close to it, though I've never had the opportunity to visit.)

Curiously, archaeological evidence suggests that the summer solstice wasn't the big time for prehistorical gatherings at Stonehenge; the time when it was most heavily used was the winter solstice, when there's a less obvious alignment in the other direction. But never mind that.

[Gerald Hawkins' Stonehenge alignments from Stonehenge Decoded] In 1963, Gerald Hawkins wrote an article in Nature, which he followed up two years later with a book entitled Stonehenge Decoded. Hawkins had access to an IBM 7090, capable of a then-impressive 100 Kflops (thousand floating point operations per second; compare a Raspberry Pi 3 at about 190 Mflops, or about a hundred Gflops for something like an Intel i5). It cost $2.9 million (nearly $20 million in today's dollars).

Using the 7090, Hawkins mapped the positions of all of Stonehenge's major stones, then looked for interesting alignments with the sun and moon. He found quite a few of them. (Hawkins and Fred Hoyle also had a theory about the fifty-six Aubrey holes being a lunar eclipse predictor, which captured my seventh-grade imagination but which most researchers today think was more likely just a coincidence.)

But I got to thinking ... Hawkins mapped at least 38 stones if you don't count the Aubrey holes. If you take 38 randomly distributed points, what are the chances that you'll find interesting astronomical alignments?

A Modern Re-Creation of Hawkins' Work

Programmers today have it a lot easier than Hawkins did. We have languages like Python, with libraries like PyEphem to handle the astronomical calculations. And it doesn't hurt that our computers are about a million times faster.

Anyway, my script, skyalignments.py takes a GPX file containing a list of geographic coordinates and compares those points to sunrise and sunset at the equinoxes and solstices, as well as the full moonrise and moonset nearest the solstice or equinox. It can find alignments among all the points in the GPX file, or from a specified "observer" point to each point in the file. It allows a slop of a few degrees, 2 degrees by default; this is about four times the diameter of the sun or moon, but a half-step from your observing position can make a bigger difference than that. I don't know how much slop Hawkins used; I'd love to see his code.

[Astronomical alignments between pairs of New Mexico peaks] My first thought was, what if you stand on a mountain peak and look around you at other mountain peaks? (It's easy to get GPS coordinates for peaks; if you can't find them online you can click on them on a map.) So I plotted the major peaks in the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains that I figured were all mutually visible. It came to 22 points; about half what Hawkins was working with.

My program found (114 alignments.

[Astronomical alignments between pairs of New Mexico peaks] Yikes! Way too many. What if I cut it down? So I tried eliminating all but the really obvious ones, the ones you really notice from across the valley. The most prominent 11 peaks: 5 in the Jemez, 6 in the Sangres.

That was a little more manageable. Now I was down to only 22 alignments.

Now, I'm pretty sure that the Ancient Ones -- or aliens -- didn't lay out the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains to align with the rising and setting sun and moon. No, what this tells us is that pretty much any distribution of points will give you a bunch of astronomical alignments.

And that's just the sun and moon, all Hawkins was considering. If you look for writing on astronomical alignments in ancient monuments, you'll find all people claiming to have found alignments with all sorts of other rising and setting bodies, like Sirius and Orion's belt. Imagine how many alignments I could have found if I'd included the hundred brightest stars.

So I'm not convinced. Certainly Stonehenge's solstice alignment looks real; I'm not disputing that. And there are lots of other archaeoastronomy sites that are even more convincing, like the Chaco sun dagger. But I've also seen plenty of web pages, and plenty of talks, where someone maps out a collection of points at an ancient site and uses alignments among them as proof that it was an ancient observatory. I suspect most of those alignments are more evidence of random chance and wishful thinking than archeoastronomy.

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