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by William H. Benson

March 25, 1999 

     Another spring is upon us, and with it baseball has arrived.  (Will it be another homerun slugfest this year?)  Green is showing up in the lawns, and the wheat fields already are a bright growing green.  The St. Patrick’s Day parades are behind us, and the Easter parades are just around the corner.  Farmers are working in their fields eager to plant the corn and other spring crops.  Warmer brighter days lighten the winter’s heaviness.  Seasons arrive, and then they leave; their cyclical imprint etched deep upon humankind’s consciousness.

     Last Saturday, the 20th, the vernal equinox arrived.  This is one of the two days each year when the days and nights are of equal length everywhere on the earth.  Last Saturday’s sunrise was at 5:57 a.m., and sunset was at 6:05 p.m., 12 hours and 8 minutes.  People on the North pole, the South pole, the equator, and all points in between had 12 hours of daylight and of night.

     Because the earth tilts 23° 27¢ relative to the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun, the sun strikes the earth either directly on the equator or above or below it as the earth revolves around the sun.  On the vernal equinox the sun crosses the equator creating equal days and nights.

     Humankind has marked the seasons for millennium.  The attitude that “one day is as good as another” is fine until you want to begin planting the same day every year, and you need to know when that day is. 

     In southern England eighty miles west of London is Stonehenge, a monument of stones built by early Britons beginning as early as 3000 B.C and continuing until 1000 B.C.  Modern archaeologists discovered early on that the stone marker 80 yards east of the megaliths casts a shadow on the altar placed in the center of the stones at dawn on the summer solstice.

     Then, in 1963 the astronomer Gerald S. Hawkins deduced that the monument served as an accurate astronomical calendar.  He first assumed that all of these huge stones had to be placed according to some master plan.  He then discovered that the archways, vistas, heelstone, capstones, and pillars created sighting lines.  But to what?  Placement, he believed, was deliberate to stress viewing.  Bringing in a computer he identified that of the 12 unique sun/moon rise/set points (as of 1500 B.C.), 10 of them were marked by sightings along the stones properly aligned at Stonehenge.  Only two–midsummer moon sets at -29° and at -19°–were not marked.  The sighting lines focused upon the sun and the moon, not to the stars nor the planets.

     Why did ancient man devote so much energy and time to such a difficult project?

     Hawkins offered three answers:  Stonehenge served as a calendar.  It assured the priests of their power.  And, it provided a game for the thoughtful.     

     He wrote: “. . . many people of many different thoughts and cultures came to Stonehenge.  Different rulers, designers, priests, and workmen set their brains and hands to the vast work of alteration, adaptation, change, and creation.  The great monument grew from a simple circle open toward the midsummer sunrise to a rectangle-within-a-circle to a massive and complex cathedral of stones standing in arched circles and horseshoes.”

      Time is the valuable thing of life.  The tools we choose to mark it have varied over the aeons.  Thirty plus blocks of gray sandstone standing 13+ feet above the ground and each weighing 28 tons have been replaced today with daytimers, calendars, charts, tables, scientific instruments, and electronic gadgetry.  The elaborate apparatus tells us its now spring and time to play ball.