Ancient monolith was a space marker

A 4,000-year-old monolith in the English hills was set up as a astronomical marker, it was claimed today. Rather like the mysterious slabs in cult film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the giant stone in the Peak District was deliberately aligned with the stars – just not by aliens.

How the monolith appears at midday on October 13.
How the monolith appears at midday on October 13. Credit: Dan Brown

The 2.2-meter high monument has a distinctive, right-angled triangular shape and is oriented to line up with the position of the Sun when due south at mid-summer. Researchers from the UK’s Nottingham Trent University made a detailed study of the monolith’s site at Gardom’s Edge, a dramatic ridge that lies less than an hour’s drive from Manchester, where astronomers have gathered for the 2012 National Astronomy Meeting.

The team discovered powerful evidence that other stones were packed around the monolith so that it could be placed in a precise position. They then carried out 3D computer modelling to show how the standing stone would have been illuminated by the Sun over time. These calculations allowed for such effects as changes in the tilt of the Earth’s axis over four millennia.

Results showed that the slanted side of the stone remained in permanent shadow through the winter. From the spring to the autumn equinox, it would be lit up only during the morning and afternoon but close to midsummer it remained in sunlight all day.

No one is suggesting that alien intelligence was involved in setting up the Gardom’s Edge monolith so there the similarities with science fiction end. But it shows that ancient man had some understanding of how the sky changed over the months.

Dr Dan Brown, who lead the research, told Skymania News: “People wouldn’t have understood things like orbits as we do today, but they knew that the positions of the Sun and Moon changed in regular patterns with the seasons. It also suggests they learned deliberately to use cast shadows in their rituals.”

The monolith is surrounded by many ancient monuments including a Bronze Age roundhouses, a late Neolithic enclosure, and other traces of lengthy human occupation.

Dr Brown told the NAM meeting. He said: “The stone would have been an ideal marker for a social arena for seasonal gatherings. It’s not a sundial in the sense that people would have used it to determine an exact time. We think that it was set in position to give a symbolic meaning to its location, a bit like the way that some religious buildings are aligned in a specific direction for symbolic reasons.”

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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