Gerald Stanley Hawkins
Astronomer who claimed Stonehenge was a computer
· Gerald Stanley Hawkins, archaeoastronomer and author, born April 20 1928; died May 26 2003.
(1928–2003) was an English astronomer and author most famous for his work in the field of archaeoastronomy. A professor and chair of the astronomy department at Boston University in the United States. In 1965 he published an analysis of Stonehenge in which he was the first to propose its purpose as an ancient astronomical observatory used to predict movements of sun and stars. Archeologists and other scholars have since demonstrated such sophisticated, complex planning and construction at other prehistoric earthwork sites, such as Cahokia in the United States.
Gerald Hawkins’ work
Gerald Hawkins’ work on Stonehenge was first published in Nature in 1963 following analyses he had carried out using the Harvard-Smithsonian IBM computer. Hawkins found not one or two alignments but dozens. He had studied 165 significant features at the monument and used the computer to check every alignment between them against every rising and setting point for the sun, moon, planets, and bright stars in the positions they would have been in 1500 BC. Thirteen solar and eleven lunar correlations were very precise against the early features at the site with precision falling during the megalithic stages. Hawkins also proposed a method for using the Aubrey holes to predict lunar eclipses by moving markers from hole to hole. In 1965 Hawkins wrote (with J. B. White) Stonehenge Decoded, which detailed his findings and proposed that the monument was a ‘Neolithic computer’.
Atkinson replied with his article “Moonshine on Stonehenge” in Antiquity in 1966, pointing out that some of the pits which Hawkins had used for his sight lines were more likely to have been natural depressions, and that he had allowed a margin of error of up to 2 degrees in his alignments. Atkinson found that the probability of so many alignments being visible from 165 points to be close to 0.5 (or rather 50:50) rather that the “one in a million” possibility which Hawkins had claimed. That the Station Stones stood on top of the earlier Aubrey Holes meant that many of Hawkins’ alignments between the two features were illusory. The same article by Atkinson contains further criticisms of the interpretation of Aubrey Holes as astronomical markers, and of Fred Hoyle’s work.
A question exists over whether the English climate would have permitted accurate observation of astronomical events. Modern researchers were looking for alignments with phenomena they already knew existed; the prehistoric users of the site did not have this advantage.
Later Stonehenge theories
Although Stonehenge has become an increasingly popular destination during the summer solstice, with 26,000 people visiting in 2010, scholars have developed growing evidence that indicates prehistoric people visited the site only during the winter solstice. The only megalithic monuments in the British Isles to contain a clear, compelling solar alignment are Newgrange and Maeshowe, which both famously face the winter solstice sunrise.
The most recent such evidence supporting the theory of winter visits includes bones and teeth from pigs which were slaughtered at nearby Durrington Walls. Their age at death indicating that they were slaughtered either in December or January every year. Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield has said, “We have no evidence that anyone was in the landscape in summer.”
From the Guardian 2003
Archaeologists were less happy. They sniffed at his “overconfident style”, resented his publicity and questioned his results. Hawkins’s statistics were shown to be dodgy; he had contrived a computer from a monument believed to have developed piecemeal over centuries.
Stonehenge excavator Richard Atkinson described Hawkins’s book as: “tendentious, arrogant, slipshod, and unconvincing” – for him the builders of Stonehenge were “howling barbarians”.
The popular archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, meanwhile, observed that “every age has the Stonehenge it deserves – or desires”.
Hawkins claimed surprise at the response. That contribution to Nature was his 61st scientific paper and many of his others, on subjects such as tektites, meteors and steady-state universe theory seemed to him more exciting. But none of his other dozen books was as successful.
Hawkins had changed the way we think about Stonehenge, and inspired the science of archaeo-astronomy. Repeated studies have failed to do more than support a few solar, and perhaps lunar alignments, and deny a computational function. Yet in the public mind, Stonehenge is now fixed as an observatory and computer. Stonehenge Decoded initiated a debate still alive, and inspired the first generation of archaeo-astronomers.
Hawkins also analysed the Nazca lines in Peru and the temple of Amun at Karnak, Egypt. He recently developed a crop circles theory based on Euclidean geometry and musical intervals. He first saw Stonehenge in 1953, when working at nearby Larkhill camp. He read that the monument was aligned on midsummer sunrise, a fact first noted by William Stukeley in the 18th century, and made much of by Sir Norman Lockyer in 1906.
Hawkins’s hometown was Great Yarmouth. He obtained his first degree at Nottingham University in 1949 in physics, with pure maths subsidiary, and a PhD in radio astronomy under Sir Bernard Lovell at Manchester University in 1952.
Manchester awarded him a DSc in 1963 for astronomical research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatories. He was professor of astronomy and chairman of the department at Boston University (1957-69), and dean of the liberal arts Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (1969-71).
Boston presented him with the Shell award for distinguished writing in 1965. Other awards came from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academy of Sciences, and he was a proud member of the prestigious intellectual Cosmos Club, Washington DC. He was a science advisor to the US Information Agency.
Hawkins was dedicated to his research, and enthusiastic and generous with those ready to listen. He was due to address an Oxford conference with a new Stonehenge study and, to the surprise of some British academics, he continued to see himself as an Englishman. He leaves his second wife, Julia Dobson.
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