I am certain most are familiar with the World Heritage Site located on the Salisbury Plain in southern England. The mysterious circle of large stones set within earthworks forms the prehistoric monument known to the modern world as Stonehenge. I suspect far fewer are aware of a much more isolated, but nevertheless geographically interesting location where the globe’s lines of longitude converge upon the South Pole.
Archeologists believe Stonehenge was built between 2000 and 3000 BC. Produced by a culture that left no written records, it seems to have had many functions, but served as a burial ground since its earliest times. One theory suggests Stonehenge was a place for healing. People may have traveled far from their native lands seeking a cure. Analysis of cremated remains reveals a teenage boy raised near the Mediterranean Sea was buried there around 1550 BC. A German metal worker from 2300 BC, “the Amesbury Archer”, and “the Bascom Bowmen” from Wales or Brittany also were interred at Stonehenge.
As one peers back through the mists of time, religion and medicine become more closely intertwined. The physician-priest of the time would likely have performed rituals to cure illness and enhance health. Thus Stonehenge might also have been a place of worship or spiritual healing. Indeed, in the early 20th century Neo-durids used Stonehenge for mass initiations. The Ancient Order of Druids was mocked by the press for wearing fake beards and dressing up in white robes during their 1905 ceremony.
Regardless of its other functions, Stonehenge was a celestial observatory allowing the prediction of events important to contemporary religion, to include the solstice, equinox, and probably eclipses. By standing at the center of the ringed structure and facing in a northeasterly direction, one would observe sunrise occurring directly above the Heel Stone on the summer solstice.
The “mysterious” structure near the geographic South Pole, known to locals as “Spoolhenge”, shares some characteristics with its much older sibling. As with Stonehenge, the exact reason for its construction is not entirely clear. It was made from spools that contained wire used to build the South Pole Neutrino Telescope, of which you will hear more about in a future blog. Stonehenge was designed to function as a celestial observatory, whereas Spoolhenge is the remnant of a telescope designed to observe cosmologic particles from the birth of the universe. Just as people travel to Stonehenge from distant lands, so it is with Spoolhenge…although I suspect a visit to Spoolhenge is not their primary purpose for venturing to the most isolated spot on the face of the planet. While Stonehenge has circular geometry, Spoolhenge is linear. Although their may be some pagans amongst the winter-over staff, I have yet to observe any loitering around Spoolhenge dressed in white robes and fake beards. I would like to think most healing occurs in the South Pole Medical Clinic, but I plan to perform some clinical trials at Spoolhenge once the Sun reappears in late September.
Thus far, I have been unable to determine if the alignment of Spoolhenge has any astronomical significance aside from the observation that it aligns with the Sun twice a day as that luminous orb circles the horizon during the summer season. In my remaining five months at the South Pole, I shall endeavor to unlock the mysteries of Spoolhenge!