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Sir J. Norman Lockyer (1836-1920)

Sir J. Norman Lockyer was a British astronomer and a respected scientist in his day. In 1869 he founded and served as editor of the prestigious scientific journal "Nature" and in 1885 he was appointed the world's first professor of astronomical physics at the Royal College of Science, South Kensington, London (now part of Imperial College). During his tenure there he served as director of research until 1913 of the newly built Solar Physics Observatory. In 1912 he founded The Norman Lockyer Observatory at Salcombe Hill, Sidmouth, Devon, in England. As a scientist he is remembered chiefly for his work on the sun and in particular for his discovery of helium in its atmosphere. Because of his application of physics to astronomical studies he is regarded as one of the founders of astro-physics.

Today Lockyer is perhaps better known for his astronomical interpretations of ancient and prehistoric sites. While traveling in Greece in 1890 he had noticed that numerous ancient temples were aligned along an east-west axis and wondered if their precise alignment corresponded to the sunrise on the day of their foundation. He tested this hypothesis on temples in Egypt where he found, for example, an alignment corresponding to the midsummer sunset along the main axis of the Great Temple of Amon-Re at Karnak. These solar alignments, plus other alignments connected with the star Sirius, Lockyer published in "The Dawn of Astronomy" in 1894.

With this notion that temples may have been aligned to foundation day sunrises, Lockyer turned his attention to Stonehenge. Working on the presumption that the midsummer sun rose originally over "Heel Stone", Lockyer attempted to calculate back from the point where the sun now rose on midsummer's dawn in 1901 to determine when it would have risen precisely over the "Heel Stone" and thereby establish the date when Stonehenge was built. Together with F. C. Penrose, he published the results of these calculations in 1901 ("An attempt to ascertain the date of the original construction of Stonehenge," "Proceedings of the Royal Society of London", 69, 1901, pp. 137-147).

(right) Lockyer's technique for dating Stonehenge

Lockyer calculated that Stonehenge was built around 1680 B.C.E. His method of calculation, however, was flawed and the result is usually dismissed as meaningless. One of the problems in this sort of calculation is the difficulty in establishing the precise line of the axis. Another problem with Lockyer's calculations was that he used inaccurate tables for correction.

Lockyer developed these ideas further. He measured other alignments at Stonehenge, both along the axis and between certain stones, and tried to relate them to other calendrical events in the ancient Celtic calendar. Besides the summer solstice, he found evidence of alignments that marked midpoints separating the solstices and equinoxes. It needs to be stressed that for Lockyer these alignments were primarily symbolic and had been established by the builders of Stonehenge primarily to serve calendar-based rituals and celebrations. For Lockyer Stonehenge was neither a megalithic calendar nor an astronomical calculator in the way it was later to be interpreted by Gerald Hawkins. He believed that Stonehenge was a temple and that the ruined stone structure we see today is the remains of a much older temple built to celebrate the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane (May Day).

These ideas, which he extended to include other ancient sites, were published in "Stonehenge and Other British Monuments Astronomically Considered" in 1906. Lockyer's belief in the astronomical purposes of Stonehenge and other stone circles has been the primary impetus behind this kind of research in the twentieth century. For this reason he has been called the "father of archaeoastronomy." His belief that ancient sites such as Stonehenge were axially oriented towards a place on the skyline where a celestial body -- the sun, the moon, or a star -- crossed the horizon on a particular day has been taken up and elaborated upon by later writers, notably Gerald Hawkins and Alexander Thom.

For more information on Sir J. Norman Lockyer click to the following:
Stonehenge & The Druids
Stonehenge Reconstructions
Archaeoastronomy at Stonehenge

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