Armenia's Stonehenge: the Oldest Stonehenge?
In this second part of this fascinating article, Rick Ney explores the fantastic history of Ancient Armenia's "Stonehenge", possibly the world's first astronomical observatory. More than fifteen years of study has been focused on the stones at Sissian in Armenia, beginning in the 1980's when archeologists first uncovered mausoleums at the site. Before then, the site wasn't more than a curiosity, though in the 19th century it was endowed with fertility powers—pictures taken in the 1890's show women lying prone across stones in an effort to "cure barrenness".
Sissian was not alone in holding prehistoric and ancient stones endowed with supernatural powers. Three caves in Vayots Dzor region were renowned for the fertility properties of certain stalactites. Even today pagan rituals are preserved, including "Matagh" (sacrifice) and tying bits of clothing to trees near churches in a sort of "wish tree" or "burning bush" ritual. Supplicants, especially from villages, still follow pre-Christian rites of walking seven times clockwise (i.e. the path of the sun encircling around the earth) around a church while praying and holding a sacrificial animal. Steeped in tradition, the Armenian church—just as the Church in Rome—usurped pagan traditions and converted them to a Christian purpose, but they exist underneath all the same. Almost all 4th–7th century churches were built over pagan temples, carefully preserving pagan traditions of orienting the altar to the East, the entrance to the West and following a strict sacred numerology of constructing churches on a ratio of 1 to 2 and 1 to 3.
The superstitions surrounding sites like that at Sissian made the archeological discoveries in the 1980's all the more profound. But it also opened a controversy around the reason for the stones, and just how old they are. Archeologists excavating site said the age of the site—including the stones—to be mid 3rd millennium BC, but the reason for the stones was never fully explained.
Parsamian and her assistant Alexander Barsegian conducted the first astronomical study into its mysteries in 1983. Archaeologists thought the stones were simply placed around the circa 3000-2000 BCE graves located nearby as monuments. They were immediately struck by the overall design and the number of stones at the sight. To Parsamian—who had just received recognition for her ground-breaking explanation of the purpose and date for the observatory at Metsamor—the purpose of the stones at Sissian were never adequately explained by excavators, and dating is still to be determined.
An Ancient Observatory
"I was told the stones were perhaps ornamental, and the holes were drilled simply so they could be lifted by cranes and put in place," Parsamian said with a smile. "Which is funny, when you consider these stones weigh up to 10 tons, and the holes are placed near their thinnest parts. They would break in a few seconds."
What Parsamian was able to conclude was that the stones were a particular kind of telescopic instrument. She noted that stones on the Western side of the complex held "antsk" (eye-holes), and that they all pointed to the horizon. While archeologists were unable to conclude their purpose as they focused on artifacts found under the ground, Parsamian's experience as an astronomer made her look instinctively to the stars above.
"Those eye-holes were pointing exactly at the horizon," Parsamian says, "they looked at specific points in the night sky in different directions." While excavators spent their days at the site, Parsamian and her assistants worked in the night and at dawn. What they found was astonishing. "From these holes you can watch lunar phases and the sunrise at the solstice."
Coming on the heels of her remarkable discovery at Metsamor, the stones at Sissian confirmed her original hypothesis—ancestral Armenians were indeed navigators, they had an intimate understanding of the stars, how to plot latitude and longitude, even how to divide time.
Parsamian was able to confirm the purpose of the stones, but she was unable to complete her investigations because of funding limitations. Nevertheless, her work was enough to fuel a deep interest in the complex.
From her findings it was clear that the site was used to watch the night sky and solar positions, and it seemed the stones were from a different era than that of the burial ground. Other archeologists agreed, but lacking carbon dating or other methods of determining the age of the stones, they were unable to agree on a specific date, and so the site was ascribed as 3rd millennium BC.
Parsamian published her findings beginning in 1984, and shared her discovery with others, one of whom was Paris Herouni, the director of the Radio Physics Measurement Institute and the designer of the first optical radio telescope in the world, located just above Byurakan on Aragats mountain. Herouni, an avid fan of Parsamian's pioneering work, was fascinated with her findings. Believing that her pioneering work at Metsamor and Sissian not only shattered previous conceptions about when ancestral Armenians developed their culture, but that it also pointed to a source of civilization itself on the Armenian Plateau, Herouni began to study her work carefully, as well as that by Gerald Hawkins regarding Europe's henges.
Using Parsamian's original findings, Herouni organized four expeditions to the site between 1994 and 1996, each during an equinox or solstice. He and his assistants brought chronometers, telescopes and other astronomical equipment to test the accuracy of the stones.
"We even took a helicopter and flew over the sight to accurately plot the area," Herouni says with a laugh. "I had cartographers and photographers all over the site, we marked and catalogued the stones, took measurements – it was like a small army had invaded the area."
Herouni and his team soon verified Parsamian's findings: the stones were indeed an astronomical instrument, and it is still very accurate. Holding a topographical map of the site, Herouni points out the site's features, "Inside the complex there are 204 main stones. All of them are made of basalt. They rise between a half a meter to 3 meters tall, their bases are up to one and a half meters wide, and they weigh up to ten tons each. Of these main stones, 76 have apertures, 63 are stable, 16 declining, and 90 lying on their sides. 45 are damaged, especially the apertures." Herouni thinks the damage was caused by invading armies and early Christians trying to destroy the pagan worship site.
A bird's-eye view of the site is impressive. The complex is centered around 39 stones in the configuration of an egg, with its main axis lying East to West. "From East to West, this 'egg' stretches 43 meters," Herouni adds, "37 meters from North to South." Dissecting this central form is an arc of twenty stones that bends to the West, "forming an inner elliptical shape, a 'Khorda'." The excavated graves lie inside the khorda, which led archeologists to originally think the stones were placed there about the same time.
[Part 3 of this article examines more evidence for the real uses of the stone circle, and outlines the evidence for a highly advanced civilisation, using Karahundj as a remarkably accurate stellar observatory.]
Read part 3 of Armenia's Stonehenge