Armenia's Stonehenge: A Complex and Elegant Instrument
In this third part of this fascinating article, Rick Ney explores the fantastic history of Ancient Armenia's "Stonehenge", possibly the world's first astronomical observatory. Three alleys of stones lie off the central shape, looking like arms reaching to the North, South and Southeast. The alleys are two to ten meters wide, with additional stones lying in their path. These "arms" are important, since the stones with apertures in them lie only on the alleys. Herouni is sure the site is as Parsamian said, an astronomical instrument. And he is also sure the site was used to plot sunrises, moon phases, and he adds, "the beginning of a calendar".
The North and South arms bend at the end to the West. "The North alley is 172 meters long, turning West for another 40 meters. It holds 71 main stones, 43 with apertures. The South alley stretches 160 meters, turning west for 40 meters. It holds 69 main stones, 27 with apertures. The one going southeast stretches 20 meters, with three main stones inside the alley."
Though the exteriors of the stones are rough and lichen covered, the holes are still polished and finely cut, measuring between 5-7 cm in diameter. And these apertures are the key to the entire site. They are actually very accurate telescopes that point to sunrises and sunsets at specific times of the year. Lying only in stones on the arms of the complex, each points to a different point on the horizon.
Herouni's team measured each one and looked for clues of how they might have been used. "The eye-holes measure 7 to ten centimeters diameter at the surface, then funnel down to 5 centimeters in diameter before opening up again on the other side. The stones themselves resemble animal shapes, but they are rough cut, nothing looks refined or interesting. But every one of the apertures are polished on the inside. When we took our instruments and looked at the azimuths through them, we found they were very accurate."
How Accurate is Karahundj?
How accurate? Herouni sketches out a schematic of England's Stonehenge, pointing to two inner circles inside the mammoth stones most people think as the monument itself. "Those huge 'doors' that everyone thinks is Stonehenge are nothing without these smaller stones in the middle," Herouni says as he points to a circle of lower stones on his drawing. "These are the sight-stones for the complex. You stood behind them, then you placed a pole in one of these holes in the ground between them and the door ways. That's the only way you could spot something in the sky. There are many of these stones and holes, so Hawkins thinks the astronomers rotated around the circle to keep up with the moving sun and moon."
The stones at Sissian are completely different. "Of all the henges discovered, none have apertures. None. And the apertures are so cleanly cut, they pinpoint very small spots in the sky. At Stonehenge your field of vision is much larger, the door ways are about 70 centimeters wide. But at Sissian, they are only 5 centimeters diameter. You can pinpoint a spot within a spot. It is extremely accurate. Even more so when you think they might have made cornices from clay or wood and placed them inside the apertures. It would have made the telescopes amazingly accurate for that time. Even for today."
Wafer thin obsidian glass uncovered at the site led some to suggest that an optical insert may have been placed inside the holes for magnification. "Perhaps," says Herouni, "but no one has uncovered anything like an insert, so it remains to be seen. I did find a piece of obsidian that had been ground to a sharp point at one end. It looks to me it was used to etch with. What, we never found out."
Herouni is sure the site is, as Parsamian said, an astronomical instrument. And he is also sure the site was used to plot sunrises, moon phases, and he adds, "the beginning of a calendar".
"To plot the sky, you have to have an idea of time. These stones—many of which look to the azimuths, were used at specific times of the year to chart solar and lunar phases. Those with eye-holes point exactly to the point where they occur at exact times of the year. What astonished all of us during our expedition was just how correct they still are."
Unlike star positions, the sun and moon continue to cross azimuths in the same position in the night sky. So key stones emerged as reliable predictors of their phases.
"This would be crucial to the ancient cultures," Parsamian said about the observatory at Metsamor. "The ancients had to know when the new year began, the exact moment. At Metsamor they could observe Sirius appearing in the rays of the dawning sun. That was the cosmic event they looked for, the one they staked their reputations as priests by predicting. This was complicated stuff."
A Complex And Elegant Instrument
And those that didn't have holes, what were they for? "They were all part of the same instrument," Herouni says. "Eye holes were not enough without other points to fix the angle of the sight. So we have stones to look through, and others close by that were used to line up the stone, to establish the angle of sight."
"There is one stone, which can be called the keystone to the whole complex, it has a bowl carved on one side. At first I looked at that bowl and thought, 'What on earth could this be?' Then it rained one evening, and the next day the bowl was filled with water, and I thought, 'Of course! This is a levelling stone!'"
By pouring water into the bowl, Herouni believes the ancients could set the angle of the keystone, thereby setting the other stones into position. An ingenious method at the time. "You can't tell me these people were simple," Herouni challenges. "They understood geometry and the laws of physics long before anyone in Europe began to look into the matter. This was an incredible culture."
Herouni points out three stones (#60, 62, 63 in diagram) which form part of a single instrument, "a beautiful and important instrument," he adds. "So many of these stones look like animals or people. #60 we called the cock, or rooster, because of its shape. One tip is higher than the other, and was a sighting point for #62, which has an eye-hole that looks right over its tip. Then there is #63, which has an eye-hole that also looks at the tip of the rooster, but at a different angle. It was the levelling stone for the first two."
"The latitude at Sissian is 40°", Herouni says. "From there the position of the sun at midday on the summer solstice is 50°. The eye-hole in stone #62 is angled at 50°, just over the tip of the rooster stone (#60). But the angle of the eye-hole in stone #63 (the levelling stone) is 40°, that is, the same angle as the latitude at Sissian. These were the stones we used to watch the summer solstice. We had our telescopes, our instruments hooked up at the same angle, but the stones were still so accurate we wondered why we needed all these expensive tools. The stones were so elegantly correct."
[Part 4 of this article explores the possibility that the earliest examples of the Zodiac were not developed in Ancient Greece, or Sumeria, but in Ancient Armenia.]
Read part 4 of Armenia's Stonehenge