Moon may have influenced Stonehenge builders says English Heritage

Credit: Andre Pattenden//English Heritage

English Heritage announces today a ground-breaking project to explore the connection between Stonehenge and the Moon during the ‘major lunar standstill’ which occurs this year, and into next. 

Along with experts from Oxford, Leicester and Bournemouth Universities and the Royal Astronomical Society, the charity will embark on a series of investigations to research the alignment of the ancient stones with the moonrise and moonset during this almost once-in a generation period. 

During a major lunar standstill, the northernmost and southernmost positions of the Moon are at their furthest apart along the horizon, and it is believed that these distinct lunar movements may have been observed during the early phase of Stonehenge, potentially influencing the later monument’s design and purpose. With a major lunar standstill occurring only every 18.6 years, Professor Clive Ruggles of University of Leicester, Dr Fabio Silva of Bournemouth University and Dr Amanda Chadburn of Bournemouth University and the University of Oxford have seized the rare chance to research the phenomena. 

Jennifer Wexler, English Heritage historian for Stonehenge says: "We're excited to be working with a brilliant team of archaeoastronomers to explore the fascinating link between Stonehenge and the major lunar standstill. Rarer even than once in a blue-moon, this opportunity allows us to delve deeper into the monument's ancient mysteries and its relationship with celestial phenomena. We’ll be inviting the public to join us through a series of events this year as we take one more small step towards unravelling of the secrets of Stonehenge."

To bring this research to life English Heritage will livestream the southernmost moonrise at Stonehenge and the charity will host a series of events throughout the standstill season including talks, a pop-up planetarium, stargazing and storytelling sessions, and a new display in the exhibition space.  

In addition, English Heritage is delighted to facilitate cross-continental observations of this celestial spectacle, by working with Prof. Erica Ellingson, Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Colorado Boulder, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service for a series of reciprocal events showcasing and debating the lunar alignments at Stonehenge and at Chimney Rock, Colorado, a Chacoan ancient settlement.  

Professor Clive Ruggles Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, said: "Stonehenge's architectural connection to the Sun is well known, but its link with the Moon is less well understood. The four Station Stones align with the Moon's extreme positions, and researchers have debated for years whether this was deliberate, and—if so—how this was achieved and what might have been its purpose."

Dr Amanda Chadburn, a Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University and a Member of Kellogg College, University of Oxford said: "Observing this connection first hand in 2024 and 2025 is crucial. Unlike the Sun, tracking the Moon's extremes isn't straightforward, requiring specific timing and weather conditions. We want to understand something of what it was like to experience these extreme Moonrises and sets and to witness their visual effects on the stones (for example, patterns of light and shadow), and consider modern influences like traffic and trees, and to document all of this through photography for future study." 

Dr Fabio Silva, Senior Lecturer in Archaeological Modelling at Bournemouth University and co-founder and Managing Editor of the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology said: "Bournemouth University lecturers and students will document Moonrises and sets at key moments in the year when the Moon will be in alignment with the Station Stones. This will happen at different times of day and night around the year, with the Moon being at the right place on different phases each month. Hence, some will be more dramatic (such as a full Moon or crescent Moon) than others. The team will capture these phenomena, aiming to explore the complex relationship between the landscape, stones, and the Moon over the course of the standstill 'season'."

Dr Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society said: "Night and day, the Moon is a universally loved feature of the sky, and something all of us are drawn to look at. The major standstill offers even more dramatic views of our celestial neighbour when it rises and sets, and will be an astronomy highlight of 2024. The RAS is delighted to be supporting events at Stonehenge to mark and investigate this relatively rare event."

The research will start in Spring 2024 and run until mid 2025. 

  • To find out more about Stonehenge, its possible connection to the Moon and the ways in which you can get involved, visit the English Heritage website.