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Last Updated: Monday, 14 February, 2005, 15:34 GMT
NZ unveils Stonehenge replica
By Kim Griggs
Wellington, New Zealand

Aotearoa Stonehenge     Image: Kim Griggs
The NZ Stonehenge aims to help people rediscover astronomy
Nestled into the verdant hills of the New Zealand region of the Wairarapa is the world's newest "Stonehenge" but this henge is no mere pastiche.

Instead, Stonehenge Aotearoa, which opened this weekend, is a full-scale adaptation of its Salisbury Plain ancestor, built to work for the Antipodes.

The aim of the Kiwi Stonehenge is to help people rediscover the basics of astronomy.

"You can read as much as you like in a book how the sun and the moon work, how people use stars to navigate by, or to foretell the seasons," says Richard Hall, president of the Phoenix Astronomical Society which built the henge.

"You stand here amongst the henge and you show people exactly how it works. Somehow it simplifies it and it becomes that much more easy to understand," he said.

The original is rather difficult to understand and nowadays one is not even allowed to walk near it so this one is much more hands on
Geoff Austin, University of Auckland
To build Stonehenge Aotearoa, about an hour's drive from New Zealand's capital of Wellington, the society received a government grant of NZ$56,500.

The astronomical society's volunteers supplied 11,000 hours of labour over the 18 months the henge took to build.

The result of that toil is a henge of 24 upright pillars and connecting lintels that is 30m in diameter and about 4m high. In the centre of the henge is a 5m-tall obelisk, the eye of which points at the south celestial pole.

Aotearoa Stonehenge     Image: Kim Griggs
The henge consists of 24 upright pillars

Set into a tiled mosaic that runs out from the obelisk along the meridian is a 10m analemma, the figure of eight pattern that the path of sun traces over a year.

Outside the circle of the henge stand six heel stones, the markers for the rising and setting points of the sun at solstice and equinox.

To make the henge truly of Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand), the astronomers have ensured that their creation marks the stars and constellations that Polynesian navigators used on their epic voyages across the Pacific Ocean, and they have also incorporated Maori lore.

Giants' shoulders

In opening the henge, Professor Alan MacDiarmid, the Wairarapa-born Nobel laureate, said: "We are all standing on the shoulders of giants. Giants from 500 years ago, giants of Maori wisdom of the last few hundred years and the emerging wisdom of the 21st century today."

But the New Zealand group had to eschew the ancient in constructing the henge as even with modern building equipment, the henge would have taken too long to construct and would have been too expensive.

Aotearoa Stonehenge     Image: Kim Griggs
The eye of a 5-metre tall obelisk points to the south celestial pole

Instead the society's team concocted pillars and lintels from wooden frames, covered those with cement board and wire mesh and sprayed concrete over the structure.

Inside, with an eye to performances and weddings that will be held here, the stones are also wired for sound.

One advantage of the New Zealand henge, says Geoff Austin, professor of geophysics at the University of Auckland and head of the New Zealand Institute of Physics, is that visitors are able to explore the structure in depth.

Difficult interpretation

"The original is rather difficult to understand and nowadays one is not even allowed to walk near it so this one is much more hands on," he explained.

And while the henge represents ancient astronomy, it is also part of the Phoenix Astronomical Society's growing array of observatories.

Already there is a recreational observatory on the Wairarapa site and under construction is a research observatory, all aimed at making astronomy accessible to all.

"You can learn at day. You can learn during the night-time. You can come here at special events," says construction team manager Kay Leather.

"It's quite amazing watching a sunrise on a solstice or an equinox just sit on top of a heel stone. It's quite fantastic."

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