Insiders' view of the Neolithic stone circles of England

Bryan Polk, senior lecturer of religious studies and English at Penn State Abington, traveled across the pond with a group of students to study the mysterious Neolithic stone circles of southwest England, specifically the Stonehenge and Avebury monuments. Penn State Abington students were granted a unique opportunity to examine Stonehenge from the normally inaccessible inner circle during their trip to the famous World Heritage Site in March.

The group was led by British archeologist Julian Richards who guided the students through the circle and lectured on the possible uses -- funerary and fertility rites -- of the intriguing monument. Once inside the circle the students were able to see first hand the astronomical orientation of the stones. According to some archaeologists, on the summer solstice (approximately June 21), if a person is standing at the center of the circle, the sun will rise over the headstone outside of the circle. And if a person turns around 180 degrees the sun will set on the opposite horizon on the winter solstice (approximately Dec. 21).

Recent discoveries and research conducted nearby has led the scientific community to announce last week that all these sites are likely funerary monuments. For more about this go to online.

The students used Sarum College in Salisbury as their home base as they explored the Stonehenge and Avebury monuments, the Iron Age Hill fort at Old Sarum, and the town of Glastonbury, where the Holy Grail and King Arthur are supposedly buried. A lecture by Druid priest Brian Conquer also was a highlight on the itinerary.

According to Polk, the trip was so interesting that it spurred one student to change his major from criminal justice to history.

Rob Gable, then a 5th semester student at Penn State Abington, has traveled much of the United States and was very excited about studying abroad. "I've traveled all over this country, I’ve lived in California, been to Alaska, so going abroad and studying things outside of our country was intriguing to me. By being outside the country I realized that there are so many other things to study about, so I switched my major to history."

Plans for a repeat visit to Great Britain to study the mysterious circles are already underway at Abington for the 2009-10 academic year.