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7 May 2004
'Kiwihenge' due to open in June

It took ancient peoples in Great Britain a millennium or more to create Stonehenge, but in New Zealand, a group of astronomy enthusiasts is building its own version in a little more than a year. In the bucolic Wairarapa countryside, New Zealanders will soon be able to visit their very own Stonehenge Aotearoa.
     "The whole idea of the henge is that people can come out here and learn real basic astronomy, the real foundations of what astronomy is all about," says Richard Hall, the project manager and president of the Phoenix Astronomical Society, which is building the Kiwi henge. The aim of the project, funded by a grant of NZ$56,500 from the Royal Society of New Zealand, is to generate interest in science among people who might not normally be keen on the subject.
     The New Zealand Stonehenge, due to open June 5, won't merely replicate what is in the Northern Hemisphere; the aim is to create an astronomical calendar for the southern skies. One of the first jobs when the project started in earnest last September was to accurately survey the site, said Kay Leather, the project's construction team manager. After the team finished surveying, it took months to fence, excavate and level the site. Late February's torrential rains in Wairarapa, in the southern half of the North Island of New Zealand, didn't help. The ditch kept collapsing.
     Next they erected the pillars and lintels, hollow structures constructed using wood and cement board (hewn stone would have been too expensive and time-consuming to erect). But in a nod to the old, the finished henge will be coated with cement and covered in plaster sculpted to look like stone. Inside the 'stones' will be some modern accoutrements: wires to allow a sound system to be installed.
     An obelisk inside the stone circle will mark the passage of the year as the shadow of the obelisk moves in a figure eight on a mosaic of 18,500 tiles below. The tiles will display the date and the constellations of the zodiac. Outside the circle, three pairs of standing stones will show where the sun will rise and set for each of the solstices and equinoxes. "So you can see the enormous distances the sun actually travels along the horizon," says Hall.
     Every key point will have a plaque denoting its significance. To make the henge truly of Aotearoa (the M‚ori name for New Zealand), the astronomers have ensured that their creation links to the stars that Polynesian navigators used to cross the Pacific Ocean. "We've also turned this henge into a huge Polynesian star compass so people will see how people used the stars to navigate by," says Hall.
     For those who want to learn even more, the Wairarapa site is home to the Phoenix Astronomical Society's recreational telescope and will eventually house a research observatory as well. But even if visitors only meander amid the Kiwi henge, the hope is that they will learn something new.

Source: Wired (3 May 2004)

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