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Gerald S. Hawkins (1928–2003)

Published onDec 01, 2003
Gerald S. Hawkins (1928–2003)

Public perceptions of human prehistory were transformed in the 1960s by astronomer Gerald Stanley Hawkins, who died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack on 26 May 2003 at Hawkridge Farm, in Virginia, near Washington, D.C. His astronomical analysis of Stonehenge, first published in "Nature" on 26 October 1963, and subsequently developed and framed with historical and cultural context in a best-selling book, "Stonehenge Decoded" (1965, in collaboration with John B. White), was also showcased internationally at the time in a one-hour CBS television documentary special, "The Mystery of Stonehenge".

The high-profile, unconventional, and cross-disciplinary character of Hawkins's celestial interpretation of Stonehenge alignments and his configuration of the monument as an eclipse predictor attracted archaeological skepticism that provided the controversy desired by the makers of the television program. Antagonism was contrived between Hawkins and archaeologist Richard J.C. Atkinson by the production team to introduce conflict that would enhance audience interest in the subject, and the televised dispute troubled both men for decades. By the early 1970s, however, Hawkins had inspired others to examine the astronomical potential of ancient and prehistoric monuments in many parts of the world. He ignited modern studies of archaeoastronomy. In fact, in a second book on the subject, "Beyond Stonehenge" (1973), Hawkins reported his expanding perspective with accounts of his fieldwork on New Kingdom temples in Egypt, on the giant geoglyphs near Nazca, Peru, and at other sites. He also brought the work of other investigators to the attention of his many readers. He established methods and protocols for alignment studies and invited others to use them.

Following, in a sense, the footsteps Sir J. Norman Lockyer left among the antiquities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Hawkins reexamined the alignments of several Egyptian temples, documented significant weaknesses in Lockyer's analysis of the Great Temple of Amun Re at Karnak and formulated a new astronomical interpretation he supported with relevant hieroglyphic inscriptions. His field survey of the giant ground drawings near the Ingenio Valley in the south coastal desert of Peru, sponsored by the National Geography Society, convinced him that the geoglyphs are not astronomically oriented.

The impact of Hawkins's work also reached informal science education. Major planetaria in North America produced and presented programs that simulated ancient skies and immersed audiences in the alignments and events Hawkins had spotlighted. Archaeoastronomy evolved in response to his trailblazing inquiries and eventually commanded the interest of a variety of academic disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology, art history, history of religions, and more. Hawkins wrote two more books on this theme, "Mindsteps to the Cosmos" (1983) and "Stonehenge, Earth and Sky" (2004, with Hubert Allen). Altogether he wrote 11 books and his first book, "Splendor in the Sky", appeared in 1961. During his career he authored 150 papers.

Born on 20 April 1928, in Great Yarmouth, England, Gerald S. Hawkins, like many professional astronomers, was allied to astronomy as a child. When he discovered astronomy in elementary school, he obtained books on it from the public library. In 1939, during World War II, he was relocated inland, along with many children living on the English coast, away from the German bombing. Settled in Nottingham for the war's duration, he joined the local astronomy club as a teenager and systematically observed meteors. He later attended Nottingham University, which granted him a Bachelor of Science in physics (1949). He also collected a subsidiary degree in mathematics from London University. Continuing his study at Manchester University, under Sir Bernard Lovell, he collaborated on the discovery of daytime meteor streams, and he received a PhD in radio astronomy in 1952. Two years later, he left England to accept a research position at the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was also a Research Associate for Fred Whipple's Harvard Radio Meteor Project at Harvard University. Additionally, he was a Senior Associate with the United States Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, and from 1957 to 1969 he concurrently held an appointment as Professor of Astronomy and Chairman of the Department of Astronomy at Boston University. He became a U.S. citizen in 1965.

Gerald Hawkins served as Dean of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, from 1969 to 1971, when his career trajectory transported him to the United States Information Agency, where he was appointed Science Advisor to the Director and where he remained until his retirement in 1989.

Frederick Hawkins, the father of Gerald S. Hawkins, was an accountant. He died when Gerald was three years old, a casualty of aggravation of a wound he had endured during World War I. Gerald's mother, Anne Lillian Hawkins, was a Town Official in Great Yarmouth.

In 1955, Gerald Hawkins wed Dorothy Barnes. The couple had two daughters, but the marriage ended in divorce. In 1979, Hawkins married Julia Margaret Dobson, who survives him.

Hawkins enjoyed academic, professional, and commercial success and was also honored for his work. He received the Shell Award for Distinguished Writing in 1965 and additional recognition from the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution. A member of the prestigious Cosmos Club of Washington, D.C., which salutes intellectual achievement, especially in science, he was recruited frequently for public lectures by many organizations and institutions. He was a member of the Historical Astronomy Division, a Division Affiliate member of the American Astronomical Society and a member of the International Astronomical Union's Commission 41.

Gerald S. Hawkins was a colorful, articulate, and pioneering investigator who modeled a research profile in archaeoastronomy through innovative fieldwork. He induced many others to study ancient and prehistoric astronomy and is acknowledged for his essential and foundational role. His initiative propelled archaeoastronomical research into maturity. The Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap he wore in the field when investigating standing stones and stone circles in Scotland advertised his attraction to scientific mysteries and his commitment to their solution. He persuaded many that part of the neolithic and bronze age intellectual heritage could be extracted from the unwritten record.

Photo courtesy of Ed Krupp

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