Another year, another solar eclipse.
Today all media outlets in the UK have been on eclipse overload with special TV and radio programmes, fold-out souvenir newspapers and even an eclipse-related Google doodle (other internet search engines are available). An eclipse is, without doubt, one of the most significant and undeniably dramatic of all celestial events, certainly for those on the surface of planet earth who are fortunate enough to witness it.
Most of the news programmes were keen to interview archaeologists, archaeo-historians, archaeo-astronomers, exo-archaeologists and representatives of various Druid orders at a dizzying array of prehistoric monuments (I saw Stonehenge, Callanish, Avebury, Long Meg and Her Daughters, Castlerigg, Stanton Drew, Ring of Brodgar and Stenness amongst others)
to ask the big questions such as:
"What did our ancestors think about eclipses?"
"what happened in prehistory when people saw an eclipse?"
and (rather more bizarrely)
"was Stonehenge a giant clock with the Sun and Moon as its hands?"
The correct answer to all of which, of course (despite what the interviewees said on camera) is "er, we don't know" - the period before the Roman State arrived in Britain and started indiscriminately slaughtering its way across the country being called PRE history, there being no written documents (letters, diaries, blogs etc) to allow us to see into minds of our distant ancestors and understand their point of view. Yes they probably were 'blown away' / 'terrified' / 'gob-smacked' and so on by solar and lunar eclipses, but their precise reaction to these events is not only unknown but ultimately unknowable. Speculation, whilst hugely entertaining, is therefore fairly pointless. They may have understood that the moon was blotting out the sun (and everything would eventually return to normal) or they may well have thought that a giant squirrel was eating its way across the cosmos. Who knows (not me, that's for sure).
Everyone was, of course, keen on repeating the mantra that no one should look directly at the sun, whilst reporters and members of the public expressed their concern that motorists caught up in rush hour would be dangerously distracted (or plunged into life-threatening darkness). It all sounded quite terrifying.
Anyway, cometh the moment (8.18 AM), cometh the audience and, rather sadly, cometh the clouds.
It occurred to me, as I gazed skywards desperately trying to work out where the sun was (let alone whether the big event had actually started) that I had never actually witnessed a solar or lunar eclipse. In none of my almost 50 years of sky-watching had the clouds ever parted sufficiently for me to see the Earth / Sun / Moon interface.
I guess that, as anyone will happily tell you, part of the joy of living in the British Isles is the sheer unpredictability of the weather. While that is, in essence, completely true, there is one thing about the British weather that sadly we CAN predict with confidence: that clouds will always do their best to obscure anything dramatic happening above the surface of the planet.
As the grey sky turned a little darker then, after 15 or so minutes, got a little bit lighter again, I realised that my experience of solar eclipses comes solely from popular culture when canny heroes, about to be stabbed, drowned, beheaded or burnt at the stake
employ the power of the disappearing sun to convince their would be executioners into releasing them (believing that their captives possess supreme control over nature).
Anyway, as I trudged back into work (past a cafe that was, with no little irony, playing the song 'Here Comes the Sun') I began to think that our prehistoric ancestors would certainly have been 'blown away', 'terrified' and gob-smacked' by solar eclipses, had they ever been able to witness one. Given that they would have been observing such an event from the relative safety of the British Isles, however, the likelihood is that, like myself, they wouldn't even have noticed the drama occurring in the sky above.