(ORDO NEWS) — We hang calendars on the wall or download them to our phones, but people in the third millennium BC used giant stones, new research shows.
A new study explains how Stonehenge may have originally been used to track a solar year (aka tropical year) of 365 and a quarter days, something researchers have long speculated but never fully understood.
The new findings are based on a careful analysis of the number and arrangement of the stones that make up the site, as well as comparisons with other ancient calendar systems that may have influenced the builders of Stonehenge.
The study of Stonehenge as a way to keep track of time and seasons began centuries ago, but it was still unclear exactly how it could work.
The new study builds on previous research that found that the sarsen stones that make up the bulk of Stonehenge come from the same source. This means that they were most likely installed at the same time and were probably meant to work together.
Building on this, archaeologist Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University in the UK went on to study the location of the various rings that make up the monument and how they could be related to the calendar.
Archaeologists have long suspected that Stonehenge was some kind of calendar, thanks to the arrangement of the stones and their correspondence to the solstices, and a new study adds weight to this interpretation.
“The proposed calendar works very simply,” says Darvill. Each of the 30 stones in Sarsen’s circle represents a day in a month, which itself is divided into three weeks of 10 days each.”
“An intercalary month, probably dedicated to the deities of the site, is represented by five triliths in the center of the site. The four Station Stones outside the Sarsen Circle serve as markers for serifs until the leap day.”
Serving as a solar calendar, the winter and summer solstices could be observed through the same pair of stones each year.
This could have served as a way to check for errors, Darvill suggests. If the Sun was in the wrong place during the solstices, then the ancient inhabitants of Wiltshire must have known that they had made a mistake somewhere in the calculation of the year.
None of Stonehenge’s locations correspond to the 12 months that make up the year, the new study notes, but it’s possible that some of the missing or relocated stones at the site were responsible for accounting for them. What is clear is that the architecture of Stonehenge was divided into two halves to correspond to the two solstices.
Weeks of 10 days may seem unusual now, but at the time when Stonehenge was first built, this would not have been the case. Similar solar calendars were recorded in Egypt during the period known as the Old Kingdom, and 10-day weeks appeared in other regions.
“Such a solar calendar was developed in the eastern Mediterranean during the centuries after 3000 B.C. and was adopted in Egypt as a civil calendar around 2700 B.C., and was also widely used at the beginning of the Old Kingdom around 2600 B.C. AD,” says Darvill.
It is only unclear whether this knowledge could reach the south of England at that time. Stonehenge is, after all, quite unique in its design and construction, and may have been entirely developed by the local population.”
Darvill points to the historical figure known as the Amesbury Archer, who was born in the Alps but later settled in Britain and was buried near Stonehenge, as evidence that travelers may have brought with them from the Mediterranean the teaching of the intricacies of constructing the solar calendar.
Some of these questions may be answered by future studies of artifacts and DNA, the study says. In the meantime, the recognition of Stonehenge as a fully working calendar gives us a better idea of how people lived and celebrated at that time.
“The discovery of the solar calendar featured in the architecture of Stonehenge opens up a whole new way of looking at the monument as a place to live,” says Darvill.
“A place where the timing of ceremonies and celebrations was linked to the very fabric of the universe and the celestial movements in the heavens.”
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