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Oldest Calendar found in Scottish field by aerial photography

16 July 2013

The biggest story this week, in archaeology, is the discovery of the world's oldest lunar calendar in an Aberdeenshire field – in the grounds of Crothes Castle. Twelve pits were dug out to mimic the phases of the Moon and track the course it made over 12 months, according to a team led by the University of Birmingham (which included Vince Gaffney, who was involved in the mapping of Doggerland). See www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-23286928 or www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/news/found-after-10000-ye…

Ignoring the hype in the press releases, it is likely lunar calendars existed in the Pleistocene Ice Ages, but it does illustrate that humans have been interested in calendars and the sky for a very long time – longer than academics have been willing to admit. The site was discovered by aerial photography which picked out some unusual crop marks. The site was on National Trust of Scotland land, the grounds of Crothes Castle, so excavation was no problem. It goes back to the Mesolithic era, 10,000 years ago. Is that enough to make Alexander Thom sit up in his grave? His ideas concerning Scottish astronomical sites around 4000 years ago were considered to be overstepping the bounds of reasonable conjecture – but his books may now have to be dusted down and looked at once again.

The monument was in continual use between 8000 and 4000BC (the beginning of the Neolithic). The pits were regularly and periodically re-cut – dozens of times, if not hundreds of times. Variations in the depths of the 12 pits suggests the arc had a complex design with each lunar month potentially divided into three roughly ten day weeks, representing the waxing Moon, the full Moon, and the waning Moon. In addition, the succession of pits, arranged in an arc, starts  small and shallow at one one end, grows in diameter and depth towards the middle, and then wanes in size at the other end.

Why Mesolithic hunter gatherers would be interested in cataloguing the positions of the Moon in the sky is anyone's guess. The usual soft explanations are put forwards – a calendar would allow them to pinpoint the precise time of animal migrations, or local salmon runs. This idea ignores seasonal fluctuations in the animal world where climate takes precedence. The recent cold spring is a moot point – delaying various activities in the life cycles of fauna and flora. A calendar would not really be that helpful – and why waste time and labour? The real question should be, and this also concerns Thom's 30 years research of stone circles (mainly in Scotland) – why were people interested in what the Moon was doing? What was happening on the Moon, caused by the Moon, or perceived as having a lunar connection? Why construct such a complicated device – and why was it in use for such a long time? It is clearly the Moon itself that interested ancient Scots – the calendar is just the spin-off.

Once again we are learning that hunter gatherer societies are far from the stereo-type as fostered by scholars and learning establishments. They appear to be far from what they are routinely portrayed – uncouth and incapable of logical thought. Mesolithic and Palaeolithic people are generally under-estimated by the elite (and that can be expanded to modern world as well). A similar time period pops up at www.independent.co.uk/life-style/history/secret-history-of-stonehenge-re… … and it also involves Vince Gaffney. The piece is written by David Keys, the archaeological correspondent, and concerns ongoing research in the landscape around Stonehenge. It now seems important alignments were made some 500 years prior to the building of the henge – in around 3600BC. It concerns the lay out of key aspects of the surrounding landscape (I avoid repeating the use of sacred landscape because that is basically smoke and mirrors stuff as all that can be said is that something happened at the Stonehenge site that caused it to become important in the minds of subsequent generations). What that something was is an unknown.

However, the current research is beginning to shed some light on what is a forest of books, articles, and mountains of conjecture. Archaeologists from the universities of Birmingham, Bradford, and Vienna have found the Sun may have played an important role – but what that role amounted to is an unknown. Explanations that involve midsummer solstice are fraught with the spectre of hordes of restless youth partying at the stones and waiting for the dawn – as if anything special was liable to happen. The fact it involved the Sun is interesting – in so far as we have a definite Japanese myth involving the Sun goddess reluctant to emerge from a cave in which she was hiding.

The new evidence was discovered during survey work around Stonehenge where ground penetrating radar was used and other geophysical technologies. Using this in the mysterious Cursus enclosure it was found there were two pits – one at each end of the elongated saugage like construct. It was subsequently found these two pits were aligned with sunrise and sunset on the longest day of the year – the summer solstice. The researchers actually looked for this as it was a known thing Stonehenge itself was aligned to midsummer (and midwinter) solstice. No real surprise – but what was the Cursus monument all about? Cursus' appear to precede round henge monuments – but that is little help as it stands. The why is the unknown factor. Now, it occurred to the archaeologists that the use of the Cursus (by people) involved a universal trait, the idea of perambulation (a ceremony involving a procession of people circumnavigating the length and circumference of the Cursus just as Islamics perambulate at Mecca, or Joshua perambulated Jericho seven times (bringing down the walls, or commemorating the collapse of the walls) and so on – a very common global phenomenon associated with religion and myth. Not wishing to be side tracked by this practise as such, enough to know that it occurred to one of the researchers (otherwise unnamed) there was in effect a way to test out this theory of practical use of the Cursus. They had a look to see if the Noon (midday) point had any significance – and found that the site of Stonehenge, due south of the Cursus, aligned perfectly with the mid point between sunrise and sunset.

The implications arising from this new evidence actually contradicts previous consensus thinking, in that Stonehenge is very often presented as a new site coming into favour at around 3000BC. The Cursus predates the henge at Stonehenge by at least 500 years – and the various cursus monuments elsewhere in Britain all date to the fourth millennium BC (before the commonality of round henges, that appear in the third millennium BC) – but what does it all mean when we get down to brass tacks? We have an elongated monument form that was superseded by a round form of construction (and later, elliptical, bearing in mind the research of the Thoms – father and son). Did an object in the sky change in appearance at that time, from a long trailing entity into a bald one, shorn of its hair? Can't resist the mythological parallels but really not evidence and possibly an hindrance rather than an insight. The question then is what was the relationship between such an object (herewith thinking in terms of a comet) and the Sun?

What appears to be apparent, for the moment, is that the Heel Stone at Stonehenge, had some kind of function prior to the henge (and the stone circle). Was it set up solely to mark the midday position of the Sun at summer solstice – or was that accidental? This brings into mind the Mesolithic period post holes found in the car park at Stonehenge – and these date back to 8000BC, the very time that the calendar pits were built in the grounds of Crothes Castle in Aberdeenshire. Hence, we now have hunter gatherer communities in Scotland and in Wiltshire looking at the skies for a very long period of time – but what were they looking at?

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