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The device to work out periods of time – does it have a connection with cosmic cycles associated with the Taurid complex?

10 September 2013

The latest issue of Current Archaeology, 283 (Oct, 2013) available in Smiths Newsagents nowadays so you don't have to subscribe (and see also www.archaeology.co.uk) has news on some of the topics posted on 'In the News' over the last month or so. For example, a site in North Woolwich (on the Crossrail route), beneath a thick layer of peat, came up with 150 pieces of worked flint on what had been a gravel island. Some 25 of these are dated prior to 6000BC when the southern basin of the North Sea was dry land and a good part of the Channel too. However, the bulk of them have been dated between 6500 and 4000BC (prior to the first farmers).

The Nress of Brodgar in Orkney still continues to produce interesting artefacts, and an example of a Neolithic carved stone/artwork has recently been dug up. However, the big story in this issue is a lengthy article on the Mesolithic calendar found at a National Trust of Scotland property, Crothes in Aberdeenshire (see In the News, July 17th). This story appears to conflict sharply with mainstream views on Mesolithic people and their way of life. They are regarded as hunter gatherers with a semi nomadic lifestyle. The idea of a calendrical and time keeping device in the north of Scotland as early as 8000BC appears totally contrary to everything you will find in text books. Alexander Thom was badly treated by academic archaeologists and historians for daring to suggest the Scots, just a few thousand years ago, were building devices to study the lunar cycle – yet here we have respected archaeologists, such as Vince Gaffney of Birmingham University, seriously suggesting this kind of thing was going on five or six thousand years prior to the stone circles investigated by Thom and his son, Archie. It marks a complete turn around and what is even more galling is that Clive Ruggles has been involved in the research and he was used by the establishment to blow Thom's ideas out of the window, in denying that the notches and the topography of the horizon played a role in such structures. Suddenly, the idea is revived.

The common view is that calendars first originated with the developed nations, such as Babylonia and Egypt – as late as 3000BC. However, in the 1960s and 1970s Alexander Marshack suggested markings on Upper Palaeolithic objects represented the waxing and waning of the Monn and argued they were evidence of crude calendars – and this was 30,000 years ago. If Thom was beyond redemption and then Marshack had no chance in his theory gaining acceptance – and so it was. The objects are regarded as tallies, recording observations of lunar events as they unfolded rather than for making predictions about the future. This was a useful tactic to neutralise an embarrassing discovery. Whatever they might say Marshack provided evidence that Palaeolithic people were interested in what was going on in the sky above them – and various cave paintings are also thought by some people to have a connection with constellations such as Taurus and Orion. Hence, the idea that Mesolithic people were also interested in the sky is not really surprising – contrary to the mainstream view. They were also very obviously interested in calculating periods of times. This is illustrated in the article with various diagrams of the layout of the pits and the way the Sun rises across the mountains to the north. According to Gaffney the monument is able to track the year, each month during the year, and the phase of the Moon within each month. He adds, the pits were not cut in one go and the alignment evolved over hundreds of year – but it could function as a calendar or time reckoner. Here we might think in terms of the latter function as the most important – predicting when something was going to come around on another occasion. Was it used to calculate the period between a succession of events? If so the impetus would have been there if those events were in some way disastrous to the people living in northern Scotland.

The site is situated on a hillside overlooking the valley of the river Dee with its salmon runs. It is possible a number of natural corridors or ancient tracks through the landscape converged nearby. The Dee valley itself is an ancient east-west route while the pass to the south suggests a route from that direction with numerous paths through the Monouth Highlands to the north. Caches of worked flints have been found along the Dee valley and this, by itself, suggests the region was a centre of Mesolithic activity.

What is interesting is that if the monument did function as a forward-planner or time reckoner there must have been a more sedantory element among the people with the role of operating the device – something suggested by Euan MacKie in the context of Thom's investigations. The device remained in used for over 4000 years and a number of the pits seem to have been recut around 4000BC. The area remained important in the subsequent Neolithic period – the nearby Crothes hall structure illustrates this. In addition, Late Neolithic recumbent stone circles also appear to have an interest in the midwinter solstice and the lunar cycle, in much the same tradition. In addition, the Mesolithic era too often has been dismissed as a valuable period of research – but now that research has started all kinds of new discoveries are being found, all over the British Isles. The search for further examples of such devices is now on, pits that are aligned to the horizon. It all sounds a bit like former SIS contributor Len Saunders with his pits in the landscape and lunar alignments. . Two sites in Aberdeenshire are currently under the spotlight – at Arrat and Balendoch (see also Internet Archaeology isuue 34, www.intarch.ac.uk).

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