Stonehenge as a solar calendar is back on the cards it would seem, after years of neglect as a subject spoken in mainstream circles. Timothy Darvill has reopened the cellar door in an article published in Antiquity, a journal that is not historically sympathetic to the subject. It involves the incorporation into the sarsen stones of an ancient calendar, and therefore the much maligned idea of solar and lunar alignments. The latter is long out of favour and amounts to a big swing from Darvill who is better known for his idea Stonehenge had a more prosaic purpose. Recent research, he claims, has shown the big sarsen stones, added to the monument around 2500BC, were all sourced from the same area on Marlborough Downs. This indicates, he says, they were set up as a single unit for a single purpose. Darvill decided to have another look at the sarsens, examining numerology in the process. He identified a solar calendar within the layout and suggested they represent a physical representation of the solar year that helped the people of the region to keep track of the days, weeks, and months, and the year. Each of the 30 sarsens in the circle represents a day within a month, itself divided into three weeks of 10 days. Distinctive stones in the circle also mark the start of each week – see https://phys.org/news/2022-03-stonehenge-ancient-solar-calendar-analysis.html … An intercalary month of 5 days and a leap year every 4 years were needed to match the solar year. The four station stones outside the stone circle provide markers to notch up until a leap year, an interesting hypothesis. That part of his theory will probably be taken apart by other scientists but the idea of 10 day weeks and extra months may seem strange in the modern world but such calendars were common in the ancient world. For example, in the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt during the same period of time.
The piece ends with Darvill saying, ‘finding a solar calendar in the architecture of Stonehenge opens up a whole new way of seeing the monument as a place for the living …’. Is this a swipe at ideas that see Stonehenge as a place for the dead, or a giant cemetery. Why would people need a calendar? Why would they want to know what time of the year was approaching? Darvill loosely comes up with fixing the time of ceremonies and festivals, rather than concentrating on what those ceremonies were all about. Neither does he join up the dots and mention the upheavals and massive migrations of people around this point in time, the second half of the third millennium BC.
The same story is at www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-10565141/ … where we have a lot of images. The ideas are not fully new, although the particular calendar proposed is new. It is surprising in another way as archaeoastronomy at megalithic stone circles in Britain and Ireland has been off the radar for a long time. Some say it has been suppressed, ever since Clive Ruggles rubbished the alignments favoured by Alexander and Archie Thom back in the day. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Thoms researched in the field an incredible number of stone circles, mainly in Scotland, where they lived. However, Thom had been based at Oxford University for a long time, and for this reason, his views were at first given credence. Archaeologists, largely ignorant of astronomy, did not always like the idea of another discipline intruding in their subject of expertise. William Stukely, back in the 18th century, also claimed an astronomical origin for the monument.
The full article is in Antiquity 2022, pages 1-17 – see https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.5 … where in the Introduction Norman Lockyer is given a mention, quoting specifically ‘Stonehenge and Other British stone monuments astronomically considered’ Macmillan:1909, and surprisingly, the much derided Gerald Hawkins, ‘Stonehenge Decoded‘ Doubleday:1965. Hawkins, in recent years, has been consigned to the lunatic fringe, along with some other earlier Stonehenge researchers. Here he is being quoted by a leading archaeologist. What will Current Archaeology and British Archaeology have to say about that? We might add that Darvill is in the twilight years of his career and can afford to go out on the parapet.
Darvill adds that the calendar used the solstices and equinoxes that formed a calendar of 16 mopnths, the turning points of the cycle. Euan MacKie has more to say on Thom’s ideas in his book ‘Professor Challenger‘ which was released in 2021, the year MacKie died. MacKie disagreed on a number of occasions with Clive Ruggles, who had rejected the idea of long alignments to the horizon, and wrote a number of articles to that effect, none of which were accepted by mainstream grandees. Darvill, it would seem, is at pains not to upset unduly Clive Ruggles, who keeps a firm lid on astroarchaeology and ideas that he considers extreme – without ever offering a convincing explanation. Ruggles was a godsend to the mainstream and has dominated the subject for over 30 years. Darvill, for most of his career, would have been prudent to shy away from the subject of ancient calendars and alignments at ancient monuments. However, to keep on the right side of things Darvill ventures to quote Richard Hutton, more famous for his books on witches and neo-pagan excesses. He is said to have discredited the idea of a ‘Celtic Calendar’, as espoused by the likes of MacKie and others. One can understand this as he has to navigate the subject without upsetting Ruggles, and mainstream in general. He seems to have achieved this feat, by being careful with his words. In spite of that he has opened a can of worms which may fizzle out by mainstream ignoring his article, or widen as other researchers, emboldened by Darvill, add their pennyworth. What Darvill has also done, and that is controversial in its own right, is that he has opened a connection between ancient Britain and Ireland and the ancient Levant. He is not the first to suggest a link to Egypt but it is the Levantine association that is revealing, as it does not contradict modern genetic research. This would have an early expansion of farmers from the eastern Mediterranean region, into the Atlantic coastal zones of Iberia, France, Britain and Ireland, and possibly even further. These ideas have long been espoused by leading archaeologists Barry Cunliffe and Colin Renfrew.
The Antiquity article, available through the Open Access portal, can be read in full at the link above. It provides in detail all the arguments put forward. Essentially, Darvill ditches the lunar alignments, or most of them, as favoured by earlier researchers, deeming them somewhat complicated. This eases some of the problems he might encounter with acceptance of his analysis. The idea, again, might be to reduce potential points of criticism, a good move on his part. Thom, in particular, favoured lunar alignments at precise and rough stone circles and standing stone aligments. This led to the idea that an obsession with the moon may imply earthquakes were more common in the Neolithic, as Thom thought they marked nearest and furthest lunar positions. Thom also toyed with the idea of stellar alignments, finding many markers to stars such as Rigel. However, he should perhaps have widened this to constellations. None of this really ended up in his books which were deliberately written in a way to stay on track with the archaeological establishment of the time. Obviously, that did not work. It remains to be seen if Darvill can avoid the fate that silenced Thom’s theories.
Ronald Hutton, as quoted by Darvil from ‘The Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain‘ Oxford University Press: 1996, pages 408-411. Hence, a minute section of a long winded book on ideas with a neo-pagan origin. His argument, of course, revolves around the identity of the Celts, who are not thought to have a connection with the Neolithic – or anywhere near that deep in the past. Hence, the druids were seen as Celtic and therefore a fairly recent phenomenon. MacKie, on the other hand, thought there was no reason why the druids of the Iron Age may not have incorporated ideas and ritual going way back into the past, at least as far as the Neolithic. Hutton mentions the fire festivals of the Celtic year, without any explanation why people would celebrate by lighting fires on promontories or beacon hills. The last thing in his imagination would be a connection with meteors and other cosmic events that may have affected people in the ancient world. Hutton, however, also makes the point that fire festivals were not confined to the Celtic regions but were common to Germanic folk and Scandinavians alike, as well as the steppe zone. It is in fact a universal theme when it comes to myths and festivals once practised around the world. Contrary to Darvill, Hutton does not actually contradict the idea of a Celtic calendar as he is mainly concerned with Celtic cult practise.
Image credit: T. Darvill CC BY 4.0