British archaeologists discover what may be the world’s oldest calendar in a field in Scotland

Posted by er134 at Jul 17, 2013 10:05 AM |
Leicester archaeoastronomer advises team on discovery

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 17 July 2013

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A team of British archaeologists has discovered what they believe to be the oldest calendrical monument known anywhere in the world, created by hunter-gatherer societies in Scotland and dating back to around 8000 BC.

Experts in landscape archaeology, remote sensing and computer visualisation have analysed a Mesolithic pit alignment discovered in Aberdeenshire. In research published in the journal Internet Archaeology, they conclude that it may have functioned as a luni-solar device for keeping track of the seasons by observing the sun and moon some 5,000 years before formal time-measuring devices were developed in the Near East.

The site, at Warren Field, near Crathes, is broadly aligned in the direction of midwinter sunrise (in the direction perpendicular to the line of pits),which was framed among prominent hills to the south-east. But it also appears to mimic the phases of the moon in order to track lunar months over the course of a year.  Marking the position of sunrise is one way to provide an annual astronomical correction which would maintain the link between the passage of time, indicated by the Moon, and the asynchronous solar year and the associated seasons.

The capacity to measure time is among the most important of human achievements and the issue of when time was “created” by humankind is critical in understanding how society has developed.

Vince Gaffney, Professor of Landscape Archaeology at the University of Birmingham, who led the project, comments: “The evidence suggests that hunter gatherer societies in Scotland had both the need and sophistication to track time across the years, to correct for seasonal drift and that this occurred nearly 5,000 years before the first formal calendars known in the Near East. In doing so, this illustrates one important step towards the formal construction of time and therefore history itself.”

Clive Ruggles, Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy at the University of Leicester,  advised the team on archaeoastronomical issues. He points out that there is no evidence that the site marked particular moonrises:  “Nor would we expect to find that it did.

“The changing patterns of moonrise are far too complex—a combination of several different cycles. The argument is that it represents a combination of several different cycles which were used to track time symbolically and perhaps practically. There are certainly hunter gatherer societies who use the phase cycles of the moon to help synchronize different seasonal activities but it is remarkable to think that this could have been monumentalised at such an early period.”

Could this Scottish monument represent the world’s oldest calendar? Ruggles is cautious. “There are many issues to be addressed before the Warren Fields alignment could be definitely accepted as an ancient device for tracking the sun and moon. For me, the excitement is the discovery that such an impressive monumental structure exists from such an early era, very likely associated with seasonal observances, broadly aligned upon solstitial sunrise, and which can plausibly be connected with the lunar cycles that there is every reason to suppose were well known to people at the time.”

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