Stonehenge May Have Been Used for Timekeeping, New Analysis Suggests
The mystery behind the iconic prehistoric monument in England may have finally been solved. Stonehenge, located in Wiltshire, England, is a structure of curiously arranged pillars and rocks dating back to 5,000 years ago. Its true purpose and origin have kindled curiosity for decades now — but a new study may finally put conspiracy theorists to rest. It suggests it may have been used as a solar calendar, for timekeeping.
Published in Antiquity, the analysis adds more weight to the timekeeping theory that has been around for a while. There has been consensus for a while that the site was considered sacred for thousands of years before the monument was erected, as evidenced by pine totem poles and burial grounds found in and around the site. It constantly evolved over time, and is believed to have acquired its final form as we know it today around 4,500 years ago with the arrival of the “sarsen” stones — the largest ones present at the site that are up to 30 feet tall and weigh 25 tons on average.
The air of mystery around Stonehenge was in its concentric circles arrangement, and the fact that the stones were too heavy to have been transported with prehistoric means. While there is still no consensus yet on how the stones got there, the current study proposes that the concentric circles and the arrangement may have been useful from a timekeeping point of view. Moreover, a previous study had found that all the sarsen stones have the same origin — suggesting they were all brought in for the same purpose.
The finding is significant, not only in terms of solving a centuries-old mystery but also understanding how human beings lived together and related with the world in prehistoric times. “A place where the timing of ceremonies and festivals was connected to the very fabric of the Universe and celestial movements in the heavens,” is how Timothy Darvill, a prehistorian from Bournemouth University and author of the study, describes Stonehenge in light of the new findings.
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The arrangement of the sarsen stones and the smaller “bluestones” all worked together as a timekeeping unit. “The proposed calendar works in a very straightforward way. Each of the 30 stones in the sarsen circle represents a day within a month, itself divided into three weeks each of 10 days,” Darvill said. The same two sarsen stones “framed” the sun during the summer and winter solstices every year, precluding the possibility of celebrating harvests at the wrong time. The architecture of Stonehenge was designed keeping the solstices in mind, the study suggests.
Moreover, it can tell us more about the extent of travel and cultural exchange during the time. “The indigenous development of such a calendar in north-western Europe is possible, but an Eastern Mediterranean origin is also considered. The adoption of a solar calendar was associated with the spread of solar cosmologies during the third millennium BC and was used to regularize festivals and ceremonies,” the study notes. As a Neolithic calendar, Stonehenge may have followed a convention of a 365.25 day–solar–year — just as we do today. Given how unique the Stonehenge is, it is possible that the timekeeping system was conceptualized and built entirely by the local population themselves.
“…recognizing the numerical significance of the elements in each component opens up the possibility that they represent the building blocks of a simple and elegant perpetual calendar based on the 365.25 solar days in a mean tropical year,” Darvill writes.
Getting closer to the hypothesis that Stonehenge was used as a solar calendar also unlocks several other pieces of the puzzle with respect to human society at the time. It sheds light on when farmers celebrated their harvest, for instance. It also provides insights into ritual practices and religious beliefs. “Thinking more widely about the origins of the solar calendar, its meanings, and its ramifications, now requires a detailed review of the connections between early farming communities across the Old World during the third millennium BC,” Darvill concludes.
“Finding a solar calendar represented in the architecture of Stonehenge opens up a whole new way of seeing the monument as a place for the living.”