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No, Stonehenge isn’t an ancient calendar after all, say scientists: ScienceAlert

No, Stonehenge isn’t an ancient calendar after all, say scientists: ScienceAlert

Rising from the flat expanse of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, the monoliths at the center of the ancient wonder that is Stonehenge echo a time we have long forgotten.

Their very presence invites speculation about a grandiose goal. Far from being a random jumble of rocks, these large stones were mined in a distant landdragged day and night on hallowed ground, to be arranged with a precision that almost resembles that of a clock.

As dawn breaks at the summer solstice and the Sun soars boldly above the Stone heel which sits northeast of the circle, casting its rays straight into the heart of Stonehenge, it’s hard to deny that the monument was designed with the turn of the seasons in mind.

For a number of scholars, there is more to the design of Stonehenge than a symbolic reverence for the changing length of days. It is a timekeeper of certain details, a ‘Neolithic computer‘ even, responsible for dividing the year around less significant events.

Last yearBournemouth University archaeologist Tim Darvill has published his claim that the monument functioned as a sort of “perpetual calendar”, based on a solar year equivalent to 365.25 days.

Now, Polytechnic University of Milan mathematician Giulio Magli and astronomer Juan Antonio Belmonte of the Institute of Astrophysics in the Canary Islands, Spain, have contradicted Darvill’s claim, indicating it is based on “a series of forced interpretations, numerology and unsubstantiated analogies with other cultures”.

What we consider Stonehenge is really a small part of the total archeology of the site. Long before the famous stones were placed, it was an important cemetery for cultures near and far.

From about 3000 BCE, over many generations, a series of constructions gradually transformed the flat plain. A large mound has been dug. Stones were brought from a site 230 kilometers (about 140 miles) to the west to create what is now known as the Blue Stone Circle.

Around and inside these, a series of so-called sarsen megaliths were probably dragged from a quarry 25 kilometers (15 miles) to the north, forming a large outer circle and two “horseshoe” structures in the center.

Since these sarsen stones all came from the same source, it is likely that they were put together at the same time, suggesting to Darvill that they were intended to function as a single unit.

From there it was a matter of looking at the positions and alignments of the sarsen lintels – the 30 horizontal stones that form the vertices of the outer stone circle – which, multiplied by 12, would equal 360. Add the 5 stones from one of the inner horseshoes and you get 365 – the number of days in a typical year .

Four “station stones” involve adding a leap day every four years, a consideration that was added by the builders as a way to refine a timing model that Darvill said was based on the civil calendar Egyptian.

Magli and Belmonte have some trouble with Darvill’s reasoning, approaching his supporting claims in terms of numerological, archaeoastronomical, and cultural arguments.

Accusations of applying numerological “pseudoscience” are not uncommon in archeologywith assertions it is easy to find significant figures in old constructs, if you look hard enough.

As noted by the authors, the critical number 12 used by Darvill to multiply the number of lintels is not reflected anywhere in Stonehenge’s structure. There are also a variety of other numbers depicted throughout the structure, such as in its portal, which seem to be ignored.

Specific numbers aside, it’s unlikely that the structure itself was ever precise enough to distinguish subtle changes in the daily motion of the Sun, according to Magli and Belmonte. Matching the sunrise on a specific day with a specific stone is one thing. Thinking up a hypothetical method and devices that could be used with the stones to identify a day of the year is another.

As for the Egyptian origins of the calendar (and the improvements made), that’s speculation that would require some pretty convincing evidence, according to Magli and Belmonte. The Egyptians themselves didn’t build anything that could mark the days with such precision, after all, and wouldn’t even consider how to explain a leap year for at least 2,000 years.

Finally, it is more likely than not that, like most Neolithic cultures, the architects of Stonehenge would have adhered to a lunar calendar. Although solar alignments may have played a role in anchoring important lunar dates, determining these alignments would require fairly precise manual work.

As Magli and Belmonte conclude, “Stonehenge is obviously not such a device!”

It’s important to keep in mind that Darvill may have valuable answers to critics, which may further support his Stonehenge timing hypothesis. Debates like these are the very lifeblood of science, after all.

Either way, he won’t be the last to behold the true purpose of stone columns rising from a plain in Salisbury, UK, which have stood the test of time for thousands of years.

This review was posted in antiquity.

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