The “Stonehenge calendar” shown to be a modern construct
Stonehenge is an astonishingly complex monument, which attracts attention mostly for its spectacular megalithic circle and “horseshoe”, built around 2600 BC.
Over the years, several theories have been put forward about Stonehenge’s meaning and function. Today, however, archaeologists have a rather clear picture of this monument as a “place for the ancestors”, located within a complex ancient landscape which included several other elements.
Archaeoastronomy has a key role in this interpretation since Stonehenge exhibits an astronomical alignment to the sun which, due to the flatness of the horizon, refers both to the summer solstice sunrise and to the winter solstice sunset. This accounts for a symbolic interest of the builders in the solar cycle, most probably related to the connections between the afterlife and winter solstice in Neolithic societies
This is, of course, very far from saying that the monument was used as a giant calendrical device, as instead has been proposed in a new theory published in the renewed Archaeology Journal Antiquity. According to this theory, the monument represents a calendar based on 365 days per year divided into 12 months of 30 days plus five epagomenal days, with the addition of a leap year every four. This calendar is identical to the Alexandrian one, introduced more than two millennia later, at the end of the first century BC as a combination of the Julian calendar and the Egyptian civil calendar.
To justify this “calendar in stone”, the number of the days is obtained by multiplying the 30 sarsen lintels (probably) present in the original project by 12 and adding to 360 the number of the standing trilithons of the Horseshoe, which is five.
The addition of a leap year every four is related to the number of the “station stones”, which is, indeed, four. This machinery was allegedly kept in operation using the solstice alignment of the axis and was supposedly taken from Egypt, much refining, however, the Egyptian calendar, which was of 365 days (the leap year correction was not present until Roman times).
This is the admittedly fascinating theory that has been subjected to a severe stress test by two renewed experts of Archaeoastronomy, Juan Antonio Belmonte (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias and Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain) and Giulio Magli (Politecnico of Milan). In their paper, which is going to be published on Antiquity as well, the authors show that the theory is based on a series of forced interpretations of the astronomical connections of the monument, as well as on debatable numerology and unsupported analogies.
First of all, astronomy. Although the solstice alignment is quite accurate, Magli and Belmonte show that the slow movement of the sun at the horizon in the days close to solstices makes it impossible to control the correct working of the alleged calendar, as the device (remember: composed by huge stones) should be able to distinguish positions as accurate as a few arc minutes, that is, less than 1/10 of one degree. So, while the existence of the axis does show interest in the solar cycle in a broad sense, it provides no proof whatsoever for inferring the number of days of the year conceived by the builders.
Second, is numerology. Attributing meanings to “numbers” in a monument is always a risky procedure. In this case, a “key number” of the alleged calendar, 12, is not recognizable anywhere, as well as any means of taking into account the additional epagomenal day every four years, while other “numbers” are simply ignored (for instance, the Stonehenge portal was made of two stones). Thus, the theory suffers also from the so-called “selection effect”, a procedure in which only the elements favourable to a desired interpretation are extracted from the material records.
Finally, cultural paragons. The first elaboration of the 365 plus 1-day calendar is documented in Egypt only two millennia later than Stonehenge (and entered into use further centuries later). Thus, even if the builders took the calendar from Egypt, they refined it on their own. In addition, they invented on their own also a building to control time, since nothing of this kind ever existed in ancient Egypt – probably the Egyptians reflected the drift of their 365-day
calendar through the seasons in their architecture but this is far different. Besides, a transfer and elaboration of notions with Egypt occurred around 2600 BC and has no archaeological basis.
All in all, the alleged “Neolithic” solar-precise Stonehenge calendar is shown to be a purely modern construct whose archaeoastronomical and calendrical bases are flawed.
As occurred many times in the past – for instance, for the claims (shown untenable by modern research) that Stonehenge was used to predict eclipses – the monument returns to its role of the silent witness of the sacred landscape of its builders, a role which – as Magli and Belmonte stress – does not take anything away from his extraordinary fascination and importance.
Nazca geoglyphs discovered used AI deep learning
Archaeologists from the Yamagata University have used AI deep learning to discover new geoglyphs in the northern part of the Nazca Pampa in the arid Peruvian coastal plain.
Geoglyphs in the Nazca Pampa were first identified during the 1920’s, with ongoing studies since the 1940’s revealing various figurative geoglyphs of zoomorphic designs, geometric shapes, and linear lines.
Geoglyphs can be categorised into three main types: figurative, geometric, and lineal. Archaeologists suggest that the lineal geoglyphs were created by the Nazca, a culture that developed during the Early Intermediate Period and is generally divided into the Proto Nazca (phase 1, 100 BC to AD 1), the Early Nazca (phases 2–4, AD 1 to 450), Middle Nazca (phase 5, AD 450 to 550) and the Late Nazca (phases 6–7, AD 550 to 750).
The relief type dates from the Late Formative period (400 to 200 BC), as the iconography of the geoglyphs are similar to that of Formative petroglyphs found on outcrops of rock. During this period, the region was inhabited by the Paracas Culture, an Andean people that emerged around 800 BC until 100 BC.
Since 2004, Yamagata University has been conducting geoglyph distribution surveys using satellite imagery, aerial photography, airborne scanning LiDAR, and drone photography to investigate the vast area of the Nazca Pampa covering more than 390 km2.
In 2016, the researchers used aerial photography with a ground resolution of 0.1 m per pixel to create a detailed survey of the region. Overtime, the team have identified various geoglyphs, however, the process is very time consuming, so they have adopted AI deep learning to analyse the photographs at a much faster rate.
The results of a study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, has revealed the discovery of four new Nazca geoglyphs using this new method by creating an approach to labelling training data that identifies a similar partial pattern between the known and new geoglyphs.
The four new geoglyphs depict a humanoid figure, a pair-of-legs, a fish, and a bird. The humanoid geoglyph is shown holding a club in his/her right hand and measures 5 metres in length. The fish geoglyph, shown with a wide-open mouth measures 19 metres, while the bird geoglyph measures 17 metres and the pair-of-legs 78 metres.
According to the study authors: “We have developed a DL pipeline that addresses the challenges that commonly arise in the task of archaeological image object detection. Our approach allows DL to learn representations of images with better generalisation and performance, enabling the discovery of targets that have been difficult to find in the past. Moreover, by accelerating the research process, our method contributes to archaeology by establishing a new paradigm that combines field surveys and AI, leading to more efficient and effective investigations.”
Header Image Credit : Yamagata University
Archaeologists study fortress in southern Georgia to understand community resilience
A team of archaeologists led by Cranfield University is conducting a detailed study of the fortress of Dmanisis Gora in the Kvemo Kartli region of Georgia.
The study is part of a project to understand why communities in the region were more resilient than other parts of the world during the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age around 1200 BC.
Dmanisis Gora is located at the north-eastern edge of the highland zone between two such gorges. The site consists of a compact defensive core that has two defensive walls with an enclosed area of 3.7 acres.
On the plateau behind the citadel area, a third wall, extending about 1000 m from edge to edge on the plateau, encloses a much larger area of about 138.3 acres that contains numerous circular and linear stone features.
During the so-called ‘12th Century BC crisis’ and its aftermath, the majority of Middle Eastern regions underwent a period of significant turmoil characterised by the disintegration of empires, famine, crop failures, armed conflicts, and mass migration.
In contrast, the Caucasus region (consisting of present-day Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) appears to have been shielded from this tumultuous period, exhibiting only gradual transformations in material culture and patterns of settlement.
Either the region managed to entirely avoid the widespread disruption, or it did not experience the same cultural, economic, and political repercussions as other areas. This suggests that the communities in the region might have been more resilient, enabling them to withstand and adapt to the challenges in a comparatively effective manner.
Dr Erb-Satullo, from Cranfield University, said: “The key to understanding why the Bronze Age-Iron Age transition is different in the Caucasus is to study the fortress communities that dot the landscape during this period. We’re looking for clues about life in the Late Bronze Age through examining areas such as ceramics, burial rituals, farming practices, tools and social structures.”
“Given the upheaval at that time in other nearby regions, we are intrigued to find out more about one of these sites and determine what underlies their apparent resilience,” added Dr Erb-Satullo.
The project expands upon earlier pilot excavations carried out at the site prior to the pandemic, along with a thorough survey conducted in Autumn 2022 using drone-based photogrammetry. This is done by using the latest forensic technologies including isotopic analysis of animal remains, metallurgy, magnetometry and deploying drones to scan the area.
“What’s really exciting about this site is its size, preservation, and the fact that it has layers dating precisely to the years around the 12th Century BC crisis,” continued Dr Erb-Satullo. “Many fortresses are on hills which are prone to erosion. But this one has relatively flat topography, so the sediment will have built up in layers over time, helping to preserve artefacts and archaeological clues from the Late Bronze age.”
Header Image Credit : BING Maps
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