Time moves backwards

Bradford University scientists have helped discover the world's oldest calendar, reports Lucy Cain

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British archaeologists have found what could be the world’s oldest ‘calendar’ in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

The collaborative discovery, which included researchers from the University of Bradford, dates back to around 8,000 BC and predates all other unearthed time-measuring apparatuses by about 5,000 years.

Dr Chris Gaffney, an archaeological geophysicist at Bradford University, spoke about how the location of the site was significant. “Prior to this discovery it was thought that formal timekeeping for first conceived in the Near East. This discovery is far away from what is often regarded as the cradle of civilisation.”

The location in Scotland became a point of archaeological interest after a photograph, taken in 1976, exposed what appeared to be a Neolithic timber hall with an adjacent trench alignment also visible.

Lunar months

The site itself consists of a series of 12 pits, much older than the hall, which the team believes were created to track lunar months over the course of a year and mimic phases of the Moon.

The construction of these pits gives historians an invaluable insight into the way in which the inhabitants of the Mesolithic era lived over 10,000 years ago, sweeping away previous assumptions that their societies were unstructured.

Bradford research assistant Tom Sparrow, who was part of the excavation group, spoke of how this calendar helped these prehistoric hunter-gatherers subsist. “These people survived by hunting migrating animals and needed to carefully note the seasons to know exactly when to be ready and where to be when this food resource passed through, such as fish runs in nearby rivers, for example. The consequence of getting it wrong was potential starvation.”

Crucial understanding

The monument also provides archaeologists with a crucial understanding about the intelligence of these ancient humans, revealing they may not have been quite as primitive as formerly thought.

With the average length of a lunar month being around 29.5 days, a lunar year would only last 354 days, making it 11 days shorter than the solar year modern timekeeping methods use. As a result, the calendar would fall a month out of cycle after about three years. However, evidence shows the 12 pits were built in the shape of a “v” which, when lined up with the midwinter sunrise that occurs at the same time each year, maintain a link between the Moon, the solar year and its seasons.

Gaffney said: “While the people that built the monument at Warren Field may not have understood why these cycles were different, they clearly recognised this mismatch and were smart enough to find a way to simultaneously keep track of both and make a correction for the drift.”

The unearthing of the calendar has brought about as many questions as it has answers for archaeology experts and historians. With the previous oldest calendars attributed to the Mayans, the Aztecs and Mesopotamian cultures, the team from Bradford question why this form of time reckoning disappeared until the rise of civilisation in the Near East.

Gaffney suggested the answer to such questions could be locked deep beneath the North Sea where the now submerged Mesolithic landscape rests – an area that will be very difficult to investigate but which could be vital for more extensive research.

“To us time is a precious commodity that drives our society and our personal lives,” said Sparrow. “While this is not a concept that would define the Mesolithic approach to life, it is intriguing to think that time, or possibly the apparent control of time, has relevance.”

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