HomeHistoryThe Stonehenge Calendar: A Prehistoric Approach to Time’s Passing

The Stonehenge Calendar: A Prehistoric Approach to Time’s Passing

Readers will probably know that Stonehenge’s design highlights the longest and shortest days of the year, but it is not always understood that its strange configuration was designed to enable every day and every month in the year to be counted and tracked by its resident timekeepers. The passage of time was very important to prehistoric people. Farmers needed to be able to identify propitious days for sowing, harvesting, trading and religious festivals. As the Old Testament said: “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven.”

Located at the meeting point of ancient trackways, the Stonehenge calendar was as important to the time regulation of prehistoric England as Greenwich time is today.

When Stonehenge was constructed in its final form around 2,500 BC there were no clocks or watches as we know them, but the universe provided methods for calculating and monitoring the cycles of the year through the movements of sun, moon, stars, and planets. Few if any other stone circles were primarily designed as calendars, but Stonehenge surely was.

The famous standing sarsen stones at Stonehenge form a key part of the Stonehenge calendar, which marked the passage of the seasons in prehistoric times. (Leonid Andronov / Adobe Stock)

The Thirty Large Sarsen Stones of the Stonehenge Calendar

It is not a coincidence that thirty large sarsen stones were erected in a circle at Stonehenge. These represented the thirty days in each lunar month and the thirty stone lintels which connected them represented the thirty nights of each lunar cycle. Stonehenge timekeepers presumably moved a marker (boulder, carving or seasonal offering) each day around the circle to count out the days of the lunar month. The moon’s cycle of 29.53 days also mirrored the female human fertility cycle. The stone Stonehenge calendar circle reflected the shape of the sun and the full moon and the recurrent nature of seasonal time.

Within the circle five trilithons, or freestanding doorways, were erected each consisting of two vertical boulders with a stone lintel joining them across their top ends. These trilithons were arranged in the shape of a horseshoe, open-ended towards the north-east avenue of Stonehenge. At midsummer dawn the largest central trilithon received the sun’s rays which shone down the approach avenue and passed between two “heelstones” (96 and 97).

In ancient times the Earth Mother was regarded as a female deity who progressed each year through the four stages of maiden, mother, queen, and old woman. The Earth Mother was deemed to be fertilized by the Sky Father who seemed to enter her every night.

This simple belief survived into modern times. In the nineteenth century Sitting Bull is credited with these words: “Behold, my friends, the Spring is come, the Earth has gladly received the embraces of the Sun, and we shall see the results of their love.”

The four lesser trilithons of the Stonehenge calendar were probably identified with the four seasons in an anticlockwise direction: Imbolc being the northern trilithon, Beltane the north-western one, Lughnasa the southern trilithon and Samhain the south-eastern one. (Author provided)

The Sun God’s Phallus and the Earth Mother’s Vulva

It is generally agreed that at Stonehenge the Sun God’s phallus was represented by the Heel Stone(s). The Stonehenge trilithons represented the Earth Mother’s legs and vulva. A shaft of sunlight coming along the Avenue and penetrating between the uprights of the Great Central Trilithon therefore indicated fertilization of the whole Earth Mother at midsummer. The Sun God himself would be renewed six months later at the midwinter solstice as a result of this impregnation.

The four lesser trilithons represented the Earth Mother in her seasonal forms of maiden, mother, queen, and old woman (spring, summer, autumn and winter). Each of these was served by one of four other phallic stones (91, 92, 93, 94), which stood just inside the circular bank surrounding the stone Stonehenge calendar. Only one is still visible and it has fallen over. The other three are represented by a stump and two stone-holes which have been excavated. The diagonals of the rectangle formed by these four stones intersect at the center of the circle. The four smaller trilithons were set up to straddle these diagonal lines. The four corners of this rectangle may have served as sighting points when the trilithons were first erected, but they were probably also regarded as phallic servants of the goddess in each of her seasonal forms.

One Mystery of Stonehenge's Origins Has Finally Been Solved - Scientific  American

Sir Norman Lockyer established that at sunset during the first week in May the northwest phallic stone (93) would have cast a haloed shadow through the northwest trilithon, the center of the circle and the southeast trilithon. Conversely in early November the rising sun would have cast a shadow over the south eastern phallic stone (91) in the opposite direction. The dates of the Beltane and Samhain festivals were thus indicated. And the February and August dates for the other quarterly festivals of Imbolc and Lughnasa were fixed by alignment of pillars 92 and 94 through trilithons on the other diagonal of the rectangle. The four lesser trilithons were probably identified with the four seasons in an anticlockwise direction: Imbolc being the northern trilithon, Beltane the north-western one, Lughnasa the southern trilithon and Samhain the south-eastern one.

There are twelve full lunar months in every year and these twelve months are represented in the Stonehenge calendar by the twelve standing sarsen stones. (garethwiscombe / CC BY 2.0)

The Twelve Lunar Months Represented By 12 Sarsen Stones

There are twelve full lunar months in every year and these twelve months are represented at Stonehenge by the twelve sarsen stones which are assembled in groups of three to form the four lesser trilithons. Stonehenge timekeepers would have used another marker or seasonal offering to highlight the current lunar month, moving this along at monthly intervals.

The key units of time measurement in all calendars are years, months, and days which unfortunately do not mathematically relate exactly with each other. This has led to a variety of methods for calibrating the year and its seasons. The Stonehenge peoples’ revolving year consisted of twelve lunar months, each of thirty days plus five “intercalary” festival days (six in a leap year). This kept their 360-day lunar calendar synchronized with the sun’s 365.242-day year.

Stonehenge may have been a giant calendar and now we know how it works |  New Scientist

From earliest times a 360-day lunar calendar was used by the majority of ancient peoples, including the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hebrews, Armenians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Chinese, Aztecs, and Mayans. The main reason for this choice was that 360 days can be divided into twelve equal months of thirty days which correspond roughly with the moon’s 29.53-day periodicity. Some cultures sub-divided each month into three equal periods of ten days known as “decans”. Small groups of stars associated with each of the 36 decans were painted on Egyptian tombs and coffin lids from 2100 BC. Stellar constellations were also used to identify and name the twelve months of the zodiac. Angles to the horizon were and still are divided into 360 degrees and we count 3,600 seconds in every hour. The tradition of dividing the year into four seasons is very ancient and a 360-day year divides neatly into quarters of three months or 90 days.

The five or six intercalary days were sometimes added at the end of each year (as in Rome), and this may have been the method used at Stonehenge. However, the fact that there were five trilithons suggests an alternative method of dealing with these uncounted days. One uncounted day may have been interposed at each quarter day and one (or two in leap years) at midsummer/midwinter. This would account for the tradition of holding a festival holiday at the start of each quarter – in addition to the midwinter/midsummer festival(s).

The problem of reconciling solar with lunar cycles is still apparent in the variable date assigned by Christians to their Easter festival. This date is determined as the first Sunday after the full moon falling on or after 21st March.

How the lintels were raised to form the top link between sarsen stones. (Author provided)

How the lintels were raised to form the top link between sarsen stones. (Author provided)

How were the Stone Lintels Placed on the Sarsen Stones?

The stone lintels that topped the standing sarsen stones were probably hauled up a temporary timber ramp, which was later removed. It is likely that the weight of these lintels pressing down on the ramp and its timber supports were responsible for the two circles of depressions in the soil which are now known as the “Y” and “Z” holes.

The purpose of the circular bank surrounding the complex also requires explanation. Long before the sarsen complex was erected a pole had been driven into the center of the circle and a long leather thong attached to it was then used to mark out two concentric circles of about 86 (282 feet) and 92 meters (302 feet) in diameter, respectively. Substantial posts fixed in holes up to one meter (3.3 feet) deep were located along the circumference of these two circles at regular intervals of about five meters (16 feet). There were 56 posts in the inner circle and a similar number in the outer ring.

These two circles of posts were then connected by substantial timber lintels to form two strong rings. The inner ring of lintels was perhaps about three meters (10 feet) above ground level and the outer ring stood about two meters (6.6 feet) high. Rafters sloping outwards rested radially on these beams to support a roof made from hides, thatch or turf. This provided a framework within which about 56 “apartments” could easily be created (each about five by three meters or 16 by 10 feet), probably using woven hurdles of wattle.

Mystery solved: Scientists trace source of Stonehenge boulders

These “apartments” provided accommodation for the Stonehenge timekeepers and their families. This residential function ceased either when the tribe outgrew the circle and moved to larger living accommodation at Durrington Walls and Woodhenge two miles away, or when timekeeping activities ceased. There was plenty of domestic waste in the Stonehenge ditch to indicate that people lived there at one time.

In an early version of “wattle and daub” construction, soil was piled up against the outer wall of the circle to form a protective sloping bank about two meters (6.6 feet) high and six meters (20 feet) wide. In the process a substantial ditch was created which helped to keep the apartments dry. The ditch also served as a communal latrine, accessed through a gap in the circular bank. The occupants of each apartment may have been responsible for the construction of their own quarters, which accounts for minor variations in their dimensions. British archaeologist Aubrey Burl commented that the ditch was not exactly circular but “consisted of a polygon of about 60 straight-sided segments.” This was because the bank and ditch followed the straight back wall of each apartment.

The bank and ditch are still visible today. The inner circle of postholes (known as the Aubrey holes) has been excavated. The outer circle of postholes (now concealed under the collapsed bank) seems to have escaped the attention of modern archaeologists, but William Stukeley’s unpublished 1719 plan of the Stonehenge “Avenue” clearly shows the two concentric circles of postholes.

A diagram of an Aubrey hole, which were also a place where charcoal from adjacent cooking fires and cremations spread over time. (Author provided)

The Aubrey Holes and When The Posts Were Removed

The Aubrey holes have sometimes been described as “cremation pits” but evidence to support that theory is weak. R.S. Newall, who had examined many of the Aubrey holes in 1921, wrote in his 1950 guidebook that most of the “cremations” were not in compact masses deep in the holes as might have been expected, but had been placed quite shallowly at the sides of the holes and had “dribbled down to the bottom.”

Rather than cremation pits it seems likely that ash or charcoal from adjacent cooking fires and cremations had spread out over time and drifted down mixed with soil into the Aubrey holes when their posts were removed. The posts were perhaps redeployed as rollers when the Stonehenge timekeepers hauled enormous sarsen stones to the site. Some archaeologists think that these posts were originally the bluestones which had been laboriously dragged from the Prescelli mountains in South Wales and that were later repositioned within the sarsen complex.

The first group of hunter-gatherers had come to Stonehenge between 8,000 BC and 6,000 BC. Finding plenty of red deer, wild boar, and aurochs they made camp there, digging a large hole about 1.5 meters (5 feet) deep and a meter (3.3 feet) in diameter. In this hole they erected a substantial pine trunk which supported a latticed “maypole” roof anchored to a circle of boulders. When the central pole rotted after some decades the group simply dug a new hole, erected a new tree trunk, and danced under a new “maypole” roof.

Boulders used to anchor the guy ropes of their tent were doubtless redeployed. This cycle was repeated several times over the centuries that followed. Four of these “maypole” post holes carbon dated to 6,000 BC have been found in the former Stonehenge car park, and similar Mesolithic post holes have been found elsewhere. The holes in the old Stonehenge car park are not exactly in a straight line and carbon dating tells us that they were not precisely contemporaneous.

We know from bones excavated at Stonehenge that the tribe were meat eaters, chiefly beef and venison. These animals roamed on Salisbury Plain and were managed by the tribe. Control and capture of half-wild animals is not easy, but Stonehengers used the same simple methods as those employed by farmers everywhere.

The layout of Stonehenge showing the Avenue. (Crown copyright / OGL 3)

Stonehenge Avenue Transitions to Woodhenge and Durrington

Leading from their circular enclosure the later Stonehengers had raised a bank with fencing or hedging which ran north-east beside the “Avenue” in a straight line from their home for about five hundred meters (1,640 feet). A small group of hunter-farmers could easily drive animals into the angle formed between this hedge and their circular bank. There was a gap between the end of the straight fence and the circular bank where a gate led into a small pen in which animals were probably confined before being killed, flayed, gutted, and roasted for all to share. Burl describes posthole evidence of the stockholding pen as “a puzzlement” for which he can offer no satisfactory explanation.

Over some four centuries the Stonehengers flourished and increased in number until their condominium became seriously overcrowded. It could not readily be enlarged and so overspill settlements were started two miles away which developed into a great circular timber clan house which we now call “Woodhenge,” and “Durrington Walls.”

Mystery solved: Scientists trace source of England's Stonehenge boulders |  The Times of Israel

At Durrington Walls a deep ditch and mile long outer bank surrounded the new tribal residential stronghold which contained many substantial circular timber buildings. Now the tribe had space to further increase and multiply and eventually all residents moved there from the Stonehenge site.

But the tribe did not forget their ancestral home which now became a place of pilgrimage and veneration. Their priest-timekeepers presumably attended daily to update the magnificent stone calendar-temple which they had built there. And the whole tribe probably made pilgrimage to their ancestral home along the ceremonial Avenue for the solstices and quarterly festivals.

What Was Stonehenge For? The Answer Might Be Simpler Than You Thought. - The  New York Times

Stonehenge Solar Calendar Theory “Proven” by Study

Many scholars have suspected that the monuments of Stonehenge were carefully arranged to function as some type of calendar. Proof of this concept has been hard to come by, however, as even the most informed Stonehenge experts have labored to comprehend how long-lost culture utilized this mysterious structure. In an article just published in the Antiquity Publications Ltd , archaeologist Timothy Darvill from Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom disclosed what he believes is the most likely solution to the enigma: the Stonehenge solar calendar.

“The numerology of these sarsen [large standing stone] elements materializes a perpetual [Stonehenge solar] calendar based on a tropical solar year of 365.25 days,” Professor Darvill wrote in his paper.

He acknowledges that ancients in northwestern Europe could have developed such a calendar on their own. But he is intrigued by the possibility that they imported the Stonehenge solar calendar concept from somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean region, like Egypt, where solar calendars were most certainly used in ancient times. The new research introduces new thinking and also shows that the Stonehenge solar calendar concept was likely imported from the Middle East or north Africa.

How the numerology of the sarsen elements create the perpetual Stonehenge solar calendar. Non-sarsen elements have been omitted for clarity. (V. Constant / Antiquity Publications Ltd).

How the numerology of the sarsen elements create the perpetual Stonehenge solar calendar. Non-sarsen elements have been omitted for clarity. (V. Constant / Antiquity Publications Ltd ).

The Fascinating Stonehenge Solar Calendar Thesis

Professor Darvill’s solar calendar thesis is based on a careful reconstruction of Stonehenge’s construction phases, and on the apparent evolution of its design and structure.

Construction work began at Stonehenge in approximately 3,000 BC. Notably, the stone sarsens that Darvill believes form a calendar were all quarried (from the same location) and erected at about the same time, between the years 2,620 and 2,480 BC. This suggests the monumental site was used for another reason originally, before being converted into a solar calendar by a sun-worshipping culture that occupied the Wiltshire region, where Stonehenge is located, in the mid-third century BC.

Stonehenge in its current form consists of three distinct sections. The largest and most prominent of these is the Sarsen Circle, which several thousand years ago would have consisted of 30 tall standing stones arranged in a circle. The majority of these are still standing today, although seven have fallen and six were removed from the site by thieves or scavengers at some point.

Bridges were formed by heavy rock lintels that were placed on top of the standing stones. However, only a few of these connecting lintels are still in place, the rest have either fallen off or are missing.

There are wider-than-usual gaps between some of the stones, which act to separate the 30 stones into three distinct subsets of 10. The first stones in the second and third sets are smaller than the other 30 stones in the circle, which reinforces the notion that some type of division was intended.

The second section at Stonehenge includes five huge monuments known as the Trilithons. These were placed inside the Sarsen Circle, arranged in a horseshoe shape that curves from the southwest at the bottom to the northeast at the top. The largest of the stones is the one that directly faces the southwestern sky, while the smallest are those that are aligned to face northeast.

The Stonehenge Trilithons were placed inside the Sarsen Circle, arranged in a horseshoe shape that curves from the southwest at the bottom to the northeast at the top. (Public domain)

The third group of stones includes four much smaller sarsens, which were placed at four points around the Sarsen Circle to form a 260-foot by 100-foot (80-meter by 30-meter) rectangle. This formation is known as the Station Stone Rectangle. Only two of these stones is still in place, but it is always possible to establish where standing stones once stood at Stonehenge because of the empty sockets that can be found in the ground.

Significantly, the Stonehenge site is bisected (divided in half) by a straight axis that is oriented from southwest to northeast. This means that all the standing stones are divided into two equal sections that mirror each other on either side of the axis. On its two ends the axis points to the exact spots in the sky where the sun sets on the winter solstice sun and rises on the summer solstice, linking together the two most important milestones of the solar year.

For Darvill, all the information a person needs to decode the true meaning of Stonehenge is found in these alignments and arrangements.

The orientation of the site’s central axis puts the two solstices front-and-center, as would be expected in any solar calendar. Under Darvill’s scheme the 30-stone circle represents the 30-day month, which has been conveniently divided into three 10-day weeks for the sake of convenience.

Passing around the circle 12 times would take the observer nearly to the end of the solar year (360 days), leaving just five extra days to be accounted for—which they are, by the five Trilithon stones that stand inside the circle, curving from southwest to northeast.

The four smaller stones of the Station Stone Rectangle would help complete the calendar’s cycle, representing an extra quarter-day each (remember, a tropical year equals 365.25 days). Four stones of one-quarter day each would equal one full day when added together, and that of course is what would need to be added to the calendar every fourth year (every leap year) to preserve the calendar’s accuracy over the long term.

All of this is very neat, symmetrical, and tidy, and requires no imaginative leaps or eccentric interpretations of the facts to make its case. Darvill’s hypothesis is evidence-based, and it will require an evidence-based counterargument if it is to be refuted.

The Egyptian solar calendar from 3000 BC, pictured here, was circular and even resembles the aerial outlines of Stonehenge. The ancient Egyptian calendar made farming and growing crops easier and was in wide use until it was replaced by Ptolemaic calendar in 232 BC (Egypt online blog)

Stonehenge Roots Found in Ancient Egypt?

The builders of Stonehenge left behind no documents behind that clearly spelled out their intentions. But Darvill points out that other cultures of the time were unquestionably using solar calendars.

“Such a solar calendar was developed in the eastern Mediterranean in the centuries after 3000 BC and was adopted in Egypt as the Civil Calendar around 2700 and was widely used at the start of the Old Kingdom about 2600 BC,” Darvill explained, in a Bournemouth University press release discussing his research.

If Darvill’s theory about Stonehenge is correct, some type of intercultural exchange that influenced the evolution of religious practices and beliefs in ancient Britain may have taken place. A solar-based metaphysical system may have been imported from distant shores, partially or as a whole, from the Middle East, North Africa, or another area in the greater region

Not much is known about the types of contacts that may have occurred between such cultures four or five thousand years ago. But future archaeological discoveries and ancient DNA analyses could turn up evidence that shows extensive interactions did in fact occur.

We may have cracked the mystery of Stonehenge - BBC Travel

In the meantime, Professor Darvill is delighted by the opportunity to contribute to the discussion of the true purpose of Stonehenge, one of the most famous and speculated-about ancient sites found anywhere in the world.

“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,” he said. It can be imagined as “a place where the timing of ceremonies and festivals was connected to the very fabric of the universe and celestial movements in the heavens.”






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