Ancient Calendars

Today is what we modern folk call new year’s eve but that is such a new invention, indeed the Gregorian calendar which we currently use dates from 1582, a mere 435 years ago! The idea of counting from January to December we bought from the Romans some 2000 years ago, so even that is not really old. These calendars work to somewhat jiggled solar rhythms, not the easiest to work out, whereas our ancestors worked with lunar rhythms, the rhythms of the moon which are far more obvious; and they don’t require adjusting for leap years either!

We found the oldest lunar calendars, along with the earliest (as yet) known constellations in the cave art found in France and Germany. The people of the late Upper Palaeolithic Cultures were no mean mathematicians, they understood mathematical sets, and the interplay between the moon’s annual cycle, the ecliptic, the solstices, and the seasonal changes that all these helped to show and produce.

 The earliest calendar we’ve found so far in our archaeological explorations – from  34,000-odd years ago in the Aurignacian Culture of Europe – shows that we were very much aware of the stars, the patterns they make and their movements … and what these could mean for us in our lives. Back in 1964 Alexander Marshack began exploring these ideas and continued until the early 1990s. He published breakthrough research which documented the mathematical and astronomical knowledge of the Late Upper Palaeolithic Cultures of Europe. Marshack deciphered sets of marks – sets of crescents or lines – carved into animal bones, and sometime on the walls of caves, as records of the lunar cycle. The folk who made them were very skilled and able to carefully control the thickness of the lines so that those who read them (like Marshack, 34,000 years later) would be able to see the correlation with lunar phases. The sets of markings were often laid out in serpentine patterns, suggesting snakes perhaps, or streams and rivers.

Our ancestors carved these lunar calendars on small pieces of stone, bone or antler. Such things would be very portable, lightweight and easy to carry in one’s pouch as one moved about one’s range according to the seasons and migrations. Many animals, like reindeer, are wise enough to go up into the high pastures during the hot summer when they would otherwise be tormented by flies, and then move back down into the warmer valleys and forests for the winter. Our ancestors would follow them.

They hunted horses, bison, mammoth, auroch and ibex, and would watch the hunting behaviour of cave bear and cave lion, learning from these master predators. And all thes animals can be found in the constellations they drew on the cave walls and in the calendars.

Until Marshack’s work, many archeologists believed the sets of marks he chose to study were nothing but the aimless doodles of bored toolmakers – a usual misconception from people who preferred to believe they were superior to the ancestors who they call “savages”. Marshack uncovered the intuitive discovery of mathematical sets and the application of those sets to the construction of a calendar: our ancestors were much more in tune with both themselves and the whole of the world, and the cosmos, in which they lived than we are today. Nowadays everyone is encouraged to only work with their brain and all our other functions gradually atrophy from neglect – something we need to change. We understand, at least partially, that all animal activities (including our own as we, too, are animals) are dependent on time and the seasons. We get all hifalutin about it with regard to what we call objective physics, without realising we need an and/and approach that includes our animal-human awareness and our consciousness. Our ancestors had this. They recognised that there are phases of the moon and seasons of the year that can be counted, and that should be counted because they are important. That is profound, and we need to adjust our own preconceptions to include it.


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Arthur’s Stone

I live near one of the places called Arthur’s Stone. It’s on one of the long ridges that run roughly northwest/southeast along the ancient glacial tracts that swept this region of what is now Herefordshire and the Welsh Marches. In the last glacial the glaciers didn’t go any further south than about Bristol so this is part of the southern edge of the glaciated lands. Arthur’s Stone is what the archaeologists call a Neolithic chambered tomb, or dolmen, dating from 5,700– 4,700 years ago. The ridge it sits on looks down into the Golden Valley on the southwest side and the Wye Valley on the northeast. A mile or two back east along the ridge from Arthur’s Stone are the 6000+ years old “Halls of the Dead” … they’re older than Stonehenge! I’ll talk about them in another post but it helps to show just how old and how complex, cultured and refined was the pre-farming civilisation hereabouts.

But Arthur’s Stone is an incredible place in itself. The stones were originally buried within a mound which was aligned north-south. The mound was about 25 metres long with an east-facing entrance and a south-facing false portal. The mound is now gone and the capstone broken with a large section fallen into the chamber and blocking the original entrance passageway. To the north, there was once a cup-marked stone called the Quoit Stone but you can’t see it clearly any more, and folk now call a stone to the south the Quoit Stone although it isn’t and doesn’t have the cup-marks.vagina-and-womb

The huge capstone that’s said to weigh more than 25 tonnes and rested on nine uprights. The entrance passage is curved, about 4.6 metres long, and was roofed to less than one metre high so you had to crawl down it. The whole stone structure was enclosed in large earth banks, and post holes that were found at the edge of the banks which suggest some sort of post-circle enclosed it as well. As usual, few bones or burial remains were found in this big structure.

arthurs-stone-1-2008When I first visited it, sixteen-odd years ago, I was very much struck by the shape, and the entrance passage. In fact, it reminded me of the vagina, leading to the womb. Here is a photo I took from the entrance passage going into the stone chamber.

What could it have been for? Why did our ancestors build it? Why are so few bones found?

I sat there, sensing into it, feeling the place, and wondering. The womb-image stayed, got stronger. I decided to try crawling into it down the passage. Although it obviously wasn’t dark as it would have been there was still a strong feeling of being enclosed. I’m claustrophobic and although there was no stone and earth roof over me I still had to keep feeling my breathing in order not to panic. Indeed, I got a sense that I would smash my head on stone if I tried to stand up. It was as though I was no longer in my own 21st century time.

I got to the end of the passage, where I would originally have been entering the chamber, and my progress was blocked by the fallen piece of capstone but I was determined I was going to get in by crawling. I had to crawl out to the right and then squidge myself in over the top of the fallen capstone and then I lay there, panting. The sound of my breathing seemed to echo off the stone above and around me. I shut my eyes and just listened to it. The stone was cold under my back and my hands felt its rough smoothness, the chamber felt bigger than I’d thought when I was looking from outside.

I lay still. To my shut eyes it seemed to get darker until it was pitchy black, and all around me I could hear breathing.

The sound slowed, and it also en-huged, it wasn’t just me breathing, something far, far bigger was breathing along with me. “Who?” I whispered and that seemed to echo round me too. There were no words to answer me but I got the sense that the big breathing that wasn’t me began to chuckle softly. Pictures began in my head … a cauldron, a woman stirring it, first she was old and grey and cobwebbed then young and slender with golden hair, she morphed between the two. Then the shadows behind her moved, like tree branches, but no, not that, they were antlers. Somehow, in the darkness, I saw a human face crested with huge wide antlers, eagle’s eyes stared at me without blinking, golden coloured, and he smiled. The words birth and death swam though my mind. The cauldron of birth and rebirth, and the guardian and keeper of souls who guides us home. Ceridwen and Gwyn ap Nudd.

arthurs-stone-sunset-1-nov-2008I don’t know how long I lay there, dreaming and daydreaming. I was otherwhere for that time, and it was a time out of time. But soon or late I realised I was only listening to my own breathing again, the hugeness had gone, I was lying on a stone under another stone with the low winter sunset peering in at me from across Hay Bluff. I crawled out again, stood up and looked into the sunset.

Sitting and thinking over a drink of water it thought that was what we used this place for, and other places like it. We would crawl back into the womb, listen there for the Old Ones to speak and show us things, and then crawl out, back into everyday life. Yes, there may well have been bones there, ancestral bones of the spirit-keepers of our people perhaps, there to remind us who we are and what we’re doing in that ancient place.

Stories go that up to the mid-19th century, we used to hold celebrations  at the stone and dance there. Maybe, one day, we’ll do that again. I work there now, and take my students there to crawl in and lie on the stone, speak with the Old Ones. It’s interesting how often they feel they must speak their name before they go in and, as they come out, they find they’re given a new name. That concept comes in so many of our old songs and stories, that no one who enters the wood, enchanted forest or wherever, comes out as they went in.

A Europe-wide, perhaps worldwide, concept is that you go into one of these places, like what we call sensory deprivation chambers, and come out again dead, mad or enlightened! I’ll leave you to judge which of those happened with me 🙂



Neanderthals' large eyes 'caused their demise' … Rubbish!

BBC News – Neanderthals’ large eyes ’caused their demise’.

Ms Pearce’s conclusions are based on inadequate thinking and reasoning, all of which seem likely to be able to fit in a matchbox and still have room to spare.  Ms Pearce’s research  found that Neanderthals had significantly larger eye sockets than Homo sapiens – by an average of 6mm from top to bottom. From this she surmised that, although this seems like a small amount, that it was enough for Neanderthals to use significantly more of their brains to process visual information. “Since Neanderthals evolved at higher latitudes, more of the Neanderthal brain would have been dedicated to vision and body control, leaving less brain to deal with other functions like social networking,” she told BBC News. Ye gods !!!

This is quite inadequate evidence for any such a leap however, when coupled with this statement, “They were very, very smart, but not quite in the same league as Homo Sapiens. That difference might have been enough to tip the balance when things were beginning to get tough at the end of the last ice age” from Prof Robin Dunbar Oxford University you can see some of the underlying reasons it may have been grabbed at. For many people it’s very important to be able to say the Neanderthals were “not quite in the same league as Homo Sapiens”. As long as superiority is important to people cloud-castles such as Ms Pearce propounds will get built on the sand of inadequate reasoning.

The size of the cranium, or the size of the eye socket, tell you absolutely nothing about the workings of the grey matter that was once inside it. All you can say is that it’s likely that the smaller the cranium the less grey matter was inside it. We don’t think through amount of grey matter, we think through the synaptic connections made through the agency of the brain. The complexity of those connections is not governed by the size of the eye socket nor can one extrapolate that the size of the eye socket means more connections were related to sight as opposed to any other function.

Cognition work has shown us over the past century and more that how the brain connects, how the synapses make pathways through the brain is the most important thing to do with creativity and the ability to think and reason. Ms Pearce needs to go back to school and, hopefully, to go on some cognition training to learn to expand her thinking out of the inadequate box it’s currently in.

For goodness sake !!! If this is the kind of science being done let’s give the woman a brush and get her onto road sweeping, surely she must be better at that ???