A new article published on Tuesday in the journal Antiquity offers another in a long series of claims that Stonehenge was an ancient calendar. British archaeologist Timothy Darvill says that he has decoded how the calendar worked, suggesting that its rings of stones were intended to track the twelve months of thirty days, with the largest stones standing for five intercalary days between 360-day years and four station stones helping to calculate leap years. So far, the argument is not dissimilar to a range of previous calendar claims for the monument, except for being a bit more elaborate in its mechanics. Then things get weird.
Darvill argues that Stonehenge represents a calendar that might be Mediterranean, specifically Egyptian, in origin. While conceding that the ancient peoples of Britain might have developed their own calendar, he sees a strong similarity to the calendar of 365 days and five intercalary days developed in Egypt in the early third millennium BCE:
Archaeologically, the question is whether the Egyptian Civil Calendar, or a variation thereof, could have been known to communities living in southern Britain in the mid-third millennium BC, and adopted by them. Barely a century ago, the answer would have been resoundingly affirmative (e.g. Childe 1929). As diffusionist models crumbled and connections between the Mediterranean world and Northern Europe were systematically uncoupled to emphasise autonomous local development (Renfrew 1973: 84–108), such thinking became deeply unfashionable. Now, however, the pendulum of interpretation is swinging back in favour of long-distance contacts and extensive social networks.
Before getting to this point, though, there are some problems to overcome. First, the Egyptian calendar did not have leap years, while Darvill argues that Stonehenge did. This is a rather deep problem since it suggests that the hicks in the sticks discovered something that the masters they imitated failed to find, and that knowledge went nowhere. The second problem is that relating the most important parts of the monument as it currently stands (Stonehenge 3, c. 2900-2600 BCE) ignores the existence of the earlier Stonehenge 1 and 2 phases (3100-2900 BCE), which involved earthworks, timber, and small stones. The round shape of the monument followed from these earlier phases, for example, and they predate the Egyptian Civil Calendar. That calendar’s origins are less clear-cut than Darvill suggests, coming into general use around 2500 BCE, but originally based not on the solar year as Darvill asserts but on the annual heliacal rising of Sirius, which coincidentally occurred around the time of the annual Nile flood. Because the Sothic year had 365 days, while the solar year had about 365.25, the Egyptian calendar and the solar year gradually fell out of sync until returning to their starting points every 1,461 Egyptian years, or 1,460 solar years.
All of which is a long way around saying that Darvill’s claims get especially wonky when he tries to use late Egyptian developments and medieval myths to make Stonehenge Egyptian:
The unique architecture of Stonehenge in the context of mid third-millennium BC north-western Europe is also relevant. Post-and-lintel construction in stone, the use of stub-tenons to secure lintels to uprights, and the understanding of entasis to create the optical illusion of straightness, are all features found only in Egypt at that time (Arnold 2003). Although circular structures in Egypt are few—the so-called ‘Calendar Circle’ with solstitial alignments dating to the fifth millennium BC at Nabta Playa being something of an exception (Malville 2015)—the circle motif was symbolic of the sun and the cycle of time (Quirke 2001: 161–67). The adoption of a circle as the physical expression of a calendrical cycle makes good sense, and in the context of Stonehenge is potentially significant, as it perpetuated existing local, indigenous traditions of building stone and timber circles extending back to before 3000 BC (Darvill in press).
As even Darvill quietly notes, the circle “motif” is indigenous in origin, and Stonehenge 3 almost certainly saw its shape determined by the preexisting wooden structure and earthen structure on the Stonehenge site, not Egyptian sun disc iconography. I see no reason to assume that that Stonehenge 3 represents Egyptian ideology given that it is follows directly from preexisting indigenous developments.
The post-and-lintel construction I can’t speak to, but it would seem more logical that the builders repeated in stone a technique they had previously used in wood (as the Greeks did in replicating their wood Doric temples in stone) rather than importing an Egyptian technique and adapting it to local conditions without any suggestion of Egyptian style or motifs.
The claim that Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing almost 4,000 years later, knows anything of Neolithic intercontinental commerce is so ridiculous as to be laughable. Geoffrey’s legend told of Giants of old using the stones to take baths because they emitted medicinal properties—an old legend about the medicinal properties of magical rocks, but one that has nothing to do with calendars or astronomy.
“Chorea” is a Latin word for a “dance,” which took on the meaning of a “ring” because of the propensity to dance in a circle. Geoffrey was quite obviously referring to Stonehenge’s circular shape; it only had an astronomical meaning because Martianus Capella used the phrase siderum chorea (“dance of the stars”) to liken the motion of the heavens to music as part of his musical cosmology. Best known from Copernicus picking it up from Capella in the 1400s, the phrase (or the similar chorea stellarum) could also be found in writers who borrowed it from a Latin translation of Plato. However, in medieval English usage, chorea more typically referred to a ring-dance—i.e., people dancing in a circle. The reason for that is actually attested in medieval folklore: Ancient stone circles were alleged to be giants who were turned to stone in mid-ring-dance. These stories are well-attested in Celtic lands, and the medieval Oxford manuscript Bodley 614, entry 50, records a story of a ring of petrified dancing women who angered an unattested St. Urri (whom scholars argue is a garbled translation of the Breton term for Noce de Pierre, An Eured Ven, the ring of standing stones said to be a petrified wedding party) that is almost certainly a Christian gloss on the same theme. Hence, in calling Stonehenge chorea gigantium (Darvill gets the wording it a bit mixed up), Geoffrey was alluding to the common folklore then-current in England.
In short, Darvill’s arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny, at least without much more evidence, and it is disappointing that this got through peer review since many of the weaknesses are rather obvious.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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