Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing - until the eventual point where it really does go missing, never to return. Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011, 3).

1. Time and Archaeology and Archaeological Time

The capacity to conceptualise and measure time is among the most important achievements of human societies (Aveni 2000; Gosden 1994). In the past such knowledge allowed societies to anticipate natural events such as the beginning of rains vital for agricultural planning, to establish fixed points within the year for key ritual and social obligations, including the payment of debts and tax and, with writing, to record the order of important events and effectively to begin the construction of history itself. The significance of time is no less important to contemporary society and, for instance, ties together the increasingly vast networks of computers that control the global flow of capital as well as enabling the precise measurement of space through pervasive global positioning technologies now embedded within a host of electronic devices.

Not surprisingly there is a considerable literature on the history of time, the nature of temporal measurement and the perception of time within different societies (Nilsson 1920; Gell 1982; Gosden 1994; Adam 1994; Rosen 2004). The objective precision of atomic clocks can be contrasted with the complexity of experiential time which may defy linear definition and essentially act as a social construct, allowing individuals and societies to make sense of their world through their experience of the past, and anticipation of future events (Gosden 1994, 2-12). Given the importance of time measurement to human society, and the variation of experience of time, our contemporary explanation of the nature and significance of historical temporal measurement may occasionally be contentious. Many societies demonstrate an appreciation of regularities within time, including recurrent natural phenomena such as astronomic cycles or seasonal weather patterns, but this need not constitute evidence for a formal temporal system with fixed units (Nilsson 1920; Ruggles and Cotte 2010; Iwaniszewski 2012). The work of Alexander Marshack (1964; 1972) may illustrate this point. Marshack suggested that engravings on Upper Palaeolithic mobile artefacts, such as the bone plate with markings from the Abri Blanchard in the Dordogne region of France (dated to c. 30,000 BC), represented the waxing and waning moon and may have functioned as a rudimentary calendar. If true, this would have significant implications regarding the nature of abstract thought in early societies. Such an interpretation, however, has been debated and such objects, along with other early, engraved records may be better understood as tallies of events rather than formal calendars (Robinson 1992; Ruggles 2005, 5-7; d'Errico 1989; Pásztor 2011; Rappenglück 2010).

While there may be reason to discount some of the more dramatic claims for early development of calendrical devices, the extensive evidence for prehistoric structures that incorporate deliberate astronomical alignments has been a continuing and fruitful source for archaeological and ethnographic studies concerned with the development of temporal concepts (Maravelia 2003; Ruggles 2005). Although the extent of such phenomena has occasionally been questioned (Mackie 1977; Ruggles and Barclay 2000), there are well-known examples of monuments with such characteristics and these include Stonehenge in the United Kingdom and Newgrange in Ireland. These sites are associated with astronomical alignments through the orientation of specific parts of each monument. The Avenue at Stonehenge (Darvill 1997; Ruggles 1997; 2006; Parker Pearson 2012) and the passage at Newgrange (Ruggles 1999, 12–19; Smyth 2009, fig. 1.33) are directed towards the rising or setting sun at one of the solstices. However, such structures are probably not calendars as we understand the term (Ruggles in press a), and the same may be true in those instances where natural features have been identified that, in the past, appeared to frame astronomical events from specific observer points (Higginbottom et al. 2003). In these situations, the relationship of a monument to an astronomical event may be more a reflection of a cosmological order than indicative of the existence of any temporal unit and, as Higginbottom et al. (2003, 48) state, the role of many monuments may have been 'to bear witness to such events and not merely to record or register them'. Despite this, it is frequently asserted that the cycles of the sun, moon and stars were used in prehistory as calendrical tools, as is well known in many historically documented and indigenous societies. However, this can be extremely difficult to demonstrate convincingly, especially for stars, given that their seasonal changes (such as the annual appearance or disappearance or heliacal rising or setting) do not need to be viewed from a fixed spot, so are unlikely to have been marked in any way. The use of the moon in the creation of basic calendars is, however, well documented at later dates (Ben Dov et al. 2012). Thus while the first evidence for formal lunar calendars is only found in Babylonia from the 3rd millennium BC (Block 2012), it is likely that lunar observations evolved at a very early period and that observation of lunar, as well as solar and stellar, events were accorded considerable significance in many societies.


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