The site, at Warren Field, Crathes, also aligns on the Midwinter Sunrise, providing an annual astronomic correction in order to maintain the link between the passage of time, indicated by the Moon, the asynchronous solar year and the associated seasons.
Project leader Vince Gaffney (see video), Professor of Landscape Archaeology at the University of Birmingham, comments: ‘The evidence suggests that hunter gatherer societies in Scotland had both the need and sophistication to track time across the years and to correct for seasonal drift of the lunar year, and that this occurred nearly 5,000 years before the first formal calendars known in the Near East. In doing so, this illustrates one important step towards the formal construction of time and therefore history itself.’
Dr Richard Bates, of the University of St Andrews, comments: ‘St Andrews has an established reputation for remote sensing studies of early prehistoric sites in Scotland but the site at Warren Field is unique. It provides exciting new evidence for the earlier Mesolithic in Scotland demonstrating the sophistication of these early societies and revealing that 10,000 years ago hunter gatherers constructed monuments that helped them track time. This is the earliest example of such a structure and there is no known comparable site in Britain or Europe for several thousands of years after the monument at Warren Field was constructed.’
Unusual crop marks
The Warren Field site was first discovered as unusual crop marks spotted from the air by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS). Dave Cowley, Aerial Survey projects manager at RCAHMS, said: ‘We have been taking photographs of the Scottish landscape for nearly 40 years, recording thousands of archaeological sites that would never have been detected from the ground. Warren Field stands out as something special, however. It is remarkable to think that our aerial survey may have helped to find the place where time itself was 'invented'.’
Clive Ruggles, Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy at the University of Leicester, who advised the team, points out that ‘the site did not mark particular moonrises, as the changing patterns of moonrise are far too complex – the argument is that it represents a combination of several different cycles which can be used to track time symbolically and practically. There are certainly hunter-gatherer societies who use the phase cycles of the moon to help synchronise different seasonal activities but it is remarkable that this could have been monumentalised at such an early period.’
From 2004-6 the National Trust for Scotland excavated the Warren Field pit alignment, which lies on its Crathes Castle Estate, in collaboration with Murray Archaeological Services. The Trust’s Archaeologist for Eastern Scotland, Dr Shannon Fraser, said: ‘This is a remarkable monument, which is so far unique in Britain. Our excavations revealed a fascinating glimpse into the cultural lives of people some 10,000 years ago – and now this latest discovery further enriches our understanding of their relationship with time and the heavens’.
Dr Christopher Gaffney, of the University of Bradford, adds: ‘For pre-historic hunter-gatherer communities, knowing what food resources were available at different times of the year was crucial to survival. These communities relied on hunting migrating animals and the consequences of missing these events were potential starvation. They needed to carefully note the seasons to be prepared for when that food resource passed through, so from this perspective, our interpretation of this site as a seasonal calendar makes sense.’
Contacts and sources: University of Birmingham