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by William H. Benson

June 19, 2003

     The ancient British built Stonehenge almost 4000 years ago, beginning around 1850 B.C. and completing it in 4 phases over some 300 years.  Originally, 30 blocks of gray sandstone, each about 13 1/2 feet, stood above the ground in a circle 97 feet in diameter.  The later builders then created a rectangle within the circle, with arched circles, and horseshoe-shapes, all of massive stones standing upright.  It still is quite an impressive accomplishment for those early people.

     Yet the oldest orientation of all, the axis alignment to summer solstice sunrise, was never lost; rather it was maintained, duplicated, and emphasized.  On a certain day each year for centuries a 6-foot man standing in the center of the monument-temple could watch as the sun first broke the horizon and touched the heel-stone and then soon climbed up and stood for a moment atop that heel-stone.

     For ancient man this was an annual moment of admiration and awe, but also a point to begin marking the days until he should plant crops.

     In 1963 the astronomer Gerald S. Hawkins with the help of a computer determined that the stones when paired formed 16 alignments on 10 of the 12 unique sun or moon points when rising or setting.  Later builders then duplicated 8 of those earlier, two-position alignments in arch-wayed vistas.  Hawkins concluded that in essence Stonehenge was a calendar, a first attempt to map time.  Still, man needed a machine to measure his days; he needed a clock.

     The Earth’s year is composed of 365 1/4 days, with four recurring seasons, and a 28-day lunar cycle–nature’s methods of dividing time.  But it was human beings, our forefathers, who then created the 12-month calendar, the 30- or 31-day month, the 7-day week, the 24-hour day, the 60-minute hour, and the 60-second minute, and a leap year with an extra day.

     Each of those so-called “inventions” was a way of harnessing time, of fixing events and people to agreed-upon points in the past, say to July 4, 1776, or to setting goals or appointments or dreams in the future.

     But why is it a 7-day week?  The ancient Romans started with an 8-day week; they worked 7 days in the field and then went to market the 8th.  But then they switched to a 7-day week, and we of the modern Western world have inherited their arbitrary 7-day week, which simply became a way of clustering the continuing procession of days into measurable portions.

     And then why is it a 24-hour day?  Searching the records of the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians, historians have surmised that an ancient man or woman must have thought it a convenient way of dividing each day’s time into segments that they could number, the same for each day.

     For without those inventions, early man suffered the tyranny of the cycle.  The historian Daniel Boorstin wrote, “[Early man] tended to see the passage of time, not as a series of unique, irreversible moments of change, but rather as a recurrence of familiar moments. . . . And, in that age of cyclical time, before the discovery of history, the repetition of the familiar provided the framework for all the most significant and dramatic occasions in human experience.”

     Today modern man has a different conception of time.  He divides it into the past, the present, and the future.  He recognizes the past for what it is–a record of the follies and tragedies and triumphs and achievements of human beings.  The present is today, and the future is open, not just  for the new, but for the possibility of the new.  Life is not trapped in a perpetural recyle of what has gone before.     

     We who live in the Northern Hemisphere will experience a summer solstice on Saturday, June 21, 2003, a day that we can label and number and distinguish among all other days before and after.  And certainly men and women at Stonehenge will watch in astonishment as the sun crests that heel-stone.  We differ from those ancient British in that we have a calendar and a watch and a clock and a history.