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by William H. Benson

September 25, 2014

     President Obama visited Stonehenge three weeks ago, on Friday, September 5. As he stepped around the stones, he said, “ How cool is this. This is spectacular! Knocked this off my bucket list.”

     Stonehenge is located west and south of London, in south central England, and is a popular tourist destination site. It is astonishing to see. Prehistoric men, who lived on the British Isles then, stood a series of giant stones upright in a circle, and archaeologists believe that the first stones were positioned as early as 3,000 B.C., and that others were added piecemeal as late as 1,850 B.C.

     Because those prehistoric people left no written records, archaeologists are not certain of the stones’ purpose, but most modern scientists believe that the people designed Stonehenge to serve as a temple where they worshiped their gods and sacrificed animals.

     In 1965, a British astronomer named Gerald Hawkins argued in his book Stonehenge Decoded that the stones served as an astronomical observatory where people could observe the summer solstice, as well as other solar, lunar, and planetary movements. Although Hawkins used an IBM 704 computer to support his claims, many archaeologists disagreed with his conclusions, calling them “unconvincing.”

     Instead, they contend that these prehistoric people were “howling barbarians,” far-removed from scientific thinking, and ill-equipped to observe solar and lunar movements. Still, Hawkins’s idea that the prehistoric people were brilliant astronomers remains fixed yet today in the popular imagination.

     This week we observe the autumnal equinox, either late in the day on September 22, or early in the morning on September 23, depending upon where one lives. Equinox is a Latin word meaning “equal night.” Twice a year the sun passes directly over the equator, usually on March 21 and September 23. Except at the two poles, day and night are of equal length, twelve hours each, all over the world.

     Because of the Earth’s 23 1/2° tilt along its axis relative to the plane that it follows to orbit the sun, the Northern Hemisphere either leans toward the sun at its greatest extent on June 21, the summer solstice, and away from the sun at its greatest extent on December 21, the winter solstice. Thus, there are four days every year, two solstices and two equinoxes, that divide the year into four seasons.

     Also, this week, on September 24, we will have a new moon, a day when the moon passes between the sun and Earth, and the moon’s face is not illuminated. Because the moon rotates around its axis at the same speed that it orbits the Earth, we only observe a single face of the moon. The moon orbits the Earth every 27.3 days, but new moon to new moon is 29.5 days. A lunar month is rounded to 28 days.

     So we observe lunar cycles as well as solar cycles, and from them human beings have devised calendars. The day, the lunar month, the four seasons, and the year of 365 ¼ days are all natural occurrences, but humans invented the seven-day week, possibly because it divides evenly into 28 days.

     In 44 B.C., Julius Caesar scrapped the old Roman calendar and designed his own with seven days in a week, and twelve months, composed of 30 or 31 days each, except for February’s 28 or 29 days.

     A problem arose. Because the Julian calendar gained about three days every four centuries, Pope Gregory XIII issued a bulletin on February 24, 1582, that stated that the day following Friday, October 4, would jump to Friday, October 15. Thus, the pope removed ten days from the calendar, and brought the solstices and equinoxes back into line. Most Catholic countries accepted Gregory’s reforms immediately, but England and her colonies refused to follow until 1752.

     In that year, the British Calendar Act declared that the day after Wednesday, September 2, would advance to Thursday, September 14. Some Englishmen felt cheated and demanded that they receive back the eleven days removed from their calendars, and even rioted in the streets. Perhaps, the laborers were upset because they had lost their wages those eleven days, a reason sufficient to cause a riot.

     Most accept Julius Caesar’s calendar with Gregory’s reformation, but someone who suggested an alternative was Moses Cotsworth, who, in 1905, devised a calendar of 13 months with 28 days, divided into 4 weeks. His extra month he called Sol, and positioned it between June and July. Each month he began on a Sunday and ended on a Saturday. To bring the total number of days to 365, he had to add an extra day at the end of every year, a day he called Year Day, but he did not include it in any month.

     Then, during leap years he had to add Leap Day, set as June 29, and also not part of a month.

     The League of Nations selected Cotsworth’s calendar the best among the 130 plans submitted, but then it failed to win the League’s final support, and once the League collapsed, so did his calendar. Since then, calendar reform has remained a dead issue. We are content with what was handed to us.

     Stonehenge was, at best, a hesitant attempt by prehistoric men—who lacked paper, pencil, and telescopes—to devise a calendar, perhaps to determine the summer solstice. Today the calendar is an app on our cellphones, an integral part of our existence, one that dictates our lives.