Marking Time – Part Two

By Bernie Bell

Pics by B&M Bell

In his book of essays entitled ‘Dinosaur in a Haystack’, Stephen Jay Gould tells a tale which I found to be of much interest.  Here’s the tale….

“I began this essay with a story about the Venerable Bede’s use of cosmology to set a chronology for the determination of Easter.  Let me end with another story in the same mold – and another illustration of science’s interesting and complex potential bond with religion.  Two days before my visit to the Venerable Bede’s tomb in Durham, I marveled at an intricate astronomical device prominently displayed in the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris. Precisely at noon each day, the sun’s light shines through a tiny hole in a window high in the south transept, and illuminates a copper meridian laid into the floor of the transept and ending at an obelisk surmounted by a globe in the north wall.

The line and obelisk are appropriately marked so that the days of solstices and equinoxes can be determined with precision by the position of noon light.  Why should such a scientific instrument be contained within a church?  The inscription on the obelisk gives the answer – ‘ad certam paschalis’ ( for the determination of Easter), a calculation that requires precise reckoning of the vernal equinox.  Interestingly, as a further illustration of complexities in the relationship between science and religion, St. Sulpice became a temple to humanism during the French Revolution, and most of the religious glass and statuary was smashed.  The names of kings and princes, once carved on the obelisk, were thoroughly obliterated, but these fervid revolutionaries spared the beautiful blue marble balustrade of the choir because the copper meridian passes right through, and they did not wish to disrupt a scientific instrument.”

This got me thinking of the layering of old and new beliefs and religions – the time approaching which is now known as Easter, and how it has been an important time to mark for preparing the soil and planting going right back to the earliest farmers. 

And from that, thinking of how various groups of those early famers all over the world also marked an earlier turning point in the year – the shortest day – by building structures wherein a beam of light enters through a restricted opening, marking the time of the return of light and warmth – leading to the time to prepare and plant. 

Examples of these structures marking solstices and equinoxes can be found across the globe: In Orkney – Maes Howe …..

…….. and some of the smaller cairns and structures too, including at least one in the nearby Ness of Brodgar site……. 

In the Republic of Ireland, the most well-known being in New Grange with its ‘light box’…

Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, a Pre-Colombian site on the other side of the world…..

Solstice Project

 And the recently discovered site of Atlit Yam, off the coast of Israel…..

This programme should still be available to watch, but might not be accessible outside of Britain.  If folk are interested in finding out more about the site…..

Ways of marking and acknowledging the times of year which influence our lives can be traced across the world, through the millennia.

As I write this, ploughing matches are being held in Orkney – shaping up to ploughing and planting this year’s crop.

And the ewes have been taken to the rams, in time for Easter lambs!

See also: Marking Time

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