Celestial Time Keeping, Solstices, Atomic Clocks and the Celts

There I was thinking about the solstice – the longest day of the year  – and once again I missed it in the sense that I am a bit late with this post as well as actually missing the actual day itself. I used to love it when I was a child in Ireland. Summer time would have kicked in and it would be bright until at least 21:30 or even later. Anyway, here in Perth, in the southern hemisphere I decided to keep a lookout for it – Jun 21 in Ireland and Dec 21 here in Perth. Or so I thought.  How do you work out the longest day? By counting the hours and minutes of sunlight, I suppose and even that managed to elude me, for the most part!

As if that accurate counting of hours and minutes weren’t enough of a hurdle, Lord Kelvin first came up with the idea of using atomic transitions to measure time when he was in his mid-fifties. Born in 1824, he defined absolute zero as -273.15 Celsius or -459.67 Fahrenheit and after whom the base unit of absolute temperature in the International System of Units was named. (Probably something to do with living through Irish winters.) All I ever knew about time was that it was the instrument by which change is measured! A modern dictionary definition of time is more exacting ‘Time is the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, to the future.’

Here’s my attempt to measure time –


Sat Dec 14

Sun Dec 15

Mon Dec 16

Tue Dec 17

Wed Dec 18

Thu Dec 19

Fri Dec 20

Sat Dec 21

Sun Dec 22

Mon Dec 23

Sun Rise










Sun Set










Hours of light









Anyway, one hundred and forty years after Kelvin came up with the idea of atomic clocks, which measure the electromagnetic signal emitted by electrons in atoms when they change energy levels, they have become our most accurate time and frequency standards today. Atomic clocks support time distribution services internationally, television broadcasts wave frequency and global navigation satellite systems.

In 1949 an atomic clock (less accurate than a quartz one) first demonstrated the physical concept before Essen and Parry built an accurate, and bulky, atomic clock to a caesium standard half a dozen years later.

By 1964, Hewlett-Packard had released much smaller rack-mountable devices with increasing accuracy which led the scientific community to redefine the second in terms of a specific atomic frequency in 1967.

Smart phones and us, presumably, have benefitted from these advances in technology as accurate, battery-driven atomic clocks became commercially available in 2011, most easily seen in Google or Apple Maps on our phones and in our cars. Four years later, NASA launched Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC), a miniaturised, ultra-precise, mercury-ion atomic clock more accurate then mere terrestrial clocks, which are maintained by national standards agencies, synchronised to an accuracy of 1 part in 1014 seconds per day! How did we ever survive without such pinpoint accuracy? How did I miss marking the longest day, the summer solstice, here in the Southern Hemisphere?

So, how was time measured before pendulums, wind-up watches, quartz timepieces, grandfather clocks and smart devices became ubiquitous? What served as units of time if seconds and minutes could not be conveniently measured or counted? The apparent motion of the sun across the sky, the phases of the moon, and the beat of a heart must have served some such purpose while day and night marked longer periods.

Time calculation still takes two distinct forms – the calendar, a geometrical way of organising intervals of time, and the clock, a physical device that counts the passage of time.

The ancient Egyptians may have divided the day into twelve smaller parts on their sundials, influenced no doubt by the 12 lunar cycles in a year. Their sundial used a gnomon to cast a shadow on a set of markings calibrated to the hour. The Romans used a clepsydra, a vessel with holes for the outflow of water. As the water emptied, it measured time, sort of like an hour glass with sand.

May the gods destroy that man who discovered hours and first set up a sundial here, to cut up my day!’

All of the above led me to the impending solstice which occurs when the Sun appears to reach its most northerly or southerly point as the Earth rotates and orbits the Sun. Bizarrely, I have been attempting to record daily sunrise and sunset where I live here in Perth – see the chart above – and it literally comes down to one or two minutes difference over the course of a week or so.

The Sun’s daily arc affects the length of daytime experienced and amount of daylight received during a given season. The two moments, when the angle of Earth’s rotational axis is towards the Sun, are the solstices, occurring annually, around June 21 and December 21, when the Sun’s motion comes to a stop. When it is the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere in Australia, it is the winter solstice in the Northern. The day of a solstice in either hemisphere has either the most sunlight of the year (summer solstice) or the least sunlight of the year (winter solstice). The summer solstice is when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and has the longest period of daylight. Conversely, the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily position in the sky.

The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (‘sun’) and sistere (‘to stand still’) because at the solstices, the Sun’s daily path seems to stop at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction. The Ancient Greeks used the term “ηλιοστάσιο” (heliostāsio), meaning stand of the Sun. The Sun’s westerly motion never ceases as Earth is continually in rotation.

The concept of the solstices was embedded in ancient Greek celestial navigation. When they realised that the Earth was spherical they devised the idea of an imaginary spherical surface rotating with the planets and stars fixed in it. The stars move across the inner surface of this imaginary celestial sphere along the circumferences of circles in parallel planes perpendicular to the Earth’s axis. The Sun and the planets do not move in these parallel paths but at an angle to the axis, bringing the Sun and planets across the paths of, and in among, the stars.

The exact solstice time is not easy to determine as I found out. The angle become smaller as the Sun gets closer to its maximum/minimum declination. The days before and after the solstice, are barely detectable with devices like sextant and impossible with more traditional tools like a gnomon. It is also hard to detect the changes on sunrise/sunset azimuth due to the atmospheric refraction changes.

According to Google, in 2019 the summer solstice will occur between December 20 and December 23 in the Southern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 22 in the Northern.

How did Iron Age societies calculate such things as the start or separation of seasonal change? Did the druids base their pronouncements on observations of the sky and how was time calculated?

Ancient Indian philosophers believed that Time repeated ages over the lifespan of the universe, leading to beliefs in rebirth and reincarnation, as did the Celtic druids.

Ancient Greek philosophers wondered if time was linear or cyclical and if it was endless or finite while the Islamic and Judeo-Christian world-view regard time as linear and directional, beginning with God creating the world. The traditional Christian view sees the present order of things coming to an ‘end time’ although I don’t think that was ever mentioned in my primary school catechism which was a list of questions and answers that we were expected to memorise. I can only remember two of them now – ‘Who is God? God is our father in heaven’ and ‘Who made the world? God made the world.’

Celtic and other nomadic groups more than likely used the moon as a time-measuring device as early as 6,000 years ago with Lunar calendars of 12 or 13 lunar months corresponding to cycles of Moon phases. Seasons quickly come adrift in a lunar calendar and it became the prerogative of the druid class to calculate and add days or months to some years to balance things out.

Julius Caesar put the Roman world on a solar, or Julian, calendar in 45 BC indicating the seasons relative to the apparent position of the Sun but that, too, was faulty as the astronomical solstices and equinoxes moved by more than ten minutes per year. The solar day was the time interval between two successive journeys of the Sun across the local meridian – an imaginary line running from north to south – passing directly overhead. At this ‘solar noon’ the Sun reaches its highest point or zenith on its daily arc across the sky. It was not until 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII introduced a correction with the Gregorian solar calendar, now the most commonly used calendar around the world but which does not correspond to cycles of Moon phase.

The Celtic Coligny calendar, found in France in 1887, dates back to the first century A.D. and was used to define the beginning and length of the day, the week, the month, the seasons, quarter days, and festivals and was an attempt to reconcile the cycles of the moon and sun, as did the modern Gregorian calendar. However, the Coligny calendar considers the phases of the moon to be important, and each month always begins with the same moon phase.Coligny4

Among the Celts, the year was divided into a light half and a dark half. As the day was seen as beginning at sunset, so the year was seen as beginning with the arrival of the darkness at the feis of Samhain (around 1 November in the modern calendar).The light half of the year started at Bealtaine (around 1 May, modern calendar). Longer periods were reckoned in nights, as in the surviving English term fortnight meaning two weeks.

Those accuracy issues make it possible to determine the solstice day only with the use of more complex tools, which of course I don’t have, nor would I know how to use them, but my smart phone weather gizmo gives me – I presume – accurate readings for sunrise and sunset each day, as in the attached table. How did ancient societies do it? This is not a rhetorical question!

For vague comparison, the Southern Hemisphere (Winter) Solstice of 21 June 2019 had sunrise 07:15 and sunset at 17:18 giving a meagre daylight of 10 hours and three minutes.

Solstice & Christmas

I love astronomical words like ‘gibbous’ referring to one of the moon’s phases, even though I don’t fully understand what it means in the same way that I haven’t really come to grips with solstices (longest & shortest days?) and equinoxes (equal nights and days?) but I do know that one of them – the summer solstice – is just around the corner.

Falling usually on December 21 or, in this case, on Saturday, 22 December 2018, the summer solstice is the longest day of sunlight we can expect for the next year.

Solstices are specific times on opposite sides (north and south) of the equator, which is the imaginary belt running snugly around the Earth’s belly and thus occur twice a year.

The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (Europe etc.) is around December 21, the darkest day of the year, while around June 21, is the summer solstice.

It is the exact opposite here, of course, in the Southern Hemisphere (Down Under). During the December solstice, which is summer here, the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn (another imaginary band around the Earth’s knees, as it were) and has reached its southern-most position on the globe, when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the Sun.

The Solstice is actually at a specific moment – when the Sun is exactly over the Tropic of Capricorn, (latitude 23° 30′ South), and occurs at 06:23 in Perth, West Australia, this year.

The summer and winter solstices were crucial points of reference for ancient civilizations, including the Celts.   Only the druids who had angled their sacred sites so that they either faced, or stood, in a geometrical relationship to the rising sun of the solstice, could reveal the paths of heavenly bodies, showing the workings of the universe and the designs of the gods as the solstice is one of the two times of the year when the sun rises and sets in almost exactly the same place, several days in a row

The term solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium, meaning ‘the Sun stands still’, because on this day, the Sun reaches its southern-most position as seen from the Earth. The Sun seems to stand still at the Tropic of Capricorn and then reverses its direction. Some cultures referred to this period as the day the Sun turns around.

Ancient people are thought to have seen the sun rising and setting ever further to the north or south and to have assumed that, without a good deal of prayer, procession and bloody sacrifice, it would either get stuck in the same place – with disastrous consequences for agriculture – or, worse, continue in the same direction until it disappeared for ever. Absolute nonsense of course, given that these self same Neolithic peoples built enormous, astronomically aligned stone temples so that their priests, and spiritual leaders could guide their peoples through the obligatory festivals and celebrations of the astronomical events of the year.

Both Greece and Rome revered the sun with Hercules seen as a sun god. His twelve labours were equated with the twelve constellations of the zodiac through which the sun passes in the course of a year while Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, was the official sun god of the later Empire of Rome.

Emperor Aurelian reintroduced the sun god and cult in 274 A.D. The Emperor Constantine the Great, with the Edict of Toleration, proclaimed at Milan, made Christianity legal throughout the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., but continued to have his coins inscribed with the words, “Sol Invicto Comiti”, which means Committed to the Invincible Sun. Accordingly, Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire was more likely a matter of political strategy than religious conviction.

St. Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland) blended pre-Christian, pagan beliefs onto his brand of Roman Christianity introduced to Ireland c. 432A.D. by taking druidic beliefs in the sun god, Lugh and fashioning them into orthodox Christianity. The addition of a circle (the wheel – like the pocket-sized votive wheels still found in Celtic sanctuaries – was a symbol of the sun. The eight spokes are thought to represent the cardinal points and the rising and setting of the sun at the summer and winter solstices) onto the Christian cross became the commonly recognised Celtic Cross, bringing together elements of paganism and Christianity.

So too were dates chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. In ancient Rome, the winter solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. The festival was held to honour Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. The date of Christmas itself celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was aligned with the December solstice because from that point onwards the days began to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. Mind you, what that has to do with anything is anyone’s guess.

Happy Solstice (winter or summer, wherever you are) and a very happy Christmas to all.





I haven’t done an audio recording of Raiding Cooley for a while – and it would feel a bit too strange to do a video recording of me reading, so I think I’ll give that a miss for now.

Anyway, trying to decide what to read – whether to begin at the beginning or just pick a point at random, like I’ve done before.

OK, the very, very, very beginning.

The Prologue outlines the reasons why the Triple Goddess of War cursed the warriors of the Ulaidh Kingdom in Celtic Ireland, thereby setting the scene for the future consequences of the curse, and, incidentally, the beginning of the story proper, about 450 years later. Imperial Rome is still occupied with subduing the Celts in Gaul and Teutonics in northern Rhineland in 57 BCE but Caesar is already planning the first invasion of Britain. Ireland, while sharing extensive linguistic, cultural and extensive trade links with both Britain and Europe, remains a land of mystery, remote from Roman rule.

Who are the Irish & Where did their Language come from? Part Two

Meanwhile, in Europe, Celts originated in central and east-central Europe during the Early Iron Age, about 850 BCE. Various groups or tribes assimilated during the Bronze Age and gradually developed a single culture around the discovery and use of Iron. Referred to as Hallstatt, from an area in Austria where major archaeological finds were discovered, this Celtic culture developed into a major trading centre with the Mediterranean and the Greek port of Massalia (modern day Marseilles).

By about 450 BCE, during the Late Iron Age in Europe, the Hallstatt culture was succeeded by a period known as La Tène after a site in modern day Switzerland. This was a major shift in culture and style focusing on decorative metalwork such as gold torcs and horse gear with iron being cheaper and more available than bronze. Despite later descriptions of the Celts being unruly and warlike, they were predominantly an agricultural and pastoral people and iron plough shares cleared the land more efficiently while iron swords, spears and shields gave them a tactical advantage as their need for farmland kept pace with their growing population and inevitably, groups reached Britain and Ireland.

Further south, Celtic tribes began their expansion over the Alps and into Italy (sacking Rome in 390 BCE) and down through the Balkans, eventually reaching Turkey where they were known as the Galatians (the object of many of St. Paul’s future letters!). The Romans called them Celtae or Galli and the Greeks referred to them as Galatae or Keltoi but it is not clear what they called themselves. The first written reference to them was in Greek c.500 BCE.

By c.600 BCE, during the early Irish Iron Age, the former trade links with Europe apparently collapsed, isolating Ireland from events in Europe. The former communal interdependence relied on Ireland being a source of copper, essential for Bronze Age metallurgy but with iron being relatively widespread in Europe, trade declined. After 600 BCE and before the start of La Tène in Ireland by about 300 BCE, nothing much is known yet it is during this time, from about 300 BCE – 400 AD that the Irish language most probably arrived in Ireland.

The shift from Bronze to Iron technology varied widely within Europe. The majority of metal finds in Ireland from this period were not, in fact iron, most being bronze which remained in widespread use throughout the Irish Iron Age. It was not until the 3rd century BCE, that La Tène items such as ornaments, weapons and tools appeared in Ireland and this Celtic influence may have been the greatest single cause of the creation of both the “Irish” people and their language. This was also the period when Ireland came into regular contact with the Roman world through Roman traders and “Irelanders” travelling to Britain and beyond.

Despite the archaeological evidence, once again there is no direct evidence of a substantial population movement from Europe to Ireland. In fact the opposite seems to have occurred, with the land becoming re-forested and agriculture declining, suggesting a sharp fall in population. Nevertheless, two streams of La Tène culture continued to enter Ireland, the first direct from Europe to the west of Ireland and the later input from Britain to the north.

From 300 – 200 BCE as Roman power extended in the south and east, the Celts were being pressed on the north by the Germanic tribes moving south. Rome continues to squeeze Celtic lands, and by 150 BCE their area of influence continued to decline until Caesar conquered Gaul a century later ending their hegemony and, more slowly but just as surely, the languages of the continental Celts. By 100 – 1BCE only Britain & Ireland retained a Celtic lifestyle.

Celtic Languages of Europe

Gaulish Galatian Lepontic Hispano Celtic Tartesian
P-Celtic P-Celtic P-Celtic Q-Celtic Q-Celtic

As a distinct entity, Celtic language and culture were wiped out in Europe. In Britain, Celtic tribes were driven north into Scotland and east into Wales by the numerous incursions, first by the Romans themselves and then later by the Angle and Saxon invasions.

Wine and Amphorae

“Adds its own seasoning to food, cutting the richness of fat, making meat seem more tender and washing down pulses and unleavened bread without distending the belly” Hugh Johnson – The Story of Wine.

Southern Italy picked up the wine growing tradition from Greece where wine was often diluted with water or even seawater! In Homer, Odysseus got the one-eyed Cyclops pissed on strong Maronean red wine. Poor ol’ Cyclops was only used to weak Sicilian wine made from unpruned wild grapes. Scythian wine was so hard that Ovid claimed an axe was needed to cut it! Greek wine wisdom warned that one bowl was good for health, two for pleasure and love, three for sleep, four for violence, five for uproar, six for drunken revel, seven for black eyes, eight for peace officers involvement, nine for biliousness and the tenth for madness and the hurling of furniture.

Throughout the first century BCE the best quality wine was the white and sweet Opinium vintage. The most famous grapes were grown between Rome and Sorrento at the vineyard of Falernum where the wine came in three varieties – dry, sweet and light. A strong wine, Falernian’s colour varied from amber to brown when matured in the amphorae. Following on in terms of quality was Caecuban, followed by the wines of Alba, just south of Rome, while Trebellian came from Naples.

An amphora was a slender clay vase with two handles and a long neck. The base was either pointed or formed into a knob, but never flat. Sizes varied. Greek amphorae averaged about 40 litres, Roman amphorae = 26 litres or so. Potters made the amphorae in several sections, and then the wet sections were moulded together and the base pared down to a point or a knob, making it easier to lift and tip with the point acting as a third handle. Stamp of origin pressed into the wet clay of their handles. The mouth of the jar was sealed with cork or wax and resin. Ships could carry 2000 – 3000 amphorae at a time, the pointed ends buried in a bed of sand and the handles tied together to keep them steady on the trip from Pompeii up to Rome

Bordeaux was a perfect port for wine distribution to Britain and Ireland. A ‘negotiator Britannicuus” was identified on the wharf in the 1st century BC. Both Britain and Ireland had long had an active maritime trade based on the tin wealth of Cornwall, and the gold and copper found in Ireland, Bronze Age requirements for the growth in metallurgy.

Wine routes to Britain, varied widely. A long sea journey around Spain, overland to Bordeaux and then by sea, via the rivers – the Loire, the Seine and the Rhine and finally via the Moselle which was much more expensive than the sea route around Spain. Britons possibly bought the surplus from the Roman garrisons or, more likely, the amphorae were emptied of their southern contents and refilled with inferior, local German wines.

The Celts, as a race, seemed inordinately fond of drinking and, according to Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BCE, “they sate themselves with the unmixed wines imported by the merchants; their desire makes them drink greedily and when they become drunk, they fall into a stupour or into a maniacal disposition.” Poseidonius, writing sometime between 135 and 51 BCE claimed, “the drink of the wealthy classes is wine imported from Italy or from the region around Massalia…”

The city, modern day Marseilles, thrived by acting as a link between inland Gaul, hungry for Roman goods and wine (which Massalia was steadily exporting by 500 BCE) and Rome’s insatiable need for new products and slaves.

The great bronze vase of Vix, found in the tomb of a Burgundian princess at Vix who died in about 600 BC could hold 1200 litres or approximately 45 amphorae with the going price of an amphora equal to one (female) slave!

Of course, not all wine was drunk, often it was often used as an antiseptic for wounds although Druids disapproved of wine!












Celtic Iron Age Chariots


According to Caesar, the European Celts made wide use of chariots in warfare with a warrior standing behind the seated driver. The Celts extolled virtues in a chariot driver such as turning in a tight circle, backing up straight and leaping over chasms. Caesar also claimed to witness reckless and dangerous feats such as the warrior running along the pole to stand on the yoke of the horses or the driver urging the horses to jump logs and ditches at full speed. The latter, a back and neck-breaking stunt if performed in a farm-cart, might work with a chariot if it had a flexible spring suspension allowing the vehicle to actually lift off the ground. So, what were the chariots like and how were they used?

Rather than use the chariots as an attack vehicle, they were more likely to be used as a mode of delivery to the battle line. Racing up and down between the opposing forces, warriors would bellow out their battle cries and challenges above the roar of the heavy iron rimmed wheels, to intimidate their opposite number before dismounting and advancing on foot to accept an offer of single combat. The chariot driver would then retreat to a safe distance and wait for the return of victorious warrior or make ready for a speedy retreat if things went badly.

Made from sturdy ash wood, apart from the one-piece, iron rimmed wheels, which was probably a Celtic innovation – and hub fittings, chariots had double arched sides with the main frame lashed to the axle and the pole using wet rawhide which shrank tight, pulling joints together securely. Inside the arched sides was a Y shaped rawhide strap suspending an independent platform within the main frame. Leather slings supporting a carriage body were a tried and tested method of suspension and were still widely used in the stagecoaches of the Wild West.

chariotThe wooden spoked wheels were positioned beyond the edge of the body, offering greater stability and better cornering while the hilly, bumpy, boggy and rutted rough terrain made the need for a driver to be seated as he would have had a lower centre of gravity, adding to the overall stability.

The internal platform frame, again made from ash, was suspended from the main frame by leather straps and supported by two underneath battens fastened to the Y straps. A long strip of rawhide made the warp and weft of the platform, on which the warrior would stand, giving just the right amount of give and springiness to counteract a rough ride.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of the Irish Celts ever having used chariots but I am afraid historical accuracy did not prevent me from making extensive use of chariots, as evidenced in the following excerpt from the chapter Claiming Emer in Part Two of my novel, Raiding Cúailnge.

Laeg hopped onto the open front of the chariot, taking the reins in his left hand, his right shoulder against the right forward side arch of ash wood with one foot braced against the opposite arch, his right foot extended onto the pole leading to the yoked ponies. At a nod from Sétanta, he expertly guided the light chariot over the coarse grassed, bumpy plain, rutted with old chariot tracks, to the north of Brúgh na Bóinne and forded the Boann river heading south towards Luglochta Logo, the iron-shod wooden wheels sending up gouts of water on either side of the chariot, drenching Sétanta, who balanced easily on the interwoven strips of rawhide which made up the springy strap work floor.

“Hold on,” shouted Laeg, the cold wind whipping his long hair back as he urged the ponies on and over the first of the horizontal logs which made up the corrugated trackway of oaken beams laid over the boggy ground stretching before them. Sétanta grunted and allowed his knees to bend slightly to counteract the jolting although the rawhide straps supporting the body of the chariot provided a rough suspension.

Illustration: British Museum.