Civilization One: The World Is Not as You Thought It Was

Despite the rather sensational title (and the clunky subtitle: The World Is Not as You Thought It Was), Civilization One is one of the most profound and intensively researched books about ancient cultures to come out in the last decade. Christopher Knight, a best-selling author, teamed up with Alan Butler, a trained engineer and specialist in ancient astronomy, to put together in readable form the information and material spawned by the investigations of Alexander Thom in the 1930s through the 1970s.

Thom, a Scottish engineer, became interested in the megalithic-era stone circles and monoliths that pepper Great Britain. As an engineer, he was aware that builders, of necessity, used common systems of measurement. In its most rudimentary form, this might consist of the arm from the elbow to tip of the middle finger, or the human foot, used to pace off a distance. It was already surmised that the stone circles such as Stonehenge and Carnac were oriented according to celestial patterns, and Thom assumed that the builders would thus have needed a highly precise measuring system to ensure that all the stones were cut and placed in the appropriate positions.

For five decades, he roamed Britain, taking thousands of measurements at more than 600 sites. His efforts produced three major works, Megalithic Sites in Britain (Oxford, 1967), Megalithic Lunar Observatories (Oxford, 1971), and Megalithic Remains in Britain and Brittany (Oxford, 1978). His research also spawned the field of archeoastronomy.

Based on his measurements, Thom proposed that the ancient builders had used common measurement. He termed this the “Megalithic Yard,” and found it to be equal to 2.72 feet (.83 meters). This yard, as other researchers discovered, is very similar to measurements used in places as distant as Mesopotamia, India, and Cambodia.

Butler and Knight became curious about this unit of measurement used around the globe. The likelihood of a common measuring stick used in such disparate places seemed next to nil. They reasoned that the ancient builders must have been using a system either based on the curve of the earth or the movements of the heavenly bodies — the only two elements the distant locations would have had in common. They thus proposed that the system of measurement was based on a pendulum.

A pendulum is a curious tool, because the length of the swing and the size of the weight have almost nothing to do with the period (the time it takes to swing from one side to the other). The only real determining factor is the length of the fulcrum (the pendulum’s string). In an elegant experiment, Butler and Knight demonstrated that a pendulum with a fulcrum of half a Megalithic Yard beat 366 times as Venus moved through one degree of the Earth’s circumference. Three hundred and sixty-six, of course, is almost exactly the number of days in the year. And Venus, as well as being the brightest heavenly object other than the Sun and Moon, was revered as a sacred figure throughout the world.

Having established that there was almost certainly a celestial basis for the Megalithic Yard, Butler and Knight decided to investigate other measurements. They postulated a container a tenth of a Megalithic Yard on each side, and found, to their astonishment, that it held 1.005 pints, so close as to make the difference negligible. The pint is an ancient British unit of measurement, and the authors began to wonder if other old units of measurement were still in use today. They discovered that other ancient units, such as the rod and the furlong, were also incontrovertibly related to the Megalithic Yard.

The first half of the book is spent in detailing the investigations, and working out the numbers. The second half is more speculative, and delves into the history of Minoan Crete, Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, and other places of the former world, searching for evidence of a widespread astronomically based culture. Their discoveries are highly convincing.

In an almost throwaway section, relegated to the appendices, Alan Butler also solves the mystery of the Phaistos Disc, which had been found in a Minoan palace on Crete, and had stymied archeologists for decades. Butler showed that the embossed symbols are not hieroglyphs or a syllabary as such, but in fact relate to the precessional cycle, and can be used as a calendar to read dates far into the past.

For anyone interested in ancient cultures, astronomy, or even the history of mathematics, Civilization One is essential reading. It feels foundational, and will certainly continue to spawn further investigations.

Author of No Solid Ground: Renewable Contentment and Sustainable Happiness in an Age of Uncertainty.