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October 15, 2019 2 min read

In 1897 at Coligny, near Lyon, a lunisolar calendar used by the Gauls (the name given by Caesar to continental Celts) was discovered. What were the features of this calendar, when was it made and how important was this calendar to the Gauls?

In the first century BC the Sequani occupied the territory between the Saone, Rhone and Rhine rivers in modern day France. The Sequani and Aedui appealed to Julius Caesar in 58 BC to expel German forces, who had taken over modern Alsace. Caesar assisted, but the Sequani also were forced to return territory they themselves had taken from the Aedui, who were the tribe of central Gaul. As a protectorate territory of Rome, Latin was widely spoken and the Roman calendar (which was updated many times) was used. The Sequani calendar dated two centuries later, then, is a very rare, unique find.

The Coligny calendar is a peg calendar discovered in 73 fragments. It was painstakingly restored forming a 5 foot wide, 3.5 foot high bronze tablet. When assembled it displays a lunisolar calendar, which follows both moon phases and solar year. Some scholars believed it was broken in pieces by the Romans to prevent its use. This was probably because it indicated Druidic practices that had been banned. The fact that it was constructed over a century since Druids were outlawed, showed that the Old Religion was still around, if underground.

Although pieces were missing, it could be reconstructed because missing months appeared at least once. The restored tablet contains sixteen vertical columns, with 62 months distributed over five years. Each month is marked MAT (complete) or ANM (incomplete). The first half of the month was always 15 days, but the second half would be 14 or 15 days. MAT months are 30 days and ANM months 29, except Equos, which in year 1 and 5 is 30 days, despite being marked ANM. It is believed Equos was used to keep the calendar is a sequence with the lunar cycle. The middle of each month is marked ATENVX, meaning “the returning night”.

The calendar is one of the most accurate lunar calendars of the ancient world, totaling 1831 days over a 5 year period, with an error of 1 day in 50 years. As a solar calendar, though, there is a significant error of 4.79 days over the 5 year period. Pliny, however, did mention a 30-year cycle used by the Celts, which if an intercalary month is dropped every thirty years, the error is reduced to 1 day in 195 years.

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