Thursday, June 20, 2024

Answer: Timeline of megalithic monuments?

 Ancient monumental architecture... 

Chichén Itzá  P/C by Wikimedia

... is always a fun topic--I always wonder how could people build monuments / temples / religious sites like the pyramids of Egypt, the moai of Easter Island, or the fabulous buildings in Peru?  In particular, how could they do it without advanced power technologies?  In the case of many of these older sites, they were built without any wheeled devices!  

I'm not convinced by any of the stories about ancient astronauts or other mythical creates that helped put everything together--I'm just very impressed by the degree of social and political organization required to build these places.    

One of the questions I always have is how do the different places relate to each other in time?  That is, was Stonehenge built around the same time as the great Mexican monuments like Chichén Itzá, or was it a very different time?  

For these kinds of questions, creating a timeline is the best solution--so I'm re-asking the question--what's the best way now (2024) to make a timeline showing megalithic monuments dates?   

1.  What is the current best solution for creating a visual timeline of various historic events?  Can you create  timeline that shows each of these monuments over time?  The list: Chichén Itzá, Monte Albán, Stonehenge, Göbekli Tepe, the moai of Easter Island, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, and the Serpent Mound in Ohio.  

To begin, I just did the obvious searches on each of the sites Wikipedia pages and found this set of dates: (link to my Google sheet)

Note:  If you ask your favorite LLM to give you these dates, they will find somewhat different dates than these. (And in some cases, they will be wrong by a couple thousand years.  Pro tip:  When asking for verifiable data like this, don't trust the LLM to give you the correct data, but go source it from reputable places.)  

Regular Reader remmij did a great search to find timeline tools: 

     [tools for creating historic timelines] 

The term "historic" is important here as it will limit the results to timeline tools that are useful across a wide range of dates.  Note that everyday tools like Excel and Google Sheets use a 1900-based date system.  That makes it very painful to represent dates BC / BCE.  

The SERP shows a bunch of results, some of which are more useful than others.  Of the ones in the list that I was able to get to work, Northwestern University Knight Lab’s TimelineJS was nice, but not perfect. (Note: This was the first tool in the SRS post from 2015--it's still out there and working!)  It's a bit twiddly to get it to work and the documentation isn't the best, but I got it to work.  

TimelineJS overview of the megalith sites list. I never did figure out how to get each of the eras to appear on a different line, which leads to serious overlap.

However, clicking in on a site give you a preview of an image of the site, etc. 
(P/C K. Mitch Hodge, Unsplash)

In a comment, Ramón pointed us to  It's a fairly basic system, but was very simple to use and created a beautiful timeline.  (Click on the image below to see it in full resolution.)  

Of all the timelines I tried, this was by far the simplest.  I had complete control and didn't have to worry about any BC/AD issues.  It just worked.  High compliments.  

For completeness I asked Gemini if it could create a timeline, and all I got back denials that "I'm still learning how to make data visualizations."  Really? 

I asked ChatGPT4o to do the same task, and I got this interesting, but useless diagram:  

A timeline of megalithic sites as rendered by Bing Copilot using ChatGPT4o. Not really useful. 
I do like the weird mix of the visuals of each site all blended together.

I tried other LLMs, but had similar results.  The best gave me an ASCII art representation, which isn't quite what I wanted... neither was the "chart" that Bing Copilot produced... 

As a last ditch effort, I asked Gemini to write some code to read the CSV file and create a plot.  THAT worked!  With a simple prompt of [I have a CSV file with start and end times of megalithic historic sites.  Can you write the Python code that will create a plot of the time intervals for each row? ]   It did it, and created a very readable block of code that I copy/pasted into a Google Collab notebook.  (Here's the link to the notebook if you'd like to see for yourself.)  

Interestingly, I spent FAR LESS time on the Python version of generating the timeline than I did in searching for, finding, and then learning / fiddling around / finding bugs, etc. of the timeline tools.  

Here's what the first version of the code created--5 minutes after I asked for the code: 

This isn't beautiful, but it's not bad either... except for the overlapping labels on the start and end points.  I looked at the code and figured how to tinker with it to offset the dates from the timeline.  Two minutes later it created this: 

The point of this entire SearchResearch Challenge was to see how these different megalithic sites compare to each other over time.  In these timelines you can see that Göbekli Tepe is insanely old, and that Monte Albán and Chichén Itzá overlapped by quite a bit. In the end, that was the point--to see the time relationships between all of the different locations.  

Side note:  I first tried using Google Sheets to create a timeline.  I've done this before in the past, but the timeline tool appears to have been moved into ONLY the Enterprise edition of Google Sheets.  I've figured out a weird workaround (by copying sheets with timelines that I've made before which keeps the timeline around), but it's such a hack that I'm going to simply observe that Enterprise Sheets has the timeline, but mere mortals such as you and I don't get to use it.  Besides, Sheets doesn't seem to handle dates BC very well, so this isn't a practical solution for anyone outside of a well-funded organization. 

SearchResearch Lessons

First and foremost: 

1. The simplest possible query to search for tools is often the best starting point.  Remmij's query:  [tools for creating historic timelines]  worked very well and led to some really useful tools.  Don't overthink this.  

2.  LLMs are not quite yet up to the task of creating a timeline.  I imagine that if you keep tweaking a prompt, at some point you'll be able to generate a decent timeline...  but I don't have that kind of time these days.  Better to just search for a dedicated tool and use that.  

Keep searching! 


  1. I didn't think about the historic term. It's a great idea. Well done, Remmij!

    Today I saw this thread. It's related to our Challenge. They are big and amazing

    Lesser-known amazing sculptures.

    1. good collection
      found this on the Cementerio de Pueblo Nuevo in Catalan -
      think this should have been on the list too -
      Feliz verano, espero que te mantengas alejado de la tormenta tropical Alberto.

    2. should have added the path -

    3. Thanks Remmij. Happy Summer for you too. Here Alberto brought only 11 liters per M2.

      In other states rain was big. And it was so needed. 75% of Mexico with some kind of drought

    4. Another kind of timeline. Today I knew about this site

      With you can download simple, stark graphics that highlight how your climate has warmed by country or cities included

    5. a large, land sculpture, (or blight) of sorts…?
      no large rocks allowed
      in U.S.

  2. & this:

  3. monoliths are back…
    on the bottom of one in Germany –
    "We are looking for you"
    QR code too -
    like the one in Wales…

  4. kinda human worked - a big rock/pebble in Cali…

  5. Montana? Big Sky/Big Stones
    future ruins…
    side track - desert drifter -
    slots give me the "willys", but the last 5-7 minutes have some interesting pictographs… dragonflys?
    The Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument?