Summer solstice The Stonehenge monument in England is known for its alignment with the summer solstice sunrise, and it remains a popular destination for thousands of revellers welcoming the longest day of the year. Indeed, the inner “horseshoe” of the monument opens toward the point on the horizon where the sun appears on the day in June when the sun’s path is furthest North. But, was Stonehenge built to revere the summer solstice or is this a degree of wishful thinking on behalf of revellers and modern-day “druids”? Certainly, one cannot argue that the monument is not aligned with the movements of the sun, and with the solstices specifically. Yet, there seem to be two rather simple, and practical, objections.
Firstly, the Neolithic builders of Stonehenge, at least in its latter stages around 2,500 BC, are people who farm the land and were far more in tune with the seasons than most modern commentators. As farmers, what relevance would there be for celebrating the summer solstice? After all, the sun is shining (hopefully), the crops are growing, food is plentiful, and there’s far too much to be getting on with while the weather is favourable.
Secondly, and assuming the summer solstice is significant, as the June sun rises over the Heal Stone, does it not seem a bit odd to face towards sunrise and thus turn your back on the very monument you’ve laboured so many years to build? While not improbable, this does seem an odd way of doing business. The modern analogy would be to enter a typical Christian church, process down the nave towards the high altar and, once there, turn you back to it and completely ignore this fairly obvious focus of worship. So, could there be another interpretation?
Winter solstice On the same axis, in the opposite direction, is the point on the horizon where the sun sets on the winter solstice. Experts currently suspect that the midwinter alignment may have been the more important occasion for the Neolithic people who built Stonehenge. Which makes sense when you discover that the only megalithic monuments in the British Isles to contain a clear, compelling solar alignment are Newgrange and Maeshowe; both famously face the winter solstice sunrise.
The most recent evidence supporting the theory of winter visits includes bones and teeth from pigs which were slaughtered at nearby Durrington Walls, about two miles from Stonehenge. Their age at death, nine months, is strong evidence that they were born in the spring, fattened through the year, and slaughtered in midwinter. The extensive excavations at Durrington Walls, and comprehensive study of the wider archaeological landscape, has convinced Prof. Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield that, “We have no evidence that anyone was in the landscape in summer.”
So, it seems that watching the midsummer sun rising over the Heel Stone is almost certainly mistaken. The viewing position was at the Heel Stone itself, outside the sacred space, and the chief celebration was that of the setting midwinter sun, seen through the narrow central corridor. The sight of the last glint of winter sunlight through the centre of the black edifice must have been deeply moving.
Still not convinced? From all the available evidence it is theorised that cycles in the skies were readily correlated with earthly cycles such as the seasons. At the Neolithic passage tomb of Newgrange in Ireland, for example, the light of the sun shortly after dawn around the winter solstice shines directly into the interior through a roof-box above the entrance, lighting up a long passage and inner chamber that are usually in darkness. An important connection clearly existed in people’s minds between the sun, death, ancestors, and (very likely) the annual process of renewal. Thus, on the balance of probabilities, it is more likely that the winter solstice stood out as a time of renewal and regeneration - an idea that might resonant strongly with a farming community who, in the bleak depths of winter eagerly awaits the return of spring. By midwinter, with an increasing reliance on stored provisions, how much better might people feel if there was a reason to gather, feast and celebrate with others. Perhaps it not so surprising that midwinter festivals have had such a long cultural tradition; Christmas being just the most recent incarnation.
1. Apart from henge building, livestock still need to be tended. Crops need weeding. Repairs can be effected to houses, field boundaries, tools and equipment. All such things need to be completed before the frenetic days of harvest.