Here comes the sun! Stonehenge and the summer solstice

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For many of us, the movements of the sun and the changing skies above us can pass by largely unnoticed as we go about our busy lives. We might be thankful for a sunny bank holiday, or notice the increasingly earlier dusk in the autumn, but, inside our homes, with lights and heating, it is easy to forget these changes in the world around us. But for prehistoric people, who were mostly farmers and gardeners, travellers and builders, the movements of the sun and the changing seasons were fundamentally important. The skies were important for practical information about the weather, timekeeping and navigation, but would also have been closely entwined with stories, myths and beliefs about the cosmos.

Stonehenge was carefully designed to align with the movements of the sun. The enormous sarsen stones and smaller bluestones, set up in the centre of the site in about 2500 BC, were precisely arranged to frame two particular events in the year: the sunrise at summer solstice, and the sunset at winter solstice. These are the extreme limits of the sun’s movement; the word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”).

Standing in the centre of the monument on midsummer’s day, the longest day of the year, the sun rises just to the left of the outlying Heel Stone to the north-east and the first rays of the day shine into the heart of Stonehenge. Archaeological excavations have found a large stone hole to the left of the Heel Stone and it may have held a partner stone, the two stones framing the sunrise. The long shadow of the Heel Stone, the largest stone on the site, also extends right into the middle of the stone circle.

An illustrated plan of Stonehenge from above, with arrows showing the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset
A plan of Stonehenge, showing the key solar alignments enshrined in the layout of the monument © English Heritage

Six months later, on the shortest day in the middle of winter, the sun sets in the opposite direction, to the south-west. Originally, the sun would have set in a narrow slot between the two upright stones of the tallest trilithon (three stones – two upright and one horizontal) at the head of the sarsen horseshoe. It would have dropped down into the Altar Stone, a sandstone block which was placed across the solstice axis in the centre of the site. The effect is lost today because one half of the trilithon is fallen, and today lies on top of the Altar Stone.

Analysis of a laser survey of Stonehenge has shown that those stones that frame the solstice axis were the most carefully worked and shaped using hammerstones, creating vertical sides that framed the movement of the sun. The smaller bluestones were also arranged to reflect the solstice axis, with a large gap in the outer circle towards the north-east, and in previous arrangements of these stones there were probably two small mini-trilithons that may well have framed the two solstice events. The axis is also reflected in the positions of the four Stanton Stones, positioned in a rectangle on the edge of the surrounding circular ditch, with the short sides on the same alignment as the sarsen stones. The first section of the Stonehenge Avenue, a route to the River Avon marked by parallel banks and ditches, is also on this same alignment.

An image of the Stonehenge monument, with the Heel Stone casting a long shadow in the foreground
Stonehenge with Heel Stone in foreground © English Heritage

It is likely that people gathered at Stonehenge at the summer and winter solstices to witness the pivotal changes in the movement of the sun, and to conduct rituals and ceremonies relating to the changing seasons, the sun and the sky. There are very few other clues as to what took place at the stone circle; archaeologists have found during excavations that the site is generally very clean, with no signs of feasting, fires or the deposition of objects taking place. It might have been that only certain people, priests or leaders, could stand within the inner circle to witness the arrival or return of the sun, and that this was a sacred space.

The people who built Stonehenge were farmers, so the changing seasons would have been of immense significance. But Stonehenge is likely to have been much more than simply a calendar, and probably also had religious and ritual importance. Buried at the site, during an earlier phase in Stonehenge’s history, are the cremated remains of about 150 people – and the solstices may have been an important time to remember these ancestors.

An image of Stonehenge during winter, with the sun rising in the background
Stonehenge on 17 December 2019, close to the winter solstice. The stone at the rear with the prominent tenon on top is the right hand side of a trilithon that has since fallen, which with its partner would originally have framed the final gleam of the setting sun © English Heritage, Josh Drury

It’s thought midwinter would have been the most important focus for the people who built Stonehenge. This is partly because the alignments towards the setting midwinter sun are ahead of you when walking up the avenue and entering the monument, much the same as the most important parts of a church are located in front of you when you enter. People also gathered to feast during the winter at Durrington Walls, the settlement to the northwest of Stonehenge where the builders probably lived. Pig bones have been found buried in pits and in rubbish dumps known as middens, and most were killed when they were about nine months old. If these pigs had been born during the spring, the majority were being killed at midwinter. Evidence from the cattle and pig bones show that they were being brought over long distances to the feasts at Durrington Walls, suggesting that midwinter was a time when people gathered in great numbers to conduct rituals at the monuments and feast together. But midsummer could also have been a time of celebration and ceremony.

A brightly lit wide angled shot showing Stonehenge on the right hand side
Stonehenge © English Heritage

Other monuments in the Stonehenge landscape were also built to align with the movements of the sun. Woodhenge, a timber monument near Durrington Walls, was built on the same axis, aligning with the midwinter and midsummer solstices. The nearby monument known as the Southern Circle, which is comparable to Stonehenge, is orientated towards the midwinter sunrise, and has an avenue leading down to the River Avon that is aligned on midsummer sunset. These alignments might suggest that people undertook ceremonies in one part of the Stonehenge landscape at dawn, and perhaps processed to another part at sunset. Clearly the monuments were closely connected to principles relating to these important solar directions.

Crowds stand in a darkened foreground, with the outline of the Stonehenge monument in the background, with the rising sun behind it
Summer solstice sunrise 2016 © English Heritage

We don’t know when Stonehenge stopped being used, but it is likely that by the end of the early Bronze Age, in about 1500 BC, people had forgotten the original purpose of the monument and some of the stones are likely to have already fallen. The stones have continued to silently mark the solstices for thousands of years. It is only in more recent times that people have started to gather at the site again, particularly at the summer solstice. The alignment was rediscovered by the antiquary and archaeologist William Stukeley in the early 1700s, but it was only in the 1860s, after some local public lectures that explained the alignment, that people started to gather at the site at sunrise on the longest day. Gradually the number attending solstice increased, and during the 20th century it became associated with the rise of new religions based of a revival of Druidism, alongside pagan and Wicca beliefs. In the 1970s and 1980s these events developed into the Stonehenge Free Festival, a large event which attracted thousands of people each year to camp in the surrounding landscape, with many live bands, to celebrate midsummer. Over 30,000 people attended the last of these in 1984, with unfortunately much damage caused to the surrounding landscapes and prehistoric monuments, leading to a ban on the festival the following year, and prevention of public access to Stonehenge at midsummer for about 15 years.

Since 1999, however, English Heritage have provided managed open access at the summer and winter solstices, as well as the spring and autumn equinoxes. On these occasions, the site is open and accessible to all, and many people who have spiritual or religious beliefs relating to the monument and the past come to celebrate the turning of the year and the changing seasons. In recent years, the solstices have also been livestreamed, with thousands of people all around the world being able to watch these events. These spectacular occasions provide an opportunity for us to reconnect with the natural world around us, to take time away from our everyday concerns and to notice, once more, the movements of the sun.

For more information about attending the summer solstice or the livestream, visit the English Heritage website.

The world of Stonehenge is open until 17 July 2022. Book tickets.

Supported by bp

Organised with the State Museum of Prehistory, Halle/Saale, Germany

The post Here comes the sun! Stonehenge and the summer solstice first appeared on British Museum Blog.