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Langton House

Dorset, England

Summer Solstice at Stonehenge

Posted by Luci Ackers on Jun 13, 2016
Summer Solstice at Stonehenge
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Why is Stonehenge here?

For thousands of years Stonehenge has baffled us all. Thought to have been originally constructed between 3000 and 2000 BCE, Stonehenge is part of a larger archaeological site. The ancient landscape contains more than 350 burial mounds and Neolithic, Late Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments...

But was this purely a burial site, or was the purpose of Stonehenge more spiritual? There have always been myths surrounding its purpose: a Druid temple, a place to worship ancestors, an astrological calculator to name just a few. And folklore tales include a story of the Devil bringing the stones across from Ireland to the wizard Merlin constructing the site as a homage to fallen soldiers.

What's interesting is that the monument is perfectly aligned for the solstices.

The solstice happens once in June on the longest day of the year, and once in December on the shortest day of the year and was clearly an important time for the prehistoric builders of Stonehenge. The stones were placed in a way that the sunrise of the summer solstice and the sunset of the winter solstice are framed perfectly amongst the stones.

The monument and its alignment

The original structure, which can be seen as ruins today, consisted of two concentric patterns. An inner horseshoe of trilithons (two vertical supporting stones capped by a horizontal one) and a surrounding circle of standing stones which was topped continuously with lintels. Between these two layers of sarsen stones (sandstone boulders) was an oval of what are called blusetones. A circular ditch surrounds the whole thing and this is thought to be the oldest part of the site.

A little distance from the circles, the Heel Stone is a solitary boulder that marks the line of the sunrise. During the summer solstice the rising sun climbs over the Heel Stone allowing the light to shine down the Avenue and into the centre of the horseshoe arrangement. During the winter solstice the sun would set perfectly in the gap between the two tallest trilithons. Sadly one of these has now fallen. Even today people come from miles around to witness this beautiful spectacle.

So why is the solstice so important?

Though there is some debate, the English Heritage website suggests the sarsen stones were probably bought from the Marlborough Downs (20 miles away) while the bluestones came from the Preseli Hills in Wales (150 miles away). This is a huge distance for a group of people with such limited tools. The sarsens also weigh upwards of 20 tonnes – a massive effort to transport and then place in their chosen positions. So it must have been really important to the Neolithic builders...

Past theories have suggested that Druidic cults were responsible. In the 17th century John Aubrey, the first to record the surrounding ring of chalk pits (Aubrey Holes), attributed the structure to the native English Druids who were nature worshippers and fascinated by astronomy. Today the solstice is still celebrated at Stonehenge; Neo-druids and Neopagans started venturing to the site again in the late 19th – early 20th century. More recently access is very restricted but people are permitted to the site at the times of the solstice. Sunrise and sunset are at different points each year but you will be able to find the information of each as well as opening times on the English Heritage website.

Summer Solstice 2016

  • Monday 20th June: access to field opens at 7pm
  • Sunset is at 9.26pm
  • Tuesday 21st June: sunrise is at 4.52am
  • Access to the fields closes at 8am

 

Theories behind Stonehenge

Parallel to the line of the Avenue are what are known as periglacial stripes, a geographic feature of the land. It could be that these natural phenomenons helped to determine the positioning of this great monument.

Not much is known about who is buried here, but it's thought the builders of the site may have lived at the nearby settlement of Durrington Walls. It is now generally agreed that Stonehenge was some kind of prehistoric temple that has been aligned with the sun.

Visiting Stonehenge

It is an incredible place to visit and if you go on any non-solstice day you can still explore the site. For conservation reasons the public is not allowed to wander amongst and touch the stones during normal visiting hours, though there is the option to take a Special Access visit if you like, which would allow you to get a lot closer.

Usual visiting hours are between 9am and 8pm. You can visit the exhibition, learn about the history and see the replica Neolithic village. Either walk or take the shuttle to the monument itself and round off the day in the café. Find all there is to see an do on the website.

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Luci Ackers
Author: Luci Ackers

Luci loves getting out and about for a good cycle ride or easy-going walks in the countryside, and thoroughly enjoyed the time she previously spent working for the National Trust. Her love of writing started from a young age and on rainy days nothing beats curling up in a secret corner with a good book.


2 Comments related to this article
Elizabeth peters 15 June 2016
Brilliant article.
Reply
Luci Ackers 15 June 2016

Thank you very much Elizabeth! Glad you liked it :)

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