Solstice time at Stonehenge – the Winter Solstice that is…
Every year thousands of people make their way to Stonehenge on England’s Salisbury plain to witness the sunrise herald the longest day of the year. The fascination began in 1720 when the antiquarian William Stukeley noticed that the entrance through the surrounding earthwork approximated to the direction of the summer solstice. Accompanied by his friend the astronomer Edmund Halley he made the first ever attempt at scientifically dating the monument by means of solar observation and magnetic measurements. However what few people know is that it was the midwinter sunset, not the midsummer sunrise that Stonehenge was designed to face.
Extending deep below the turf the foundation pits of the stones provide the evidence. Each stone was placed into a cut which provided a vertical wall of chalk against which the better flatter faces of the stones were set. On the opposite side was an incline, a ramp down which the stones were introduced into their foundations. Within the centre of Stonehenge four of the five massive Trilithons, the first stones to be erected have their foundation ramps to the outside the best sides facing inwards, all that is except the most impressive of all, the stones of the Great Trilithon, of which only one of the paired uprights remains standing. This massive stone weighing some 45 tons was raised from the centre of Stonehenge, its better face outwards towards the setting midwinter sun. This fact alone shows that the prehistoric architect’s first concern was the turning point of the year at the winter solstice.
In 1740 the stones were surveyed by John Wood, architect the famous city of Bath, creating what is now the most important early record Stonehenge ever made. Visitors to Bath today are largely unaware that Wood’s elegant Georgian buildings were inspired not only by Roman architecture, but by the symmetry and proportions he found within the plan of Stonehenge. A recent reappraisal of these early records and of the archaeological evidence reveals that Stonehenge itself was a carefully conceived geometrically inspired work, confirming that the order of construction tells us without doubt that it was the winter, not summer solstice that was the preoccupation of the Neolithic people who designed the monument. When you enter a cathedral you walk towards the altar, facing the direction of veneration, the fact that the door is at the west is more than the reciprocal of the fact that the altar lies to the east. So it was with Stonehenge,
For the real story of Stonehenge readers may like to see ‘Solving Stonehenge’ by Anthony Johnson, published by Thames & Hudson.
The book is described by the American Library Association, the worlds most professional, authoritative and unbiased reviewers as ‘the most attractive, readable, sensible and most comprehensive exploration of Stonehenge available’.