Stonehenge Winter Solstice – 22nd December 2010

22 09 2010

Last year saw a large number of people (including Druids) turn up at Stonehenge on the wrong day in 2009?  I thought I would clarify the correct ‘Winter Solstice’ day for 2010 to save any embaresment.  The summer solstice is always on the 21st, however the winter solstice can fall on the 21st or the 22nd.  The celebration does not always fall on the same date as the solstice because the modern year does not correspond precisely to the solar one.

The exact time for the Winter Solstice is December 21st, 11.39pm (UK time). The sunset on the 21st is at 3.53pm and the sunrise on the 22nd of December at 8.04am. Exceptionally, you can also expect a full moon on December 21th.

English Heritage did not confirm the date for Open Access for Stonehenge for the Winter Solstice yet, but most likely this will be dawn on the 22nd of December. (The sunrise on the 22nd is closer to the actual solstice than that on the 21th of December.) Expect a short period of access, from approximately 7.30 to 9.00am

Stonehenge is carefully aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset (opposed to New Grange, which points to the winter solstice sunrise, and the Goseck circle, which is aligned to both the sunset and sunrise). It is thought that the Winter Solstice was actually more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the Summer Solstice. The Winter Solstice was a time when most cattle were slaughtered (so they would not have to be fed during the winter) and the majority of wine and beer was finally fermented.

Gerald Hawkins’ work

Gerald Hawkins’ work on Stonehenge was first published in Nature in 1963 following analyses he had carried out using the Harvard-Smithsonian IBM computer. Hawkins found not one or two alignments but dozens. He had studied 165 significant features at the monument and used the computer to check every alignment between them against every rising and setting point for the sun, moon, planets, and bright stars in the positions they would have been in 1500 BC. Thirteen solar and eleven lunar correlations were very precise against the early features at the site with precision falling during the megalithic stages. Hawkins also proposed a method for using the Aubrey holes to predict lunar eclipses by moving markers from hole to hole. In 1965 Hawkins wrote (with J. B. White) Stonehenge Decoded, which detailed his findings and proposed that the monument was a ‘Neolithic computer’.

Stonehenge – An Asronimical Calandar

Stonehenge features an opening in the henge earthwork facing northeast, and suggestions that particular significance was placed by its builders on the solstice and equinox points have followed. For example, the summer solstice sun rose close to the Heel Stone, and the sun’s first rays shone into the centre of the monument between the horseshoe arrangement. While it is possible that such an alignment can be coincidental, this astronomical orientation had been acknowledged since William Stukeley drew the site and first identified its axis along the midsummer sunrise in 1720.

Stukeley noticed that the Heel Stone was not precisely aligned on the sunrise. Year to year, the movement of the sun across the sky appears regular. However, due to temporal changes in obliquity of the ecliptic, illumination declinations change with time. The purported Heel Stone alignment with summer solstice sunrise would have been less accurate four to five thousand years ago. The Heel Stone, in fact, is located at 1/7th of circumference from due North, as noted by archaeologist James Q. Jacobs.[3] Stukeley and the renowned astronomer Edmund Halley were to attempt what amounted to the first scientific attempt to date a prehistoric monument. Stukeley concluded the Stonehenge had been set up “by the use of a magnetic compass to lay out the works, the needle varying so much, at that time, from true north.” He attempted to calculate the change in magnetic variation between the observed and theoretical (ideal) Stonehenge sunrise, which he imagined would relate to the date of construction. Their calculations returned three dates, the earliest of which, 460 BC, was accepted by Stukeley. That was incorrect, but this early exercise in dating is a landmark in field archaeology [4]. .

Early efforts to date Stonehenge exploited tiny changes in astronomical alignments and led to efforts such as H Broome’s 1864 theory that the monument was built in 977 BC, when the star Sirius would have risen over Stonehenge’s Avenue. Sir Norman Lockyer proposed a date of 1680 BC based entirely on an incorrect sunrise azimuth for the Avenue, aligning it on a nearby Ordnance Survey trig point, a modern feature. Petrie preferred a later date of AD 730. The necessary stones were leaning considerably during his survey, and it was not considered accurate.

Neolithic Computer

An archaeoastronomy debate was triggered by the 1963 publication of Stonehenge Decoded, by British-born astronomer Gerald Hawkins. Hawkins claimed to observe numerous alignments, both lunar and solar. He argued that Stonehenge could have been used to predict eclipses. Hawkins’ book received wide publicity, in part because he used a computer in his calculations, then a rarity. Archaeologists were suspicious in the face of further contributions to the debate coming from British astronomer C. A. ‘Peter’ Newham and Sir Fred Hoyle, the famous Cambridge cosmologist, as well as by Alexander Thom, a retired professor of engineering, who had been studying stone circles for more than 20 years. Their theories have faced criticism in recent decades from Richard J. C. Atkinson and others who have suggested impracticalities in the ‘Stone Age calculator’ interpretive approach.

There are a few tour companies offering Stonehenge Tours during the Solstice period.  Try the Stonehenge Tour Company, Best Value Tours, Salisbury Guided Tours and Premium Tours 

See you all at the Winter Sostice

Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle Web site

Megalithic Poems – The stones are great

22 09 2010

The stones are great
And magic power they have
Men that are sick
Fare to that stone
And they wash that stone
And with that water bathe away their sickness


Indeed the stones are great, and certainly have had the power to capture the imagination of poets and artists through the centuries.

On the 21 September 2005, the heritage journal  started the anthology of Megalithic Poems, a colleague warned that we’d be hard pressed to find even half a dozen on the theme of the megalithic structures and prehistoric sites of Britain, Ireland and the European continent. Five years on and there are now some 300 poems on the blog, and an equal number of drawings, paintings, prints or photographs to accompany them.

The poems stretch over a period of some eight hundred years; from Laymon’s poem, Brut (above), of 1215 describing Stonehenge, to poems written only a few months ago. What does this tell us? Well, perhaps that not only have these structures inspired poets like Blake and Wordsworth (as well as artists such as Constable and Turner) down through the ages but also that this marvellous, mysterious megalithic heritage of ours continues to inspire us even today.

At a time when so much of our heritage is at risk through development and mismanagement (Tara in Ireland for example, even Stonehenge and Avebury) perhaps these poems, and the images that accompany them, will continue to inspire those who would take time out from busy lives to visit and ponder upon this often overlooked aspect of our heritage. Not only that, hopefully this anthology will also act as a warning that these places, built by our forefathers millennia ago, are in constant need of our care and attention lest, after thousands of years having, “…brav’d the continual assaults of weather…” (William Stukeley) they are finally lost for all time through the greed, ignorance and insensitivity of the 21st century.

Since September 2005 we’ve added many more poems and images on the megalithic theme in the hope that they’ll become a useful resource for those interested in the poetry, art and the history of our megalithic past – none of which would appear on the blog without the remarkable efforts and creativity of those who have written about megaliths or portrayed them in their work – not forgetting of course those who originally conceived and built these amazing structures!  To everyone, a very big thank you. We hope you will find as much pleasure browsing through the anthology as we have taken in compiling it.

Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle Website

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