The Winter Solstice in Prehistory

Humans probably always noticed the movement of the sun across the sky, and celebrated the extremes of its rising and setting on the days of the solstices, but it is only when people began to build monuments during the Neolithic, about 3,000 BC, that we have clear evidence of the importance of these times. 

Stonehenge is perhaps the best known of all the Neolithic monuments and is generally associated with the summer solstice, but this may have more to do with modern use of the site rather than ancient practice. New research at adjacent Durrington Walls reveals a Neolithic village, although the makeshift nature of the houses suggests that people did not live there all year round but only visited at special times. These were clearly rowdy occasions, as the copious remains of butchered pigs attest, and sumptuous feats were definitely on the menu. But the remains tell us something else. Most of the pigs were around eight or nine months old. Assuming that they had been born in the early spring months, people were eating them around the winter and not the summer solstice. Since these same people almost certainly held ceremonies at the neighbouring stone circle at Stonehenge, it suggests that it was first and foremost, a winter monument. 

Walking towards the stones from the avenue that winds up from the river, the setting sun of the midwinter solstice bisects the circle as it sinks across the plain and into the underworld of night. Perhaps this was the most auspicious and dangerous times for these communities and a great monument and attendant celebration was necessary to ensure that the sun returned the next morning and, with it, the lengthening days that promised new life and the continuation of their world. 

It may also be significant that a timber circle contained within Durrington Walls was aligned to the rising sun at midwinter (as were the ‘walls’ themselves). If people returned to the village after watching the sun set at Stonehenge, they did not have far to go to see it rise. Maybe this was the dichotomy they sought: death at Stonehenge and life at Durrington Walls. 

The dichotomy of life and death may also be evident within burial tombs, most famously at Newgrange in Ireland. Here, a shaft of sunlight from the midwinter sunrise pierces the passage to the burial chamber and lights the interior. Was this a way of symbolically bringing the dead back to life or a means of making their transition to the afterlife smoother. At another tomb, the Clava cairns in Scotland, it is the setting sun at midwinter that enters the tomb and lights the interior. Clearly, the meaning of the attendant symbolism was more complex than a single site can reveal. 

The Dorest Cursus, a ceremonial route running 10 kilometres across the land, was orientated so that anyone observing the setting sun on the midwinter solstice from within the western terminal of the earthworks would observe the glowing disc descend behind (or, in their eyes, perhaps within) a round barrow located on an adjacent ridge. It must have made a powerful spectacle. 

Similarly, at Long Meg and her Daughters, a stone circle in Cumbria, the outlying stone called Long Meg delineates the position of the setting of the midwinter sun for anyone situated within the circle. Like the Dorset Cursus, people had to be included and allowed into a sanctified space for the event for it to be truly appreciated. 

The inclusion of a special few, whilst excluding others (and this would have been especially pressing within the tombs, assuming the living witnessed the event at all) may hint at the politics of power that surrounded the solstice. An attitude that is prescient of all that has happened since, when the returning sun, has to many, become the returning son.

11 Responses to “The Winter Solstice in Prehistory”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrew Duncan. Andrew Duncan said: RT @MikesVoice: How did our ancient ancestors celebrate the winter solstice and mark the longest night of the year? … [...]

  2. Ishtar says:

    Mike, I love this article. Would it be possible to have it also on the Gate? Love Ishtar x

  3. Ishtar says:

    Oh you already did!

    Thank you!

  4. Jane says:

    It is ineresting that the monument is so associated with the summer solstice today yet may have been even more important for the winter solstice to our ancestors.

  5. Hi Mike. I am extremely interested in how the planet’s ancestors lived their lives ‘by the stars’ but wonder why, whenever Stonehenge is mentioned, Avebury is missed out? Do you know why Stonehenge seems to command greater interest than Avebury? I have been to both places and Avebury is, for me, a far more spiritual place. Grateful your thoughts. Great blog, by the way. I received the Munay-ki rites last year and wish to pursue shamanic practice. Best wishes.

  6. Hi Lynn. I agree with you totally about Avebury – out of the two I would always visit Avebury (in fact, I have only been to Stonehenge a handful of times, as with all the tourists it is like visiting a museum piece, not a sacred site). I can only conclude that the publicity Stonehenge received from the Druids using it for midsummer rituals imprinted upon people’s minds and it became the more famous site. It is gorgeously impressive and, from an archaeological standpoint, extremely important, but Avebury has an atmosphere that Stonehenge often lacks. Glad you are enjoying the blog and thank you so much for your kind comments. Mike.

  7. Julie Wheeler says:

    Thanks Mike, absolutely fascinating – as usual!
    With our world full of bright and intense media imagery, it is so lovely to step back for a moment and consider how spectacular nature appeared to our ancestors (although I love the spectacle even today!). I love the thought of the setting winter-sun lighting up the interior of a tomb.
    Julie x

  8. Hi Julie. Thanks so much for your comment and it’s lovely to have you here. I agree totally with what you say – the magic of the solstice does seem heightened when we consider how our ancestors may have seen it. Although, today, I cannot see the sky let alone the sun! Hope you have more luck, Mike.

  9. Peter says:

    Thank you very much for this timely piece, Mike.
    For our ancestors the return of the light was a certainly not only a symbolic gesture as for them it meant survival for another year! As for the theory that this was a time of great feasting, one only has to think that all surpluses of livestock which could not be kept through the winter, due to shortage of food, were slaughtered round about Samhain. As people had to fatten up to get through the lengthy period of winter and spring, this was accomplished by feasting on meat (fat) and the fruit, nut and berry harvest (sugars).
    People who did not succumb to illness, caused by cold or simply old age, during the wintertime, had to make do with their food reserves, kept and stored back in the autumn. One has to think that from the winter solstice onwards, it is a long time until the new green shoots arrive, which probably were the first fresh foods that could be eaten by man and beast.
    As for the concept of lit up passages and solstice markers, I would recommend Martin Brennan’s book “The Stones of Time, Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland”.

    Once again thank you for your great piece and wishing you & yours a blessed winter solstice.

  10. I enjoyed this article very much. Thank you.

  11. Thank you for your kind comments Peter and Maria – and for sharing your own wisdom about this time Peter. It is sometimes hard contemplating just what this time of year meant for our ancestors in terms of survival – and how that has changed with our modern, commercial, Christmas. I’ll look out for the book too – thanks for the recommendation.
    Wishing everyone a wonderful solstice ~ Mike