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.