Amid extended COVID-19 lockdowns, many are experiencing a warped sense of time. But marking the hours’ passing is something people have done for thousands of years. Regardless of the instrument or calendar used, tracking changes in the days and seasons has, historically, been a matter of survival.
Stonehenge, a roughly 5,000-year-old monument in southern England, is among the most famous prehistoric archaeological sites in the world. Though scholars disagree over the Neolithic stone circle’s purpose, a leading theory suggests it functioned as a massive sundial.
In typical years, crowds of thousands visit the archaeological marvel to celebrate the summer solstice. But 2020 is no ordinary year. Due to COVID-19 concerns, English Heritage, the organization that maintains the historic site (which has been closed since March 18), has canceled the annual celebration and instead asked visitors to mark the occasion via livestream.
“We have consulted widely on whether we could have proceeded safely and we would have dearly liked to host the event as per usual, but sadly in the end, we feel we have no choice but to cancel,” says Stonehenge director Nichola Tasker in a statement. “We hope that our livestream offers an alternative opportunity for people near and far to connect with this spiritual place at such a special time of year and we look forward to welcoming everyone back next year.”
Those living in the Northern Hemisphere recognize the summer solstice as the longest day of the year. Celebrated between June 20 and 22, depending on the year, it traditionally signals both the end of the spring planting season and the beginning of the summer growing season.
To many, Stonehenge is more than just a megalithic timepiece: Modern druid and pagan communities, for instance, “believe it is their temple and it is their right to worship there,” English Heritage senior curator Heather Sebir told Time’s Rachael E. Greenspan in 2019. To these groups, visiting Stonehenge is “the equivalent … of coming to a church or cathedral.”
At Stonehenge, rocks—some measuring more than 30 feet high—are positioned to align with the midsummer sunrise and the midwinter sunset. On the summer solstice, the Earth’s North Pole is on its maximum tilt toward the sun, allowing the star to reach its zenith, or highest point in the sky. According to the British Press Association, “On the summer solstice, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone, the ancient entrance to the Stone Circle, and rays of sunlight are channeled into the center of the monument.”
Writing for CTV News, Lianne Kolirin adds, “As dawn breaks, the rising sun appears behind one of the main stones, creating the illusion that the sun is balancing on the stone.”
As Deborah Byrd and Eleanor Imster report for EarthSky, Stonehenge is also connected to the winter solstice—the Northern Hemisphere’s shortest day of the year. Around December 20, the sun sets over a structure known as the Trilithon, which is made up of two large vertical stones topped by a horizontal slab.
“This huge megalithic monument shows how carefully our ancestors watched the sun,” write Byrd and Imster. “Astronomical observations such as these surely controlled human activities such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and the metering of winter reserves between harvests.”
According to English Heritage, Stonehenge’s earliest structures are pits that appear to have held large pine posts. They date to between 8500 and 7000 B.C. Though the Heel Stone may have been erected prior, the site’s first documented construction event centered on a large, circular ditch with two entrances that formed a henge-style monument with banks on either side. By 2500 B.C., stones had been set up in the center of the monument and in two concentric circles around it.
Since the 1970s, much of the monument has been roped off to help prevent erosion and degradation; when the site reopens to visitors on July 4, viewing will be from within a short distance of the stones. Despite these restrictions, Stonehenge—both on the solstice and throughout the year—endures as one of the most inspiring places to reflect on the great mystery of mankind’s history.