Solstitial Alignments

The term midsummer is loosely applied: it derives from the common name, Midsummer's Day, for the feast of St. John, which was timed to coincide with the earlier pagan festivals associated with the summer solstice. Midsummer sunrise, then, really means "sunrise at the summer solstice." Likewise, midsummer sunset means "sunset at the summer solstice," and midwinter sunrise and sunset refer to sunrise and sunset at the winter solstice.

The direction of midsummer sunrise is always in the northeast quadrant of the horizon for an observer in the northern hemisphere (southeast in the southern hemisphere), but the exact azimuth depends upon the observer's latitude and the altitude of the horizon in that direction. The same applies to midsummer sunset (northwest in the northern hemisphere, southwest in the southern hemisphere), midwinter sunrise (southeast in the northern hemisphere, northeast in the southern hemisphere), and midwinter sunset (southwest in the northern hemisphere, northwest in the southern hemisphere). The only exceptions to this rule occur in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where the midwinter sun never rises and the midsummer sun never sets.

A great many architectural alignments upon midwinter sunrise have been noted from a variety of places and times. The most famous is the alignment of the passage at Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland, built in the late fourth millennium B.C.E. Similar—in the sense that sunlight only penetrates into a dark space just after sunrise at the winter solstice—but very much older is the palaeolithic cave at Parpallo in eastern Spain. If deliberate, this alignment may date back as far as 19,000 b.c.e.

Midsummer sunrise alignments include what is arguably the most famous solstitial alignment of them all, along the axis of the sarsen monument at Stonehenge in England, toward the Heelstone. Ironically, though, it is quite likely that the alignment in the opposite direction, toward midwinter sunset, was of greater significance to the builders.

Alignments upon sunset at one or the other solstice seem to be no less common than those upon sunrise. A well-known example from North America is the Serpent Mound, a 180-meter- (600-foot)-long serpent-shaped effigy mound in southern Ohio, whose head faces the direction of midsummer sunset. Midwinter sunset at Kintraw in western Scotland was one of the earliest claimed examples of a high-precision sightline using a prominent notch in the natural horizon as a foresight. But that claim has not withstood the test of time.

Other controversial examples of solstitial alignments include the Bronze Age site at Brainport Bay, again in Scotland, where a fierce debate arose about whether the alignment of archaeological features, indubitably oriented upon midsummer sunrise, was precise and "calendrical" or less precise and "ceremonial." The circular sanctuary of timber posts at the Dacian sanctuary of Sarmizegetusa Regia in Romania (late first millennium B.C.E.) is said to face midwinter sunrise, but here the problem is that the alignment ex ists only in a theoretical sense, since the high horizon in the relevant direction displaces the actual direction of sunrise on the shortest day by some ten degrees along the horizon.

The significance of the solstitial directions is often cosmological rather than practical/calendrical, although the two are not mutually exclusive. In Hopi tradition, the main importance of the solstitial directions is that they define the fundamental divisions of the world into four parts. However, observations of the changing position of the rising and setting sun are also crucial in regulating their elaborate seasonal calendar. This includes, on the solstices themselves, laying prayer sticks on shrines that are themselves placed in the landscape along the solstitial directions.

A key issue is the extent to which we find solstitial alignments because we are looking for them. Nobody would deny that the directions of sunrise and sunset at the solstices are hugely significant in many cultures; the question is the extent to which we approach other cultural traditions armed with a "toolkit" that reflects our own predilections and preferences, and whether this can make us (perhaps unwittingly) selective with the evidence and hence biases our interpretation. To give just one example, the solstitial orientation of the Big Horn medicine wheel in Wyoming, when first announced in the 1970s, engendered much debate because of the suspicion that archaeoas-tronomers were simply extending the techniques and methods of British ar-chaeoastronomy uncritically into North America. In general, such issues can only be satisfactorily addressed by paying careful attention to field methodology, the cultural context, and the broader archaeological/historical evidence of the site.

See also:

Christianization of "Pagan" Festivals; Methodology; Solstitial Directions.

Brainport Bay; Hopewell Mounds; Hopi Calendar and Worldview; Kintraw; Medicine Wheels; Newgrange; Sarmizegetusa Regia; Stonehenge.

Altitude; Azimuth; Solstices.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Skywatchers, 301-303. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Cunliffe, Barry, and Colin Renfrew, eds. Science and Stonehenge, 203-229. London: British Academy/Oxford University Press, 1997.

Romain, William F. Mysteries of the Hopewell, 247-250. Akron: University of Akron Press, 2000.

Ruggles, Clive. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 12-19,

100-101, 127-131, 136-139. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Ruggles, Clive, ed. Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s, 40-43. Loughborough, UK: Group D Publications, 1993.

Ruggles, Clive, Frank Prendergast, and Tom Ray, eds. Astronomy, Cosmology and Landscape, 8-14. Bognor Regis, UK: Ocarina Books, 2001.

Ruggles, Clive, and Nicholas Saunders, eds. Astronomies and Cultures, 163-201. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1993.

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