Countdown to Christmas 20 – Midwinter in Prehistory (Prehistory of Christmas) Part 1 – Stonehenge

So our story, for the purpose of this article, begins circa 4000 BC during the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and the building of the monumental structures in the British Isles. It is from these structures that we git the first glimpses of what the midwinter may have meant to the people of the Neolithic, with many of these aligning on the Winter Solstice.

Why these monument were built where they were, why they were aligned and what in some cases what their exact purpose was (Such as Stonehenge) is not the main purpose of this article. The purpose of this article is to briefly explore the connections to them and how people ‘celebrated’ or acknowledged the change of seasons, and the midwinter period.

So before going any further, why are we starting with the Neolithic? I am certainly not saying that the changes of seasons were not important in the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) or the Mesolithic), the change of seasons is of course rather crucial to hinting and gathering. In fact, we know is the Mesolithic that they were very specialized hunter-gatherers and were specifically exploiting different areas during different seasons according to their needs and what resources were available. But little, to no evidence shows how they were ‘celebrating’ these seasons, and what ‘rituals’ were undertaken. So why the Neolithic? Because farming happened, agriculture and animal husbandry mark the major changes in the Neolithic, as well people beginning to ‘settle’ down and build monuments. Monuments which have some interesting alignments to the seasons, so this is why we are starting with it. That, and my knowledge of anything prior to this is more sketchy (please let send me any information you have though ūüėČ ) and it is during this period that my major interest in Archaeology lies.

So, why we started to settle down and grow crops and breed animals is still up to much debate, and will not be discussed here, but what this lead to (or was potentially a cause…) was the building of great monuments of earth, wood and stone. Of particular interest for us in this article are the emergence of Stone Circles, Henges and Chambered Tombs. As these shed some light on the importance of the midwinter seasons to the Neolithic population of Britain. So we will look at each of these monuments in turns, at some case studies, and what potential evidence they provide about the midwinter celebrations.

Stone Circles:

So it may come as no surprise that the main monument we will look at here is Stonehenge. I do not want to really get into the history of Stonehenge here, it deserves its own article and it will make this one exceedingly long. But I did want to touch on a few points and brief look at the main phases.

  • Phase 1 circa 3000 BC, was as a circular earthen bank and ditch enclosure, similar to a causewayed enclosure, with the bank about 2m high and the diameter of 110m, with gaps around the edge to provide easy access to the center. A series of around 56 pits ran around the interior which most likely held timber uprights.
  • Phase 2, 3000 BC – 2500 BC the enclosure appears to be used as a cremation cemetery with around 50 cremations burials discovered. 200 post-holes from inside the enclosure and outside the north-east entrance also belongs to this phase. It is not certain what these may have been for, potentially buildings or ‘totem’ poles.
  • Phase 3 circa 2500 BC – The structure made from stones, 80 ‘bluestones’ belongs to this phase, all around 2m in length and way around 4 tons. The ‘Heelstone’ was also placed outside the north-east entrance, the four station stones, placed around the interior in a rectangle formation, were also put in places during this period.
  • Phase 4 circa 2300 BC the ‘bluestones’ are removed and the Sarsen Stone Circle is erected (around 30 stones weighing between 35 and 50 tons), around 5m high topped with a ring of lintels, was built to surround five larger trilithons, the tallest around 7.5m high. These five appear to form a cove, open to the north-east. 70 ‘bluestones’ were also reintroduced to form a circles between the 30 Sarsen stones and trilithons, and a horse-shoe shape structure at the center of sight, also open at the north-east. Three stones were also erected inside the entrance, only one of which survives today – the ‘Slaughter Stone’. Inside the inner most horseshoe the ‘Altar’ stone was also placed (potentially one of two). The ‘Avenue’ also dates to this period, running north-eastwards from Stonehenge’s north-east entrance, turning eastwards before running south-east towards the River Avon, a totla length of around 3km.

This was a very brief and condensed history of the phases of Stonehenge, and yes their are somethings missing. Stonehenge is a rather unusual site in its use of lintels, and it is suggested that the timber circle that was its predecessor, probably formed a similar structure, this is mainly based on the the use of ‘mortise and tenon’ joints to join the lintels to the standing stones, which is a carpentry joint.

So, why is this important to the the celebration of the min-winter festival? Well, to provide a structure for what we about to mention next. Stonehenge is actually aligned on both the Summer and Winter Solstice, and there are arguments among academics about which were the most important for the site. There also a lot ‘interesting’ ideas (putting it politely) about Stonehenge, why it was built, and who built – but Stonehenge is interesting enough without inventing crackpot ideas about aliens.

So what do these various alignments mean, what can we infer from them? Are they purely accidental? That would be pretty impressive if they are, and various other sites’monuments in the Stonehenge landscape are also alinged to astronomical phenomenon, such as the equinoxes. The people of Stonehenge in 3000 BC may have witnessed very similar astronomical phenomenon to us, but likely viewed them very differently. As the archaeo astronomer Clive Ruggles put it “Different groups or individuals may ‘see’ the same objects in the sky, but the significance that they will attach to them will be influenced by their classification of the natural world and the various ways in which they interact with it” You could test this idea by asking a family member, friend, work colleague, or even a stranger (if you are feeling brave) about how they feels about the solstices, or phases of the moon and see what they say.

Ruggles’ does set out a very detailed analysis of the astronomical alignments of Stonehenge, as have many other authors before and since, but these are far from certain. But the site is very complicated, it is possible that in its earliest phases Stonehenge – in its timber phases – were aligned with the phases of the moon, but there not much evidence to support this. Ruggles puts forward that by Phase 3 the main NE-SW axis of Stonehenge, with the Sarsen stones, the north-eastern entrance, the Avenue, the Heelstone, the Altar stone, and the Slaughter stone, lay on the Summer Solstice sunrise. The link to the summer solstice could certainly account for the axis of Stonehenge, but there alternative suggestions/explanations. There is no doubt that the axis of Stonehenge is aligned to the Summer Solstice, could it be the midwinter solstice rather than the midsummer that it is the determining factor behind it.

The book Astronomy  in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland Ruggles examines the astronomical alignments of Stonehenge and hundreds of other monuments. After considering these he does state “… If the Altar stone was the focus of attention and the Heelstones and its companion marked the ceremonial entrance to the monument, it is certainly just plausible, and arguably more so, that the alignment of particular symbolic value was that of the Altar Stone with the direction of the midwinter sunset in the south-west” Now, I think Ruggles may be hedging his bets here and being rather indecisive, and I do not blame him, It is is a very difficult picture to unpick. Or are we reading too much into it? Christopher Chippindale develops on these points made by Ruggles in his book Stonehenge Complete (2004).

“… the general rule is that religious buildings are organized so they are entered facing the sacred direction, the reverential way rather than with your back to the sacred. In their linked traditions Jewish, Christian and Muslim sacred buildings show this: you enter the church at the other, western end, and then advanced towards the eastern, scared altar. Apply these considerations to Stonehenge, in the elaborate form of the full final monument with it Avenue, and its sarsen, and bluestone structures. The supplicant enters always facing towards the midwinter sunset and so with their back to the midsummer sunrise. They successively advance; up the gentle ascent of the straight Avenue approach; by the Heelstone; through the major gap of the encircling ditch and banks; by the slaughter stones; across the center; through the extra-wide gap between the uprights of the sarsen circle; through the uprights of the bluestone circle. Then they enter the central area – which in both scale and size is strikingly consistent with the common dimensions of an English Church choir, it is closed towards the sacred direction, open at the entrance opposite. It is defined by the horseshoe of sarsen trilithons, rising in their height and scale towards the sacred direction, and within them by the horseshoe of blustones; at its south-western end, towards the sacred direction, stands the upright Alter stone, largest of the the exotic Welsh stones”

Chippendale was not the first to make the comparison to a Church, in 1912 John Abercromby wrote a very detailed description of the function and celebrations that took place at Stonehenge

” If Stonehenge has a sepulchral purpose it could hardly have been destined for any person less than divinity – for one of those was believed to die annually in the winter and rise again in the spring. As the position of the most scared part of the cella lay at the south-west end, the faces of the celebrants would be turned to the in the direction of the sunset at winter Solstice. Stonehenge was erected after enormous to commemorate annually at midwinter the death of some great divinity, one who supplied grass for the cattle. who rendered the earth fecund, who multiplied the herds, and on whom the people depended for all supplied for food”

In this passage Abercromby paints a very vivid picture of the cycle of death and rebirth at Stonehenge during the winter and summer solstices, which too me sounds very much like a biblical Christmas and Easter story (which is also similar to many other stories in other religions, myths, legends etc..,). However, for there is one major issue with both Chippendale’s and Abercromby’s account, they are analogies to events that happened thousands of years after the events. That does not mean to say that these analogies are not useful, and that Indeed I agree with their underlying message, that the midwinter was probably the most important season for the people of the Stonehenge landscape (and elsewhere), but these analogies are too easy to make fit to the evidence we have, rather than actually providing us with the evidence we need.

Another major issue, that is is made very neatly in Paul Frodsham’s book¬†From¬†Stonehenge¬†to¬†Santa¬†Claus¬†–¬†The¬†Evolution¬†of¬†Christmas, is that, essentially, Stonehenge as a monument and a landscape is very confusing, it goes under many changes, and these changes did not all happen all once, overnight, they took generations. Stonehenge as it stands today is aligned on both the Winter and Summer Solstices, and potentially other important lunar, solar and astronomical phenomenon and events. It is almost possible to say which one was the most important, is unlikely to be aligned by accident. There are also many sites in the the Stonehenge landscape that are aligned to the winter solstice, this does not necessarily say that the winter solstice is less important at Stonehenge, nor does it make it more important. What it does suggest that the winter solstice was a very important time to these people, at one point, as it is almost impossible to say how frequently some of these sites would of been sued, or how long for (within the Neoltihic that is). But there are other sites that align to the summer solstice and some to the equinoxes, in the case of Stonehenge Cursus. Theories over the years have pointed to the landscape being like a large astronomical map, calendar or calculator, with Stonehenge at its centre. A sacred landscape as you will, as proposed by Timothy Darvill.

I think the main meaningful conclusion we can draw from Stonehenge and its landscape is that the change in seasons and the passage of time was very important to the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age people in the area. To have some many monuments aligned to these astronomical events is very unlikely to be a coincidence. I am also not sure it is a useful exercise to determine which were more important than the other, I could go into deep symbolic meanings of wood, stone, cremated bone, and its proximity to the water, and whilst these can be useful, they are interpreted through our eyes only. I view Stonehenge as an inter connected landscape that reflected the importance of the changing seasons to the new agriculturalists in the Neolithic. There are new theories and ideas, research being conducted all the time, some completely crackpot and would probably better off in the sci-fi section of Waterstones, but others that may being coming close to giving us a better understanding of a very complicated landscape and monument (or series of monuments) that changed drastically over time.

Stonehenge has a great ability to inspire us and make us wonder, and I struggle to keep up of with new ideas and research that is being conducted, so I apologies for any mistakes and anything I have missed. I had not originally intended for this article to be so Stonehenge heavy, but I felt it needed more exploration as I got into it, and I have far from done it justice. The next article, part 2, will look at some other sites in the Neolithic, move into the Bronze Age, then into Iron Age and then into the Roman period. Discovering more about what we can find out what we can tell about prehistoric midwinter festival had, and what the impact the Romans had.

Sources:

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/christmas/the-history-of-christmas/

Frodsham, F. 2008. From Stonehenge to Santa Claus – the evolution of Christmas. The History Press ltd. Gloucestershire.

Pearson, M.P. 2012. Exploring the greatest stone age mystery – Stonehenge. Simon and Schutser. London.

Pearson.M.P. 2015. Stonehenge – Making sense of a prehistoric mystery. Council of British Archaeology. Bootham.

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