What is the summer solstice? Stonehenge welcomes longest day of the year

The monolithic stones at Britain's most celebrated archeological site witnessed the sun rise to usher in a change of seasons

General view of the Stonehenge stone circle during the sunset, near Amesbury, Britain, as seen in this undated image provided to Reuters on July 29, 2020. English Heritage/A.Pattenden/Handout via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, June 21 was a busy date at Salisbury Plain in England's Wiltshire.

Each year, more than 10,000 people would flock to this ancient site to gather around the monolithic stones that form Britain’s most celebrated archaeological site. These people came to the standing stones for the summer solstice, the most important day of the year at Stonehenge.

But since Covid-19 disrupted the world, the stones have rung in dawn without the crowds, a situation that proves the pandemic is difficult even for age-old relics.

What is Stonehenge?

If you've never heard of it before, Stonehenge is bound to be a mystery. Even if you're familiar with the site, the intrigue remains. Decidedly otherworldly, Stonehenge is more than 5,000 years old and was built as a temple – a place of ceremony, burial and celebration.

We know it must have been important for them to align their monument with the sky, but we may never know why

"It's likely people gathered at Stonehenge at both midsummer and midwinter solstices to conduct rituals and ceremonies," according to English Heritage, the charity that manages the historic site, on Instagram Stories.

"We know it must have been important for them to align their monument with the sky, but we may never know why."

An important place that means different things to different people, Stonehenge is also an impressive feat of engineering.

“The Stone Circle is a masterpiece of engineering, and building it would have taken huge effort from hundreds of well-organised people using only simple tools and technologies," explains Heather Sebire, curator for English Heritage.

What is solstice?

The word solstice comes from the Latin word for sun (sol) and to stand (sistere). It's the time of year when the position of the rising or setting sun stands still in its movement along the horizon.

Stonehenge is dramatic any day of the year, but watching the sun rise over the ancient grounds at solstice is a memorable moment.

In the ancient world, there was nothing more significant than the changing of the seasons and summer solstice marked the start of summer, and the death of spring, which is why it held such prominence.

Even without this reliance on nature, the event is a visual feast marking the longest day of the year north of the equator.

"At dawn on summer solstice, rays of sun are channelled into the centre of the monument through a gap between two stones of the outer circle and through the opening to the central horseshoe of trilithons," says Sebire.

A trilithon is a structure of two large vertical stones supporting a third stone set horizontally across the top.

“Originally, the dawn light would have struck the Altar Stone which originally stood before the horseshoes tallest pair but which now lies beneath the fallen pillar of the central trilithon."

The 2021 summer solstice at Stonehenge

English Heritage live-streamed the summer solstice from Stonehenge across its social media pages at daybreak this morning. Videos are saved on the organisation's Facebook page for people to watch at any time, so if you missed the event you can still see how it unfolded.

The charity had to pause the recording after some people were found to have travelled to the stone circle for the solstice, disregarding public advice to stay away.

Thousands of viewers who tuned in to the charity's Facebook and YouTube pages instead saw pre-recorded footage of the site while these people were dispersed.

The live-stream resumed around 5am, local time, showing cloudy skies over the stones.

Visitors keen to experience the skies above Stonehenge and learn more about the solar alignment at the famous stone circle, can also visit Skyscape for live-feed video of this ancient site on any day of the year.

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