Summer Solstice Ushered in at Ancient Sites
From Stonehenge to solar flares online, the summer solstice hits the Northern Hemisphere on June 20.
At precisely 11:08 p.m. UTC the sun will reach its most northern point in our sky, signaling the official start of summer across Turtle Island. (It will kick off winter in the Southern Hemisphere.)
On this day in June, the sun is the farthest from the equator that it is going to get all year. Mother Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5 degrees on this day, as Timeanddate.com explains it. It is also the longest day of the year, heralding the official start of summer.
At 12:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time the sun will be at its highest point in the sky all year, according to Space.com, leading to 15 hours and four minutes of daylight. At 7:10 p.m. the sun begins moving back south. That is the moment of solstice. (The U.S. Naval Observatory can tell you exactly how many hours are in the day, and night, for any given day of the year.)
The ancients were quite keyed in to this phenomenon, and the world is peppered with sites that welcome the rising solstice sun, both winter and summer. Perhaps the most famous of these is Stonehenge, the grouping of megaliths that point toward the rising solstice sun (not to be confused that with Manhattanhenge, which takes place again on July 11.) But many are closer to home, in Indian Country.
Among them, Chaco Canyon stands out. People gather to usher in the sunrise at Casa Rinconada, where at the moment of solstice a beam of sunlight shines through a window in the south wall, pointing straight through into a niche on the back wall, according to NASA’s Sun-Earth Day website. On the equinoxes and solstices, slivers of light that have been dubbed sun daggers dance in a complex show across a spiral petroglyph.
Of course, there were practical considerations in solar observances too. The sun’s movement told Indians when to plant the crops that sustained them.
“It is perhaps not surprising that so many religious and ceremonial dwellings have some type of solar alignment literally built into their architecture,” NASA said. “What better way to keep track of the seasons, and to keep a calendar updated, than to watch for a sunrise or sunset on certain special days of the year. The sun also played a major role in most Native American religious practices.”
Tonight is also the night of the midnight sun at northernmost latitudes and is the most glaring (so to speak) example of what gives the solstice its name, “stice” meaning “stop”—the sun appears to stand still on this day that Mother Earth finishes tilting one way and starts tilting the other. From now through December 21, the days grow imperceptibly shorter, until the winter solstice.
This year’s summer solstice is also special in marking the six months preceding the December 21, 2012, winter solstice—the day that many believe the world will end. NASA has soundly debunked this, and even the Mayans who originated the long count calendar that's ending would agree.
Countdown or no, numerous sites around the world are hosting solstice events. Besides Chaco Canyon, Ohio’s Newark Earthworks is holding a sunrise service. Its sister site, the Serpent Mound, built by the Fort Ancient culture about 900 years ago, undulates nearby. The head of the quarter-mile-long serpent points straight toward the setting sun.