Ancient Stones Ring in Summer Solstice in Britain

Lucya Szachnowski
June 20, 2001
The summer solstice on June 21, when the sun climbs to its highest point and daylight lasts longest, is traditionally the day to celebrate midsummer in Britain.

For some it evokes images of modern-day druids greeting the dawn at Stonehenge, the ancient stone circle on Salisbury Plain, in England.

It is uncertain exactly why such stone circles were built or what purpose they served, although most act as giant sundials and astronomical clocks with stones positioned to mark days like the summer solstice.

There are more than 1,000 prehistoric stone circles in Britain and Ireland.

There is no comprehensive blueprint for them; they vary in size, shape, number of stones, style, and orientation. Stonehenge is the only circle built of stones not from the local area.

What is known is that between 3300 and 900 B.C. there were three phases of stone-circle building.

During the first phase, before 3000 B.C., impressive circles, more than 30 meters (33 yards) across, were built on hillsides around the Irish Sea.

They usually had one wider gap to serve as an entrance. Sometimes they had one single standing stone outside the ring, like a signpost proclaiming the land was occupied.

Many perfectly constructed rings of stones were created around 2600 B.C., perhaps because metal was then available. These include the circles of Stanton Drew, in Somerset, and the Ring of Brodgar, in the Orkneys, each more than 90 metres (98 yards) across.

Certain areas seemed to adopt a preferred number of stones. They show a wide range of styles, from plain and concentric rings to rings with avenues, like that at Avebury.

From 2000 to 900 B.C., the tradition of building stone circles declined. By 900 B.C. stone circles, including Stonehenge, were abandoned.

In more recent history, according to folklore, there were numerous traditions of bonfires set ablaze on hilltops on midsummer eve.

These could be seen for miles around, presumably attracting revelers to party throughout the shortest night. Sometimes, people would jump through the flames or run through the dying embers in the belief it would bring luck.

With the coming of Christianity to England, many midsummer celebrations were moved to the feast of St. John the Baptist, on June 24, but still involved outdoor revels.

But things can go full circle.

In 1997, a group of Brockley artists, inspired by an interest in the past, came up with the idea of creating a new stone circle to act as a giant sundial and a focal point for people to gather and celebrate.

The idea infiltrated various groups such as churches, schools, and clubs and was eventually adopted by the Brockley Society as a millennium project. The circle was laid out on Hilly Fields, Brockley, a park dedicated to the public since 1896 and the site of an annual midsummer fair for just over 25 years.

Boulders were transported from Scotland and set in place on the morning of the spring equinox, March 21, 2000. It was opened in May last year and the gateway dedicated to Brockley's patron saint, Norbert.

Michael Perry, who watched the solstice sunrise at 4:45 a.m. on June 21 last year, said: "A visit to the stones gives you an opportunity to reflect on your life and how this is integral to time. Myths and legends surround stone circles. It is up to us to continue this process."

This year, the Brockley Society's summer fair takes place on Saturday, June 23, from noon. The day's events will be designed to entertain people of the 21st century but its timing, at the height of summer, follows an ancient tradition.

(c) 2001 Newsquest Media Group


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