With the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice upon us, it’s time for us to take another look at the day from the cultural heritage perspective and at sites dedicated to the summer solstice. And no, we won’t be talking about Stonehenge, which is probably the most famous prehistoric site with a relationship to the summer solstice. Instead, we’re going to cover six sites that you’ve probably never heard of. Why six? Because I liked the alliteration (and June is the sixth month in the Gregorian calendar).
1. Arkaim – Russia – Discovered in 1987, Arkaim lies in the Russian steppe near the border with Kazakhstan. Though many settlements were found nearby in the years following Arkaim’s discovery, the circular fortified Bronze Age settlement is particularly significant. Not only does it show a clear, premeditated city plan, but some believe it is the equivalent of England’s Stonehenge because of similar latitudes and axes. It’s said that Arkaim’s infrastructure tracks sunrises, sunsets, solstices, and equinoxes. The inner wall of the settlement could probably be used with the natural horizon to track 18 different astrological events.
2. Externsteine – Germany – Like Arkaim, the jury is still out on what exactly the Externsteine are, beyond an extensive set of carvings done on free-standing sandstone pillars in the Teutoburg Forest in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany. The carving were likely done as part of Teutonic religious rituals. One very intriguing section of rock appears to be a chapel or chamber with an altar dating from sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries. In the wall behind the altar is a circle-shaped cut-out, that aligns with the sunrise on the summer solstice.
3. Ajanta Caves – India – The Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India, are a collection of 30 caves carved as a monument at the site of a Buddhist monastery. The carvings were done over a period of six to eight hundred years, the earliest dating to the 2nd century BC and the latest to ca. 400 or 650 AD. Of all thirty of the caves, particularly interesting is Cave 26, which is a chaitya or shrine/prayer hall. In it sits a sculpture of the Buddha on top of a stupa (a mound containing relics). Constructed probably about 465 AD, the cave is unique in that it aligns with the summer solstice—at dawn, the sun aligns with the axis of the cave and illuminates the Buddha. Cave 19, believed to be built at the same time, aligns with the winter solstice.
4. The Pyramids – Giza, Egypt – Ok, so you’ve probably heard of the pyramids at the Giza Necropolis in Egypt, colloquially called the “Great Pyramids.” The pyramids are the final resting place of the physical bodies of some of Ancient Egypt’s pharaohs. The complex in its entirety includes three large pyramids,several smaller queen’s pyramids, and the Great Sphinx, and was erected throughout the 2500s BC. The three large pyramids are dedicated to pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. Though it may only be a coincidence (it would be a pretty spectacular one), the sun sets perfectly between the two pyramids of Khufu and Khafre on the summer solstice if standing at the Great Sphinx. Furthermore, this creates an image quite similar to the Ancient Egyptian ideogram for the word “horizon.”
5. Chaco Canyon – United States – Chaco Canyon lies in New Mexico, originally home to Ancient Pueblo Peoples and now operated as a historic site by the National Park Service. It was a major center of the Pueblo during the about 10th to 12th centuries AD, when massive construction was undertaken, including housing, sites to perform religious rituals, and other significant sites. For example, a section of rock at Fajada Butte in the canyon is called the “Sun Dagger.” Unfortunately, due to damage in recent years, the Sun Dagger no longer accurately tracks movement of the sun, but it originally tracked the movements of the sun as the sunlight fell through a slit onto a raised spiral petroglyph. At the summer solstice, the sunlight hit the direct center of the petroglyph.
6. Serpent Mound – Ohio – You can probably see a theme here: most of the sites can’t be dated exactly or have many possibilities as to their true purpose. The Serpent Mound in southern Ohio is another one of these. It was probably built by a Mississippian culture sometime in the past 2200 years. As the name suggests, the Serpent Mound is a snake-shaped earthwork extending over 1,000 feet in length. It is possibly an effigy mound or some sort of calendar—the serpent’s head aligns with the sunset on the summer solstice.
These and other monuments are lasting, tangible examples of the importance the summer solstice held historically, though most of us don’t lay much stock in it today. Nonetheless, it’s a popular time for celebration, whether as part of a long-persisting ritual or something new without a historical basis. Where would you like to watch the sun this summer solstice? (I’m fascinated by the Externsteine chapel!)