Friday, 21 December 2012

Midwinter Solstice!

Stonehenge, Midwinter 2011.
Along with being the end of the world long prophecised by the ancient Maya, today is also the Midwinter Solstice, the shortest day - and hence longest night - of the year, a liminal period of great importance to many groups across the world. From now on, the hours of daylight will steadily increase, as winter gives way to the birth of spring.

Last year, myself and several others from the UCL Institute of Archaeology got up at an obscenely early hour in the morning to travel via minibus from Bloomsbury in Central London to Wiltshire, where we witnessed the Midwinter sunrise at Stonehenge, the great Late Neolithic/Bronze Age megalithic structure famed for its solstice-alignments, identified by William Stukeley several centuries ago. Now a "sacred site" for members of the Pagan and New Age communities, the monument - managed by English Heritage - becomes open access to the public for only two days of the year; Midwinter, and the rather more crowded Midsummer. Braving the freezing temperatures, Stonehenge at Midwinter is certainly a memorable experience, and a chance to see this great symbol of British archaeology in all its majesty. It is also an intriguing experience to witness members of new religious movements re-adopt the ritual monuments of long-extinct societies for their own contemporary spiritual needs; a sense of re-cycling the past, perhaps.

Last year, one reveller came as an 'Obby 'Os
Although I'm staying indoors and in the warm at the moment, according to BBC News, the festivities are going on at Stonehenge this year too! It has of course become a tradition in its own right, with Pagan Druidic groups organising their own rituals at the site to welcome the rising sun, while many other onlookers and tourists flock to the monument for other reasons. Last year, I remember seeing members of a wide variety of different subcultural groups, including the Druids, New Age travellers, Hare Krsna's and fellow archaeologists; some of the latter were clearly perturbed by the activities of the other, more "eccentric" groups. However, despite the contrasting ideological positions, particularly regarding the meaning and ongoing significance of Stonehenge, all remained peaceful and I witnessed no arguments or hostility breaking out. Hopefully this should be taken as a sign that Pagans and archaeologists really can work together harmoniously for the preservation of Britain's prehistoric heritage. Maybe I should make that my New Year's wish.

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