Ancient structures mark the winter solstice

Tomorrow, December 21st, is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight hours. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the turning point in the calendar… the day when the sun starts to get longer and longer, signaling the arrival of spring. People in antiquity discovered this very quickly. So important was the Winter Solstice that they even erected huge stone structures to herald the Winter Solstice. England’s Stonehenge is probably the best known of these monuments, but it’s certainly not the only one. Let’s examine how ancient cultures around the world noted the arrival of the Winter Solstice.


On Salisbury Plain in England lies a collection of massive stones that have fascinated mankind for centuries. Arranged in a circle, huge megalithic stones were fixed at their ends precisely by Neolithic peoples, about 5,000 years ago. When the sun rises on Midwinter morning, the beams of light line up perfectly through the stones. Archaeologists managed to uncover evidence that the Winter Solstice was a time of great celebration at Stonehenge when it was newly built. They were celebrating the fact that the days were, in fact, getting longer again. Ancient peoples must have been afraid that, in a year’s time, the daylight hours would grow shorter and shorter until their world was plunged into perpetual darkness and perpetual winter. 

Karnak Temple, Egypt

Near Luxor, Egypt, the sprawling Karnak Temple complex, built between 1971 and 1926 BC, is aligned with several important celestial events, including the Winter Solstice. On the day of the Winter Solstice, the sun rises between the portals of the Great Gate of Nactanebo and bathes the sanctuary of Amoun-Re in light. 

tulum, mexico

One of the ancient Mayan cities of the Yucatan Peninsula, Tulum prospered until Spanish explorers arrived in the 15th century, bringing disease with them. Many of the massive temples and stone buildings in the Mayan city of Tulum still exist. In one of these temples, there is a small hole in the top of the structure. When the sun rises on the winter solstice, it lines up perfectly with this hole. The beam of sunlight creates a spectacular starburst effect as it filters through the hole. 

Newgrange, Ireland

Before Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids, Ireland’s Newgrange is an ancient monument built as a mound. The grass-covered circular mound has tunnels running through it. Artifacts found inside indicate that the place was used for worship. During sunrise on the Winter Solstice, sunlight floods the main chamber from a precisely aligned axis, leading researchers to hypothesize that the Winter Solstice was a special day for the Irish builders and that the main chamber may have been used for worship or celebration related to the solstice. 

Newport Tower, Rhode Island

A strange, ancient, eight-legged stone structure in Newport, Rhode Island, has been the subject of debate since before the United States was a country. It could be the remains of an old windmill or church, or something else. On Midwinter, light shines through a small window and illuminates the keystone above a door on the opposite side of the structure. It is uncertain whether the capstone itself is significant or whether it was simply the means of recording the arrival of the Winter Solstice. 

Goseck Circle, Germany

In Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, there are a series of concentric rings dating back to 4900 BC. The largest outer ring has a diameter of 246 feet. This outer circle has two openings carved into it. After much research, archaeologists realized that the openings correspond to the sunrise and sunset on the Winter Solstice, leading to speculation that the site may have been used for rituals or sacrifices on the Winter Solstice. 

Pyramid Cerro del Gentil, Peru

A recent discovery is the stone lines in the Cerro del Gentil Pyramid in Peru. Stone lines are not found in the pyramid. In fact, they are located over a kilometer away, southeast of the structure. The lines run for about 500 meters towards the pyramid. In 2013, scientists used 3D software to determine that the stone lines converge on the Cerro del Gentil Pyramid at the exact spot where the sun sets on the Winter Solstice.