A Summer Solstice interlude

Visible ancient monuments provide an obvious focus for those hankering after a long-lost golden age and/or a more up-to-date agenda. And an occasion like today, the Summer Solstice, provides another level of interest – both natural and supernatural. At Tara Hill the campaign group TaraWatch is involved while at Stonehenge modern-day self-styled druids have taken over the festivities. Today also sees the re-opening of the British Museum’s Galleries on Ancient Europe [4000-800BC] and Britain and Europe [800BC-43AD]. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones has been along to have a look, in particular, at The Folkton Drums [2600-2000BC – the time of Stonehenge] and at Lindow Man [mid-1st century AD].
As Jonathan Jones puts it

The truth is the druids had nothing to do with Stonehenge. They flourished more than 1,000 years after it was abandoned. It was in the Iron Age, on the eve of the Roman conquest, that they congregated in oak groves and cut their sacred mistletoe.

What’s that? Mistletoe? “The Druids hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe,” says Pliny the Elder. So here, it would seem, are the killers of Lindow Man, who was given mistletoe before he was sacrificed to the gods.

The Foxton drums could have been created by aliens; walk back to the bog man and you’re in our world. In the Iron Age section of the new galleries prehistoric art gets more “human”. There are three little bronze heads of moustached men. The sacrificial victim hurled in a bog has something in common with masterpieces of Celtic art thrown ritually into rivers – like the museum’s horned helmet found in the Thames.

Lindow Man may have been a willing sacrifice, and there’s a weakness, an acceptance in his foetal form. The druids didn’t create Stonehenge, but they probably created this figure of pity, with the help of peat and centuries. This treasure from our prehistory confronts us with the seduction of violence and death, the monstrosity we’re inches from, the belief that a person might make a good sacrifice.

The British Museum also has an online tour on Religion and ritual in the Iron Age

And, of course, we have our own treasures from our prehistory at the National Musem of Ireland – see image above – from the same period, and in the same style.

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  • merrie

    Thx for this information Pete. I’ll check out the new gallery at the British Museum, though I have already seen Lindow Man.

    I have heard somewhere that Newgrange is around 1100 years older than Stonehenge. Strange that one seems to focus on the midwinter sun and the other the midsummer sun.

  • joeCanuck

    It’s not strange at all merrie.
    Contrary to popular belief, Stonehenge was aligned with the winter solstice setting sun.
    It was more important for the old ones, to know that the sun had finally stopped getting lower and that warm days would return.
    This was probably to do with some type of religious belief rather than giving them a point to count forward from to know when to plant new crops. There are too many other factors that give an optimum day for planting.

  • Pete Baker


    The particular alignment of Newgrange would undoubtedly be suited to its particular role – as a burial mound.


    There have been recent hypotheses proposed which connect Stonehenge’s alignments, to solar and lunar movements, to the move from nomadic hunting to more settled agriculturally orientated communities.

    But those ancient and non-druidic monuments are really a secondary point in the post.

    Which is more about the reality of those long-lost golden ages.

  • snakebrain

    Don’t know about the long-lost golden ages, but I question the reality of any neo-druidry. Stonehenge this morning, if it’s anything like past years, will have been descended upon by hundreds of vaguely mystical new-agers and not much more. It’s a tragic reality of a long broken oral tradition like druidry that you can’t pick up the pieces and start again, if you want to start anything remotely similar to what went before.

    That said, the druids are fascinating, not least because most of our documentary evidence for their existence consists of a few more or less hostile paragraphs in the Roman canon. There’s not much in the way of detail or colour to the accounts.

    I did read somewhere that the final test of verbal composition before attaining the rank of ollave was that the acolyte was made to sit out overnight on an exposed rock to ensure they’d be suitably softened up. They would be given a theme and a musical key, and shut up inside a stone sarcophagus, filled with water to just below the brim so they could only breathe through their nostrils. Then 24 hours later, the lid would be lifted, the unfortunate soul inside helped out and given a lyre and one chance to recite the 5000 lines plus musical accompaniment they’d composed overnight.

    It may be totally apocryphal because I’ve done a fair bit of research since and never even come across the idea again but I still think it’s a great story, and a bit more likely than some bearded publican from Surrey who enjoys a bit of moonlighting and frolics in his robes…

  • Gerry Kelly

    [And the ball? – edited moderator]

  • snakebrain

    is that me being upbraided for posting off-thread by Gerry? Bit difficult to tell after he’s been moderated out of recognition…

    Ah well….

  • páid


    a theory that impressed me was…….the winter solstice was celebrated because, as you write, they were half way thru the winter. So you were half way thru the food shortage. So you could work out how much you’d eaten, and how much you’d need till new food came on stream.

    And if you were ‘up’ on the food you had a feast!

    So solstice, ritual, party. aka xmas?

  • snakebrain


    Don’t know how much water that theory holds. The solstice isn’t necessarily the mid-point between last source and next source of food.

    The death and rebirth of the year seems much more likely to be at the root of it than agrarian concerns. These societies were pretty well established in those days, I’d be surprised if they weren’t way past the “how much food have we got/how much time is left?” stage.

    An interesting analogue is the Mayan civilisation, whose long count calendar runs on a detailed astronomical model, and starts and begins on winter solstices. (Interestingly, when the long count calendar ends and restarts is on Dec 21 2012)

  • merrie

    Newgrange may well have been a burial mound of sorts, but it was actively used too. I think it was more a religious site, perhaps one of initiation. When I stood in Newgrange and saw the light pouring down through that little window I thought of the third eye, light at the end of the tunnel, being led from darkness to light, the mound as an enclosing thing like an Easter egg (or Christ rising from the Dead in his tomb) etc. – the sort of religious symbolism that occurs in Hinduism and Christianity. Maybe something older than both of these was practised 1000s of years ago in the Boyne Valley. Midwinter is the darkest time of the year and it would have enhanced this sort of symbolism.

    While I agree we do not have enough evidence to know what actually happened way back then it is too simplistic to say that Newgrange was just a burial mound, or even that it was a burial mound at all. The effort in building Newgrange with its fantastic roof, and the sparkling white exterior took so much effort for just a burial mound.

    And modern science and archaeologists can be wrong. For example, the DNA experts are coming to realise that all that repeating code they thought was “just junk” isn’t junk at all.