Yesterday I promised a continuation of my bicycle discussion, and I’m sure you are all anxiously awaiting my thoughts on this matter. But I forgot: today is the winter solstice, so I hope you will be able to wait a day or two longer.
And explain this: there has been no sign — zero — of Na Ki’o this morning, until the second I opened the laptop and attempted to begin this. Right on cue, he is here to impede proceedings. Good thing he earns his keep.
So today is the solstice. It might be my stepdad’s favorite day of the year: he takes it very personally in June when the days start getting shorter, so after today he’ll be back in that good half-year trajectory of longer days.
Lynn and I celebrated a couple of days ago, without really making the connection that it might have been in conjunction with the solstice, by watching Nova on PBS. The program was called “Ghosts of Stonehenge,” and I highly recommend it. It follows Mike Parker Pearson, the ubiquitous British archaeologist of the world’s most famous stone ring, in recounting new discoveries about the area.
This is what fascinates me about history (and, in this instance, pre-history): it happened so long ago, but technological advances today can completely alter our perception and awareness of what happened. What seems like it should be static (set in stone, as it were) is still constantly shifting.
So 4,500 years ago (two millennia before the big stones went up), high-born neolithic Britons who had died were cremated and the tiny remnants of their bones put under bluestones arranged in a near-perfect encircling of what would become Stonehenge.
But now an archaeologist can excavate all these little bone shards, and take them to a colleague who obviously excels at jigsaw puzzles, and she can identify some tiny inner-ear bone, and tell us that disparate people were buried under these stones, along with an educated guess as to how many. She can also find a little tiny remnant of the back of the skull and tell from that whether the person was male (rougher, with a hook-up for more heavy-duty muscle) or female (smoother), or a child.
Isn’t that absolutely astounding?
Two miles removed from Stonehenge lie the remains of Durrington Walls, where the excavated bones belong to animals, mostly pigs and cattle. Parker Pearson and his crew have determined that this was a settlement occupied only at select times of the year by possibly 4,000-plus people, and that great feasting took place. Get this: based on animal teeth (if you care to believe science, which isn’t always in favor these days — or maybe it’s just climatologists who are wrong), researchers can tell what time of the year (because animal teeth grow on some annual predictable rate) the animals died. And that was at the solstice(s).
They can also tell from whence these animals originated, and researchers were stunned to find they came from all over the main island of Great Britain, from way up in the north of Scotland and to points east and west. The journey to Durrington Walls/Stonehenge, while driving livestock, could have taken a month or more. And then there’s the return trip home.
So while we may think my stepdad reveres the solstice, these people were serious: one sixth of the year devoted to religious pilgrimage to celebrate renewal. And if they came for the summer solstice, well, now you’re spending a third of your year in homage to the sun. That would cut massively into my TV time.
There are many questions still to answer about Stonehenge and the people who worshiped there. Which is still funny to me, because they are all long gone. They know what happened, and why, and how, and maybe even for a long time afterward their story was passed along orally, but it is gone now, leaving modern-day humans to dig up whatever dirt they can.
And what seemed plausible 10, maybe even five, years ago can change on the turn of a trowel. That’s what’s so darn fascinating about all of that, and why we need to be flexible and recognize history and archaeology for the fluid fields they really are, rather than the print on weathered pages of textbooks.
While modern-day researchers have possibly located the exact quarry from in Wales from which the bluestones came, they have no real idea why those were the stones of choice. And several theories but no clear answers on how those stones were transported nearly 200 miles. (And yes, the “alien” theory does get mentioned, but it doesn’t gain much traction.)
The question, Why here? may have been answered, though, and that’s a function of geology: ice gouged two almost straight, parallel lines into the Earth, right along the path followed by the sun as it rises for summer solstice and sets for winter solstice. Maybe divine placement, maybe random act of elements . . . it inspired an entire large island of people to worship there for millennia. And to come together to celebrate the returning of the sun and renewal of the Earth.
So the more things change, the more they remain the same, and still, thousands of years later, maybe without the same dedication (I haven’t been pilgrimaging for a day, let alone a month), we mark the solstice the same as those distant Britons did: a point in time to celebrate the spark of renewal, and all the hope that may bring for a good year ahead.
Good winter solstice, everyone. (Unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, and then everything is backwards.)