Across time, people have marked the changes of seasons—sometimes in dramatic ways! Here are six amazing ancient sites aligned with the solstices and equinoxes.
Did you know that the equinoxes and solstices happen at the same moment around the world? Even though we all have different time zones, this is an astronomical event, based on our planet’s orbit around the Sun and tilt on its axis.
Our ancestors lived amidst nature more than most of us do today. They observed the universe, marveling in its rhythms. They used the Sun and the Moon as a sort of calendar, tracking the Sun’s path across the sky. Here are some examples of the ancient sites and monuments that were built to align with the solstices or equinoxes.
Our ancestors built the first observatories to track the sun’s progress.
1. Stonehenge (England)
Every year on the summer solstice, thousands of people travel to Wiltshire, England, to Stonehenge, a place with huge stones that were arranged in a circle around 3000 B.C. The huge monument marks the relation between the Sun and the seasons.
On the dawning of the summer solstice, the sun rises directly above the Heel Stone—a mysterious prehistoric monument whose origins, depending on interpretation, were as an ancient burial ground, an astrological observatory, even a supernatural phenomenon. See photos and historical details on the Stonehenge Web site.
2. Machu Picchu (Peru)
Machu Picchu (pictured above) is the transcendent City of the Incas. This archaeological site is perched atop a mountain overlooking the Urubamba Valley in Peru.
There is a giant stone at the top of this sacred mountain called Intihuatana, which means “the place when the sun gets tied.” Amazingly, the stone is perfectly positioned so that each corner sits at the four cardinal points (north, south, east, and west), and at an angle of about 13 degrees northward. Usually, the stone casts a shadow throughout the day, as any other structure would. However, at exactly noon on the date of the spring or fall equinox, the Sun’s shadow disappears! Therefore, the stone is a precise indicator of the date of the two equinoxes.
3. Chichen Itza (Mexico)
At what is now Chichen Itza (“CHEE-chen-EET-sa”), Mexico, Mayans built a huge pyramid around the year A.D. 1000. The play of the Sun’s light on it signals the beginning of the seasons.
On the spring equinox, for example, the light pattern looks like a snake. Mayans called this day “the return of the Sun serpent.” See more photos of this incredible pyramid at the Chichen Itza Web site.
4. Chaco Canyon (New Mexico, USA)
In today’s Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, the Ancestral Puebloan people, who were expert sky watchers, carved spiral designs into rock to track the seasons and record the passage of time.
In this canyon is a petroglyph called the Sun Dagger because of the way the Sun’s wedge-shape beams strike it in midday during the summer and winter solstices. See virtual movies of the Sun Dagger and other beautiful sites.
5. Newgrange (Ireland)
Around 3200 B.C., ancient people in Ireland built a huge mound of dirt and surrounded it with stones. Today, the knoll is called Newgrange.
For five days around the winter solstice, a beam of sunlight illuminates a small room inside the mound for 17 minutes at dawn. The room holds only twenty people at a time.
Every year, thousands enter a lottery in hope of being one of the hundred people allowed to enter. See more photos of Newgrange here.
6. The Great Sphinx and Pyramid of Khafre (Egypt)
The famous pyramids and Sphinx of Ancient Egypt also have their time in the Sun, so to speak.
On the spring or fall equinoxes, a peculiar phenomenon occurs. If you stand directly in front of the Sphinx (facing it) at sunset on the date of either equinox, as the Sun nears the horizon, you’ll observe it settle directly onto the Sphinx’s right shoulder. At this angle, the Sun also sits at the southern corner of the Pyramid of Khafre, located behind the Sphinx.
Celebrate the Seasons!
Mark the equinoxes and solstices! See our seasons page with dates for the start of spring, summer, fall, and winter.
Have you traveled to these ancient sites? Follow the links above to visit virtually. And tell us how you celebrate the seasons!