6 Ancient Sites Aligned With the Solstice and Equinox

Curious Ways Our Ancestors Tracked the Seasons

September 22, 2020
Machu Piccu

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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!

Source: 

The Almanac for Kids, Volume 2

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Reader Comments

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Solstice

The term the writer used "Anasazi" is no longer used by the tribes of the southwest because it means "Enemies of the people". They instead us the term "Ancient Pueblans" to describe these ancestors.

Correct Terms

The Editors's picture

Thank you for bringing this to our attention! We have updated the article to use the correct terminology.

Another misfired attempt at honoring native traditions.

The Adirondacks in upstate New York were named by the European settlers, ostensibly after the Native Americans who inhabited the area. Later it was discovered that the word was actually a snarky put-down used by Native Americans in the Manhattan area to refer to the people up north: "Adirondack" means "bark eater", and was a reference to the fact that food was so scarce in wintertime, upstate residents had to boil the bark of trees to survive.

you have forgoten "kokino" as

you have forgoten "kokino" as an opservatory ;)

sites of solstice

I have never been at these sites on day of the solstice, but have visited Machu PIchu, Chichen Itza , Stonehenge, and Chaco Canyon so feel very fortunate.. I have never heard of Newgrange in Ireland...maybe some day I can visit this site. These are all SO interesting

New Grange

Well, I can share my experience of going to New Grange in Ireland, a land of many stone monuments. As you enter the stone monument, you need to duck as the narrow corridor is not high enough for people to sand up straight and once you enter the round chamber where the light comes on nature's cue you sense the wonder of it all. I tried to envision why or what the purpose of this structure could be. There was a lady who wrote a book called, "Sacred Places" on the little tour.

Picture at head of Solstice article

What is the site pictured above the article?

Macchu Picchu

The Editors's picture

This is the Machu Picchu archaeological site, perched atop a mountain overlooking the Urubamba Valley in Peru. We will add this information to the above text. Thank you!

Fascinating Information;

Fascinating Information; I have been interested in "star gazing" because of the intriguing articles; I found The Seven Sisters; "beautiful site";!!

I saw an old saying in one of

I saw an old saying in one of your books that touched me, as the two dates were my parent's birthdays, one mine, too - Michaelmas and Groundhog day, regarding tilling and harvest. Can you share again, please?

There are countless proverbs

The Editors's picture

There are countless proverbs and adages related to Groundhog Day (aka Candlemas Day) and Michaelmas. Here are a few for your enjoyment:

If Candlemas Day be fine and clear,
Corn and fruits will then be dear.

On Candlemas Day,
You must have half your straw and half your hay.

At Candlemas Day,
Another winter is on its way.

If Michaelmas Day brings many acorns,
Christmas will cover the fields with snow.

So many days old the Moon is on Michaelmas Day, so many floods after.

Michaelmas rot
Comes ne'er in the pot.

I agree. The meteorological

I agree. The meteorological changes of season match the weather in my area far better than the astronomical dates do.

The Summer Solstice is but

The Summer Solstice is but one way to measure the start of Summer. Meteorologists in the U.S. consider June 1 to be the beginning of Summer, September 1 (Fall), December 1 (Winter), and March 1(Spring). I think this makes more sense, no matter what all the silly U.S. calendars state about the equinox and the astronomical summer. June 21 is called Mid-Summer, harkening back to even older definitions of seasons. I don't think that the astronomical definition of the beginning of a season should be taken as definitive by any means.