Sun rising over Stonehenge, Wiltshire, United Kingdom
Every year, thousands of people flock to the English countryside to mark the celestial calendar in a place you’ve probably heard about – even if you’ve never visited: Stonehenge.
Erected sometime around 2500 BC, Stonehenge is one a feat of human engineering in the prehistoric era. Scientists, historians, and others have all come up with theories to explain how the 25-30 ton stones were transported and arranged so precisely into the now iconic stone circles at the site.
Because the stones at Stonehenge aren’t just masterfully engineered – they’re precisely aligned with the astronomical calendar. Each year, the sunrise on the summer (June) and winter (December) solstices rises precisely in alignment with a set of stones at Stonehenge; historians now believe the site was used to mark the seasons by the agricultural peoples who once lived in this part of Britain.
Cloudy sunrise over Stonehenge – prehistoric megalith monument arranged in circle.
This year’s summer solstice is set to take place at 10:43 pm GMT on June 20 (5:43 pm EDT / 2:43 pm PDT), at the point when the earth’s northern pole is most tipped toward the sun. This marks the longest day and shortest night of the year for the northern hemisphere – an important day for prehistoric farmers and herders whose livelihood relied on an understanding of the seasons in the time before watches and calendars.
The alignment at Stonehenge annually draws crowds of people on the two solstices, from Druid and Pagan worshipers to curious onlookers. All are keen to see the sun rise to the left of the Heel Stone and illuminate the ancient stones, marking the beginning of summer as it has been seen by humans at this site for over 4500 years.
Unfortunately, like so many other events this year, the Covid-19 health crisis has cancelled in-person festivities to help protect public health. (In fact, Stonehenge is closed entirely to the public and set to re-open on July 4.)
To that end, English Heritage, a charity that helps protect historic and prehistoric sites in England, has gotten creative: they’ll be live-streaming the sunset and sunrise at Stonehenge on their Facebook page.
“We have consulted widely on whether we could have proceeded safely and we would have dearly liked to host the event as per usual, but sadly in the end, we feel we have no choice but to cancel,” shared Stonehenge director Nichola Tasker in a statement first published in the local Salisbury Journal. “We know how strong the draw to come is for some people, but I would take this opportunity to say please do not travel to Stonehenge this summer solstice, but watch it online instead.”
Colorful sunset over Stonehenge
The summer solstice sunset will take place at 9:26 pm GMT on June 20. The livestream begins earlier, at 8:41 pm GMT (3:41 pm EDT / 12:41 pm PDT) and can be watched here on Facebook.
Roughly seven hours later, the earth will turn back toward the sun and the momentous summer solstice sunrise will occur at 4:52 am GMT on June 21; the livestream begins at 4:07 am GMT (11:07 pm EDT / 8:07 pm PDT) and can be seen here on Facebook.
“We hope that our live stream offers an alternative opportunity for people near and far to connect with this spiritual place at such a special time of year and we look forward to welcoming everyone back next year,” Tasker also said in her statement.
Yet again, technology saves the day, allowing thousands of people to stay home and safe but still enjoy the wondrous experience of the summer solstice at Stonehenge. English Heritage has excellent resources on the history of Stonehenge and how Stonehenge aligns with the celestial calendar for those who want to learn more or educate young astronomers about the site.