Before the arrival of Christianity, with its assimilation of previous beliefs and festivals, the period we now call Christmas, around the mid-winter solstice, was also an important annual event for people of many cultures and times. We can see from archaeology how deep this marking of the close of one year and beginning of the next goes back into the past.
At Stonehenge the complex arrangement of the sarsen stones is sighted on the mid-winter sunset. The monument is also aligned to view the midsummer sunrise and possibly phases of the annual lunar cycle. This final complex arrangement of stones was the last phase of the monument dating to around 2500 BC. The sequence begins around half a millennium earlier with, for the Neolithic, a rare cremation cemetery followed by the first stone circle, consisting of a ring of bluestones. In an odd turn in the history of archaeological terminology Stonehenge gives the monument type the name but is atypical.
Stonehenge ©Andrew Hutcheson
Closer to Norwich, the eponymous western end of the Silk Roads within the project, there is Arminghall, another Neolithic monument dating from around 3000 BC. It was comprised of a timber circle with a surrounding henge—a ditch with an outer bank. Like Stonehenge, Arminghall is aligned so that the mid-winter sunset can be viewed with the sun setting down the side of a hill to the southwest and appearing to disappear into the River Tas.
The Circles of Stone Exhibition can be visited at Stonehenge Visitor Centre until September 2023. It draws out the similarities between the henge builders in Neolithic Britain and the people of the Jomon Culture in the Japanese archipelago who around the same time also built monuments to mark the solstices.
The Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project is exploring, through archaeological fieldwork, a range of prehistoric monuments in Norfolk and making comparisons with other Eurasian archaeological sites and landscapes, particularly Japan.
Excavations at Arminghall Henge, Norfolk in September 2022 ©Andrew Hutcheson