Most of you wont have relished venturing out from under the duvet at all on this snowy Tuesday morning, let alone doing it before the break of dawn. But around 600 intrepid souls were up before the birds today, and wrapped in the their woollens in time to trudge out into the middle of a frozen Wiltshire field for the rising of the sun shortly after 8am, and the celebration of the winter solstice at Stonehenge.
Attendance at the event a chilled-out, smaller-scale alternative to the much headier summer solstice is usually a lot higher (2000 people turned out in 2008), but weather-related travel chaos in the south of England must have prevented many from making the journey. Spirits were high nonetheless, as the first rays broke through the icy mist, and were greeted with customary chanting and dancing.
Pagans in full bonkers regalia were, as ever, out in force for what represents one of the key dates on their calendar, an occasion which according to archaeologists currently researching at nearby related site Durrington Walls was thousands of years ago marked by the sacrificing and roasting of hundreds of cattle and pigs. Also in attendance at the 2009 Stonehenge winter solstice was a healthy swathe of much more normal-looking observers regulars note that the event has become an increasingly popular public spectacle in recent years.
Pagans Have More Fun
Guardian journalist Steven Morriss quizzing of some of the non-Druidic element of the assembled throng revealed a plethora of reasons for the winter solstice piquing peoples interest. Among them seemed to be a desire to experience something rootsy and traditional, yet also out-of-the-ordinary, in the ever-more-commercial festive season.
We’re here for an anti-religious reason, if any, said Alison Marcetic from Birmingham, who had travelled to Stonehenge with her husband and her two young children. Pagans seem to have more fun so wed thought wed give it a go. Well be celebrating Christmas but this is about showing the children that this season isnt just about getting presents. What goes on here is more basic, more tangible.
Jill, a Stonehenge regular, visited the winter solstice with her 10-year-old daughter Jasmine. For us this time of year is about starting to come out of the dark, she commented. Its a very positive time of year. I think people who arent pagans come here to enjoy that feeling too. As a mum and gran, shell be celebrating Christmas as well, albeit reluctantly. I dont have much choice, she added, but we do it as modestly as possible.
Seasonal Feasting, Prehistoric-Style
Its turkeys that traditionally get carved-up on the Christmas dinner tables of families such as Alisons and Jills around this time of year in Britain. But it seems that there were once other animals that had reason to fear December coming round too.
Stonehenge Riverside Project director Mike Parker Pearson who spoke to Heritage Key a while back about progress at the ongoing and thus-far remarkably successful archaeological investigation he leads recently revealed that large quantities of pig and cattle bones have been discovered among other remains at Durrington Walls, an inter-linking companion site to Stonehenge.
4,500 years back the Stonehenge landscape was apparently a scene of heady celebration and ritual feasting at the solstices.
Occupation and consumption were intense, Parker Pearson wrote in a report, quoted by Discovery News. The animal remains were found alongside pottery, flint arrowheads and lithic debris. It seems that Durrington Walls and Stonehenge were the scenes of pockets of intense activity, as prehistoric people celebrated and gorged at very specific times of year. The small quantities of stone tools other than arrowheads, the absence of grinding querns and the lack of carbonised grain indicate that this was a consumer site, Parker Pearson continued. The midsummer and midwinter solstice alignments of the Durrington and Stonehenge architecture suggest seasonal occupation.
The animals were apparently driven from hundreds of miles around to be slaughtered immediately at Durrington Walls in time for the winter solstice. Considering the treacherous travel conditions currently thwarting transport up and down the UK, the pagans of 2009 can be thankful that tradition has long since died out.