Stonehenge and Avebury: Megalithic shadow casting at the solstices at sunrise

G. Terence Meaden (Author)

Oxford University


The paper examines how specific megaliths at Stonehenge and Avebury were positioned relative to others and to particular sunrises such as to produce watchable effects arising from solar movement and resulting lithic shadows. At Stonehenge and environs numerous research expeditions (exceeding 120 that started in 1981) combined with accurate compass analysis, photography and studies of the best plans of the sarsen-stone and bluestone phases have led to explanations for apparent anomalies of stone positioning that have not been clarified before.

Firstly, at the summer solstice in the Late Neolithic the Altar Stone was illuminated by sunshine for the first three or four minutes of the day, following which the shadow of the round-topped Heel Stone was cast into the middle of Stonehenge to reach the Altar Stone. This circumstance continues to be witnessed today. It is a consequence of the Heel Stone being deliberately offset from the Stonehenge axis of symmetry. Again, there is the offset positioning of the anomalous half-height, half-width, Stone 11 that disrupts the otherwise regular arc of the lintelled sarsen circle. It is also a fact that the Altar Stone, although on the midsummer sunrise axis and bisected by it, does not lie perpendicular to the monument’s axis but is instead angled lengthways in the direction of the winter solstice sunrise. The same is true of the orientation of the Great Trilithon (as recently discussed by T. Daw). This suggests that the Altar Stone and the Great Trilithon were deliberately positioned this way in order to respect and emphasise an older arrangement in which a midwinter sunrise megalithic setting had been important. Such an arrangement involving the winter solstice sunrise still exists because the shadow of the short round-topped Stone 11 at sunrise appears aimed at the rhyolite ignimbrite Bluestones 40 and 38 - both of which are damaged, fallen and possibly parts of a single original. In similar manner the site of Hole G could indicate the former position of an ancestral stone with regard to equinoctial sunrises. Thus, these shadow-casting experiences for sunrise at Stonehenge may have affinities with the proven stone-to-stone casting of shadows for the same significant calendar dates at the carefully examined Drombeg Stone Circle. At Avebury the stones of the Cove in the northern circle together with Avebury’s Stone F harmonize likewise at the summer solstice sunrise. Two surviving megaliths in Avebury’s southern circle behave similarly. It is discussed whether an explanation in terms of the ancient worldview of the hieros gamos between Sky and Earth may be appropriate for Stonehenge and Avebury as it could also be at Drombeg.

Author Biography

G. Terence Meaden, Oxford University
Kellogg College
Oxford University
62 Banbury Road
How to Cite
Meaden, G. T. (2017). Stonehenge and Avebury: Megalithic shadow casting at the solstices at sunrise. Journal of Lithic Studies, 4(4), 39–66.