Marking the winter solstice, from Neolithic times to today

In cultures the world over, the promise of longer days has provided reason to celebrate for millennia, according to Penn scholars.

A prehistoric city with homes, earthen mounds, and pathways
Archaeological evidence for solstice celebrations abounds in the ancient North American city of Cahokia, located in what is now Illinois. (Illustration: Steven Patricia/Art Institute of Chicago)

Nine hours and 20 minutes. In Philadelphia, that’s how much daylight plays upon Earth on the shortest day of the year. With the winter solstice now upon us, we can look forward to days that steadily lengthen and erode away at the cold, protracted nights. 

For millennia, people have recognized this time of year with rituals and celebration. And the powerful pull of the solstice endures in many modern-day cultural and religious practices. According to archaeologists and anthropologists at Penn, the widespread nature of these observances, both ancient and contemporary and found in societies all around the globe, tells us something about humans’ connection to nature, specifically, to the life-giving force of the sun.

“To me, these are the phenomena that I as an archaeologist find the most interesting,” says Megan Kassabaum of the Penn Museum. “If something has persisted for close to 10 thousand years now, that seems to be getting at something almost innate, something universal that we recognize and share.”

A large wooden pole stands on the ground with six other wooden poles arranged around it
At Cahokia’s Woodhenge, archaeologists have found 1,000-year-old post holes arranged in a circle, a construction that appeared to enable the city’s inhabitants to mark astronomical phenomena, such as solstices and equinoxes. New posts have since been placed to replicate how the site once appeared. (Photo: Thomas Patton)

In modern times, the tilt of Earth’s axis in relation to the sun matters far less than it once did. We can flip a switch to illuminate our homes and offices and flip another to warm them. But back before these innovations, the amount of daylight mattered a lot. Certain ancient societies marked important astronomical events with monuments, some of which linger on the landscape today.

Arguably the best-known monuments to the solstice are also the best preserved: those Neolithic sites made of stone, including Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. Roughly 5,000 years ago when these monuments were built, people were settling down on the landscape and relying more heavily on agriculture—no coincidence, according to Kassabaum.

“Throughout the later part of the Neolithic period, from 5000 to 3000 B.C.E., people were consistently building monuments that reflected a knowledge of the sun and the stars, and the solstice would have been a really important part of that,” she says. “That makes a lot of sense: If you’re going to be planting and harvesting and then planting again and harvesting again, you really need to be able to understand and predict these seasonal changes.”

Newgrange—in Kassabaum’s opinion, the “coolest” of the Neolithic monuments—is one of a number of structures known as passage tombs. It consists of a massive earthen mound with burial chambers within, accessed by a narrow walkway.

There, the morning of the solstice, the sun rises over a hill “at just such a time, in just such a way,” says Kassabaum, that sunlight enters the passage, dramatically illuminating an underground chamber and making visible intricate carvings within it.  

Kassabaum and other archaeologists tread carefully before ascribing meaning to ancient architectural alignments that seem to mark astronomical events. But sites like Newgrange leave little to question. “The level of engineering that it would have taken to create that out of stone and earth and align with the solstice sunrise is so impressive,” she says. “There’s no way it could have happened accidentally.”

A moon rises over a landscape marked by circular and octagonal raised shapes.
The Newark Earthworks in modern-day Ohio was built by people of the Hopewell culture nearly 2,000 years ago. Its geometric earthen embankments were likely sites for observing astronomical events. (Illustration: Steven Patricia/Art Institute of Chicago)

Northern Europeans were far from the only ancient populations constructing megaliths to mark astronomical events. The Mayans, for example, were well known to have developed a sophisticated calendar system, with architecture built to note important days such as the solstices, equinoxes, and even eclipses and lunar standstills. The pyramids of Giza are believed to be arranged to reflect astronomical phenomena. And at Cahokia, the largest pre-contact Native American city located in what is now Illinois, a monument known as Woodhenge, built around 1,000 years ago, is believed to have served as an observational site for the solstice and other astronomical events.

“Sites like Newgrange and the Mayan pyramids tend to get higher billing because they are there on the landscape today,” Kassabaum says. “But we have a lot of evidence for wood and earthen [astronomy-related] architecture in the U.S. as well, it’s just now eroded or outright decomposed.”

The Penn Museum’s “Moundbuilders” exhibition, curated by Kassabaum, explores the astronomical associations of a few of these sites, including Cahokia’s Woodhenge and other suspected solstice alignments at sites constructed more than 1,500 years ago in Ohio and belonging to the Hopewell culture.

Many of these ancient civilizations didn’t have written languages, and therefore it can be difficult to discern the precise meanings that various cultures associated with the solstice. Yet common themes appear to be rebirth, renewal, and thanksgiving, all threads that continue to be woven through many contemporary winter celebrations.

A bowl with brown and beige figures on the rim
A Pueblo ceramic bowl is decorated with Shalako figures around the rim. During the celebration, in part a marking of the close of the harvest season, selected families in the community prepare and serve food, such as venison stew and home-baked bread. (Photo: Penn Museum)

A connection to harvest and an appreciation for nature’s role in providing sustenance plays an important role in the way that the Zuni people in New Mexico mark the winter solstice, with an annual religious ceremony called the Shalako. Though held roughly around the solstice, sometimes as early as November, the Zuni community prepares for the Shalako months in advance, with several households in the pueblo selected to welcome the Shalako spirits during the ceremony. 

Six individuals  are chosen to dress as a Shalako, wearing intricately embroidered garments “laden with metaphor and meaning,” says Lucy Fowler Williams, a cultural anthropologist and curator at the Penn Museum. Towering 9 or 10 feet high, the Shalako figures approach the village from the south at dusk, eventually entering the six new homes built for the occasion, where venison stew and homebaked bread await the many visitors. There, the Shalakos perform a dance throughout the night.

Williams, who attended a Shalako celebration, says the effect of seeing the scale and approach of the tall figures “is awesome; it’s just remarkable.

“The point of the dance is to encourage the sun on its pathway to make the days longer again, so that the earth and days will get warmer and the crops will grow,” says Williams. “This is all happening after the harvest, and Zunis are both giving thanks for the past harvest but also seeking support from the spirit beings for the upcoming year.”

Carved and constructed Shalako figures called koko are given to children as teaching tools. They are kept as sacred objects and hung high in Zuni homes, embodiments of the Shalako spirits. Pueblo artists also sell them, and the Museum has several spectacular examples in the American collections.

Native American man standing next to three figures dressed in white garments with bird-like headdresses
Zuni people mark the solstice with a ceremony called the Shalako, which includes a sacred dance, as shown in this painting by Pueblo artist Velino Shije Herrera, also known by his native name Ma-Pe-Wi, around 1920. Titled “Zuni Shalako Dancers,” it evokes the towering scale of the Shalako figures.  (Photo: Penn Museum)

From the the Zuni’s Shalako in New Mexico to China’s Dongzhi festival, and from the Iranian Yalda festival to Peru’s Inti Raymi, held during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice in June, numerous cultures continue to carve time out to acknowledge the inextricable tie between humans and nature. This relationship persists today, in an era of electricity and smartphones, yet traces its roots back to a time when everyday people were astronomers, paying careful attention to the changes in the sky. 

“The sun is, of course, recognized universally as the thing that gives us life and provides us what we need to survive,” says Kassabaum. “That’s probably where this very, very longstanding belief that this particular day is one to be celebrated comes from.”

Megan Kassabaum is the Weingarten Assistant Curator at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and an assistant professor of anthropology at the School of Arts and Sciences.

Lucy Fowler Williams is Associate Curator and Sabloff Keeper of the American Section at the Penn Museum.