This weekend marks the beginning of the end. Of winter's darkness, that is. Today (Dec. 21), the Northern Hemisphere celebrates the mark of increasingly longer days, while the Southern Hemisphere will transition to shorter days, and those at the equator won't notice much of a difference at all. The global discrepancy in seasonal sunlight results from Earth's 23.5-degree tilt on its axis: During theNorthern Hemisphere winter
, the Earth is tilted directly away from the sun, and during the summer, it is tilted directly toward the sun. The equator does not experience much of a change during the year since it sits in the middle of the axis.
For many ancient civilizations that struggled to subsist through harsh winter months, thewinter solstice
marked a time of spiritual rejoice and celebration. Modern heating technology and the globalization of food markets make the seasonal transition remarkably easier for modern humans to survive, but people still do celebrate the day with festivities and rituals, including a tradition of reading poetry and eating pomegranates in Iran, and the Guatemalan ritual known as polo voladore — or "flying pole dance" — in which three men climb to the top of a 50-foot-tall (15 meters) pole and perform a risky dance to flutes and drums. [Winter Solstice: Sunrise & Sunset Times in US Cities
] Still other people celebrate the day by tuning into the spiritual rituals of ancient civilizations and visiting the sites of winter solstice tributes. Here are six archaeological sites that researchers believe pay tribute to the winter solstice:
Associated Press, English Heritage
— one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world — is an arrangement of rocks carefully positioned on a barren ground in southern England. The megalith, which may have been a burial, was built between 3000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., over the course of roughly 1,500 years, in a series of several major phases. When the sun sets on the winter solstice, its rays align with what are known as the central Altar stone and the Slaughter stone — an event that hundreds of families, tourists, Wiccans, and others visit each year to experience what researchers believe was an important spiritual event for those responsible for creating the monument. [5 Strange Theories About Stonehenge
The Newgrange monument is located northeastern Ireland, and is thought to date back to about 3200 B.C. The mound, with grass on its roof, rises from a green field and, inside, contains a series of tunnels and channels. During sunrise on the winter solstice, the sun pours into the main chambers, which researchers have interpreted to mean it was built to celebrate this special day of the year.
Built in Orkney, Scotland, around 2800 B.C., Maeshowe is another burial ground that appears as a grassy mound rising about 24 feet (7.3 m) above a grassy field. Similar to Ireland's Newgrange, the inside of the mound contains a maze of chambers and passageways that become illuminated by sunlight during the winter solstice.
The Goseck circle is a series of concentric rings dug into the ground — the largest of which measures about 246 feet (75 m) in diameter — located in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. It dates back to about 4900 B.C., but was forgotten and covered by a wheat field before being discovered through aerial surveys in the early 1990s. Archaeological remains suggest Goseck circle was the site of religious rituals, such as sacrifices. Upon discovery and excavation, researchers realized that two gates cut into the outermost circle aligned with the sunrise and sunset of the winter solstice, suggesting this the circle was somehow a tribute to the solstice.
Located on the eastern coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Tulum is an ancient stone-walled Mayan city whose population collapsed around the 15th century when Spanish settlers had begun to occupy Mexico, bringing new disease that wiped out large portions of the Mexican population. Much of the stone buildings that made up the city still stand today. One of these buildings contains a small hole at its top that produces a starburst effect when the sun rises on the winter (and summer) solstice.
Earlier this year, researchers discovered two stone lines that, when approached straight on, appear to framePeru's Cerro del Gentil pyramid
in the distance. The lines are located roughly 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) southeast of the pyramid, and extend about 1,640 feet (500 m). Using 3D-modeling software, the researchers discovered that the winter solstice sun sets exactly where the lines converge on the pyramid in the horizon. More from LiveScience:In Photos: Amazing Ruins of the Ancient World
Winter Wonderland: Images of Stunning Snowy Landscapes
Images: One-of-a-Kind Places on Earth
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An ancient Greek temple was built to face the setting full moon near the winter solstice, according to new research that sheds new light on the orientation of sacred monuments.
A new survey of the Valley of the Temples just outside Agrigento, Italy, reveals the 2,500-year-old temples were not deliberately aligned to the rising sun, as generally believed. A variety of factors, not all of them being astronomical, inspired the ancient architects.
“Alignment was widely determined by urban layout and morphological aspects of the terrain as well as religious connections,” Giulio Magli, professor of archaeoastronomy at Milan’s Polytechnic University, told Discovery News.
Magli and colleagues Robert Hannah, at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, and Andrea Orlando, at the Catania Astrophysical Observatory, conducted the research with funding from the Ente Parco della Valle dei Templi. Their findings are published on the Cornell University physics Web site, arXiv.org.
Known as the temple of Demeter and Persephone, the shrine is among a World Heritage-listed collection of temples that once stood in full glory in Akragas, later to be called Agrigento.
“One can only imagine the spectacle at the temple. The full moon near the winter solstice – the longest night of the year – culminates very high in the sky and remains in the sky the longest,” Magli said.
Akragas was one of the most important Greek colonies in Sicily, and the homeland of the philosopher Empedocles (490–430 BC).
Empedocles was the first to divide matter into the four elements of earth, fire, water and air. He also observed that the moon shines with light reflected from the sun.
Today the Valley of the Temples consists of the remains of 10 Doric temples dedicated to Greek gods, goddesses and heroes such as Heracles, Olympic Zeus, Demeter and Persephone, Juno, Concordia, Vulcan, Aesculapius.
Their orientation, as well that of all Greek temples, has been debated for nearly two centuries. Academics wondered whether they were aligned with astronomic events like the sunrise on specific days of the year.
Magli and colleagues measured the alignment of all the Greek temples in the valley, and showed that at least four of them are orientated in accordance with the town’s grid along the cardinal directions — irrespective of the solar date to which they would match due to the horizon.
“For such temples, only a general rule imposing the facade towards the eastern horizon was applied. However, they were not orientated toward the rising sun on specific days of the year,” Magli said.
One of the shrines, the temple of Juno, was aligned to the stars in the Delphinus constellation.
On the contrary, the temple of Zeus, one of the largest temples of the Greek world before earthquakes and Carthaginian raids, was orientated topographically in accordance with the street grid.
“Incredible as it may seem, we have been unable to find this simple explanation in the literature,” the researchers wrote.
Now incorporated in the Medieval church of San Biagio, the temple of Demeter and Persephone is preceded by a fountain sanctuary with sacred caves where votive deposits, including a statuette representing Persephone, were found.
Persephone and her mother Demeter, the goddess of nature, were the key figures in the Eleusinian mysteries representing the myth of Persephone, who was abducted by Hades to be his wife in the underworld.
The mysteries celebrated Persephone’s reunion with her mother, in a cycle with three phases, the “descent,” the “search” and the “ascent.”
“We know very little about the relationship between astronomy and those secret religious rites. A connection with the moon-orientated temple is possible and will be at the center of further research,” Magli said.
The attribution of the temple to Demeter and Persephone was also confirmed by the presence of two small circular altars located in a corridor formed between the rock cut to the north and the side of the temple.
One altar has a central well, known as bothros, which was found filled with broken kernoi, or ritual vessels of Demeter.
A relatively large esplanade can be found on the back of the temple. It was obtained artificially through the construction of huge retaining walls on the south side and an accurate excavation and leveling of the rock on the north side.
“We can imagine a nocturnal procession coming up from the fountain sanctuary and reaching the temple, in front of which, however, there is not enough space to house worshipers,” Magli and colleagues said.
They speculate that after people ascended to the temple, people crossed the corridor between the north side of the temple and the hill, perhaps throwing offerings in the central well.
“Then they gathered in the vast esplanade on the back of the temple. From there, they would have witnessed the spectacle of the full moon high over the hill of the acropolis,” Magli said.