‘We may no longer worship the sun, or
stand in such awe of those who harness
its power in architecture, but architects
in more recent history have continued
to employ the same kinds of tricks’
Chaco culture, to express this ‘order’ through the
way their structures harness light. Modern eyes may
interpret these creations as calendars or clocks that
helped mark time, or as observatories that provided
a way of monitoring the heavens, but Aveni says that
we must not overlook the element of spectacle and
ceremony. The evidence, he argues, shows that these
ancient astronomical sites served ‘as stages upon which
seasonally timed rituals were carried out as a part of
normal social life’. These sites, he contends, ‘must
have constituted a powerful mandate for the cosmic
connection to the power of the rulership’.
Sites that may have served such a purpose are found
across the world and throughout the ages. One of
the most famous examples is Stonehenge, which
attracts crowds every summer and winter solstice to
see the dramatic effect of the rising and setting sun.
An observer standing at the centre of the stone circle
sees the sun rise through the entrance, above a single
standing stone placed further away.
In County Meath, Ireland, lies a site even older than
Stonehenge that also marks the solstice. Built around
3200 BC, Brú na Bóinne, also known as Newgrange,
is a huge Neolithic mound containing a stone passage
that leads to what are presumed to be burial chambers.
At dawn on the winter solstice, the rising sun shines
through a special opening above the doorway, flooding
the inner chamber with light.
At the Mayan city of Chichen Itza in Mexico, a giant
pyramid dedicated to the snake deity Kukulkan plays
host to a spectacular display at the spring and autumn
equinoxes: the shadow cast by the sun on the pyramid’s
steps forms the shape of a serpent, connecting with the
carved head of Kukulkan at the foot of the structure.
It’s just one of numerous examples in Mesoamerica
of ancient structures aligned with celestial events.
Archaeoastronomers continue to find new light effects
in familiar sites. A recent study of the ancient city of
Above and opposite: Newgrange
in County Meath, Ireland, is a
Neolithic burial mound and
even older than Stonehenge.
At dawn on the winter solstice,
the rising sun shines through a
special opening and floods the
inner chamber with light
Overleaf: the steps of a giant
pyramid at the Mayan city of
Chichen Itza in Mexico form a
shadow in the shape of a serpent