English Heritage is asking people not to travel to the ancient site of Stonehenge in England for the winter solstice, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It plans to livestream its celebrations on its social media accounts instead.

The winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, and people usually flock to the mystical site to watch the midwinter sun set and rise over the stones. Stonehenge is one of Britain's great archaeological mysteries, because no one knows for sure what drove prehistoric Britons to expend so much time and effort on its construction. What we do know is that it's a monument aligned to the movements of the sun.

The first phase of building started around 3000 BC, when the outer circular bank and ditch were erected, although recent archaeological findings show the surrounding area was sacred for hundreds of years before work began. The stones were shaped and set up to frame at least two important events in the annual solar cycle – the midwinter sunset at the winter solstice and the midsummer sunrise at the summer solstice.

The winter solstice may have been more important than the summer one for the people who built and used Stonehenge. Excavations at Durrington Walls suggest that people held huge feasts around this time of year. Durrington Walls is a Neolithic settlement situated about two miles away from the monument, and archaeologists think that the people who built and used Stonehenge lived here.

Aerial photograph showing people visiting Stonehenge which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in England
The first phase of building at Stonehenge started around 3000 BC © dronemybusiness/Shutterstock

"Owing to the pandemic and in the interests of public health, there will be no Winter Solstice gathering at Stonehenge this year," says English Heritage. "The Winter Solstice sunrise will instead be live-streamed from the stones on the morning of the 21 December. It will be easy and free to watch on the English Heritage social media channels. We know how appealing it is to come to Stonehenge for Winter Solstice but we are asking everyone to stay safe and to watch the sunrise online instead." Check out English Heritage’s website here.

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Stonehenge at sunset, Wiltshire, England.


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