Our history with the Sun

What has the Sun meant to us over milennia?
08 June 2021

Interview with 

Daniel Brown, Nottingham Trent University,


Neolithic British Structure


How has the Sun has influenced mankind’s thinking over millennia? From ancient calendar-like Stonehenge to the alignments of temples and pyramids that would have shown our ancestors when key events like the spring equinox were happening, they all speak to the powerful influence of the Sun over human life. And to take us through our relationship with the Sun, Adam Murphy spoke to Nottingham Trent University’s Daniel Brown…

Daniel - Yeah, that's a tricky thing. So for one, Stonehenge is more than what we see or imagine with the stones set up there, with the trilithons and the bluestones in the circle. There's more to it in the wider context; you've got a beautiful avenue. If you then look at the alignments, i.e. in which directions these long structures - like the avenue - point on the horizon, then you can start to link that to the Sun. Because it's really interesting, this beautiful actor in the sky, the Sun, when it rises and sets. Normally if you ask that question, you will get the answer, "Well, the rising is in the east, the setting in the west," which is more or less OK, but only maybe right twice a year because the Sun moves over different parts of the eastern and western horizon, depending on which season that is. So much closer towards the southern parts in the winter and the northern parts towards the summer.

Daniel - So you can nicely link up where the Sun rises to what time in the year that is. And you can see that this long passageway, this avenue, is aligned towards the summer solstice and winter solstice at this specific time. And hence you see many people flocking towards Stonehenge because in the mid summer, you can see then, in the direction of the avenue, the sun rising. But most strikingly I find is the winter. Mid-winter, the 21st of December, is around when you're then going the other way and viewing along the path towards Stonehenge. And you can see the Sun setting there. And that's a beautiful play on the meaning for these sites and a kind of ritual meaning rather than purely you go there to measure what time of year it is.

Adam - And what else was the Sun used for? What other kinds of devices or monuments do we have for that kind of thing?

Daniel - Newgrange is another one, which is a burial site in Ireland where the one passageway is aligned towards one of these rising setting points. But in a way that's the same old, same old in the same area. You can also think about pyramids being aligned. So we've got some beautiful examples; Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan peninsula. So we're now shifting towards over to the Americas, where at the winter solstice, the shadow cast by the Sun creates a beautiful pattern on the stepped pyramid on the steps invoking a kind of shadow play that turns the other side of the stairwell into a snake, which is really beautiful. So again, using sun dates, but not to time something, but to make a monument or something special through shadow play or alignment. And other parts are then taking it towards things like sundials. There's a giant sundial of Augustus that was built at around the birth of Christ. And that was used to determine the date, not necessarily the time, but it's a sundial to determine the date of the year, which was very political to make sure that the then reigning emperor Augustus could show that the calendar he was instating was correct, therefore supporting his divinity. So massively important knowing how the Sun moves throughout the sky and then using it as a power play.

Adam - So then how do you figure out these movements? You can't just stand there for a year. How do you make them last until today?

Daniel - The movements you can see is virtually through observing. You can see where the Sun rises and sets and can see how that plays out over the year. You can see that over shadow plays as well. And we know that from a method that's called the Indian circle method, which we can use to determine where north and south is by putting a shadow casting device in the ground, like a stick, simple as that, and then seeing how the shadow of the stick moves and marking two points where the equidistant, i.e. the shadow is the same distance from the stick at two points. And at that point you can connect that, get the beautiful east west line, and you can align things really nicely. And that stretches way throughout times. And you get that even, believe it or not, into the Victorian times,

Adam - How into the Victorian times, how did that stretch?

Daniel - At that point, you're looking at sundials. Again, you have to move away from the idea of a sundial, being something to read off the actual time of the day. In this case, it's, what's called the meridian sundial. So you mark only one time; the middle of the day. And it's quite interesting that at that time you were establishing the railway network throughout the UK and you needed to install a unified time throughout. And that meant setting clocks all equal. And we were far away from the time signal of the BBC or Telegraph running across there efficiently. So you needed to make sure that your beautiful clocks were set and the Sun was one way to do that. And these meridian sundials cross at mid day give you a beautiful time signal, uh, which you can then tweak to make sure that it matches with GMT Greenwich, mean time. And at that point you can then sit down and that's, uh, an example of beautiful one is still in Bromley house library in Nottingham. There's another one Durham cathedral throughout the UK, where we can see that that's as has happened and it was built.


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