Solstice as a winter sun festival was recognised and celebrated 7,000 years ago near Leipzig in Saxony-Anhalt, eastern Germany, by an ancient agricultural people who used simple wooden tools to till their fields, but created the oldest solar observatory in Europe. The Goseck Sun Circle.
The information it gave them helped schedule their farm work, as well as to gauge the summer and winter solstices.
December Solstice for those south of the Equator is a midsummer solstice, leading into the longest day of the year, while in the Northern Hemisphere its arrival brings the annual longest night before the days begin to lengthen and light slowly returns.
A time around which for centuries a great many celebrations have taken place, from Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule and Kwanzaa to Saturnia.
The discovery of the Goseck Circle meant a long held belief that development in Neolithic, New Stone Age, Europe was far behind that of the Middle East had to be revised; the circle was devised, and in existence, long before the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian Cultures.
Used by a European civilization whose lives were closely tied to the cycle of the seasons and harvest.
The Circle remained undiscovered for thousands of years until an aerial survey photograph, taken by an archaeologist studying the landscape during a 1991 drought, revealed circular ridges and crop marks under a wheat field. Outlines of a 75 meter (246 feet) diameter circular enclosure were easily seen. Built on a flat river plain, there was a raised mound of soil in the central area and it was clear this had been surrounded by a ring of four concentric circles.
Analysis showed these were made up from an earthen wall, a ditch and two wooden fences with gates positioned Southeast, Southwest and North, and anyone viewing from inside the structure through the openings would have been able to study the passage of time and seasonal changes from the direction the sunrise took.
During the Winter Solstice the sun rose directly through the south east gate, then set in the southwest.
A winter solstice promising a gradual return of the sun, and of light in darkness, was of enormous significance to these ancient farming folk who, during a period of the year known for its deaths from starvation and cold, lived from stored food and supplies.
Using archaeological evidence in combination with Global Positioning System data, archaeologists found the circle was probably the world's oldest solar observatory, as the two southern gates mark the sunrise and sunset of both the Winter and Summer Solstice.
In this it is unlike other prehistoric European monuments that align to either a solstice sunrise or a sunset, such as England's Stonehenge with a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunset, or New Grange in Ireland and Orkney Maeshowe off the northern Scottish coast, where it is winter's solstice sunrise that is channeled through an opening and illuminates an enclosed central room.
As a solar observatory that also measured various lunar movements, it was a form of astronomical calendar indicating the best times for sowing, planting and harvesting.
In addition it probably served as a central meeting and marketplace, as well as an "astro-theological" religious site for the worship of the sun, moon, planets, stars and constellations where it is thought fertility rituals and weddings took place.
Sacrifices also, as relics found have included bones from humans and animals together with traces of ritual fires.
For the moment however, despite modern technology and science, the reasons for Gosecks' third gate remain a mystery; although it points north unlike the other gates it is not perfectly aligned.
With no written records, and few illustrations apart from simple designs on pottery, nothing of the language or the physical appearance of the people who built the Goseck Circle is known, nevertheless the site gives a detailed and revealing insight into the spiritual and religious world of the earliest European farming societies.
The wooden fences disintegrated centuries ago, but using the characteristic patterns that remain 2,300 new oak poles were erected in their original positions, each 2.5 meters high and hand finished so they would appear much as they did seven thousand years ago. Their gates opening to the points on the compass where the sun rises and sets on December 21. The reconstruction of the solar circle was completed by the replacement of its original ditch and earthen wall.
On December 21 2005 rebuilt Goseck Circle was launched with a traditional seasonal celebration of renewal, revival and reflection; a winter solstice festival illuminated by flaming torches, laser lights and the watery winter sun setting over the south western gate.
Now thousands commemorate each solstice at the Goseck Circle, as accompanied by fireworks and music, sunlight is again caught on the spot it was designed to illuminate; seven millennia in the past.
Images:An aerial view of the reconstructed Goseck Solar Observatory, via Wikispaces - Plan of Goseck double ring "henge" with sun points, photo by Einsamer Schuetze, de.wikipedia - Photo of Goseck 'Woodhenge' ring walk, taken in late December, courtesy Wikipedia-ce, public domain - Drawing of the Goseck circle. The yellow lines representing the direction the Sun rising and setting at the winter solstice, the vertical line showing the astronomical meridian. Courtesy Wikipedia user Rainer Zenz, de.Wikipedia
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