Center for Archaeoastronomy: A&E News Archive
Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News
ESSAYS FROM ARCHAEOASTRONOMY & ETHNOASTRONOMY NEWS, THE QUARTERLY BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR ARCHAEOASTRONOMY
Number 34 December Solstice 1999
Earthbound Astronomy in the Eastern US Woodlands
by Alane Alchorn, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, L-561, PO Box 808, Livermore California, 90254.
One of the earliest and most enduring questions in North American archaeology inquires about the mounds and earthworks that are found throughout the Eastern Woodlands. From Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Appalachian Mountains to the eastern Mississippi River basin, pre-contact cultures built geometric earthworks, earthen enclosures, and mounds in many shapes. Current estimates place the time-depth of these scattered sites at 2,500 to 3,000 years BCE.
When Albert Gallatin, who later would found the American Ethnological Society in 1842, first entered the Ohio Valley in the late 1780s, few indigenous peoples remained. The pressures of westward colonization and the effects of European diseases (known as the Great Dying) had combined to shift native peoples to the west and the south. Evidence of their civilizations, however, arises in the foothills of the western Appalachians. This inspired in Gallatin great intellectual curiosity about the nature of, and reasons for, the earthen constructions he observed. (Kennedy: 1994)
At a time when intellectual opinion attributed such earthen architecture to transplanted Egyptians, the Lost Tribes of Israel, or Welsh settlers-any group other than Native Americans-Gallatin firmly asserted that these monumental building projects represented the final product of a complex and widespread network of native civilizations. Thomas Jefferson encouraged Gallatin's research in "the West." Jefferson too, believed that the time-depth and history of native cultures could be ascertained through careful and non-prejudicial research. He sponsored small expeditions to gather information, and even excavated a burial mound on his Virginia estate.
When inland explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark organized their explorations in 1804, Gallatin and Jefferson contributed political and economic support. Early in the Lewis and Clark expedition, the group encountered circle-and-square monuments, and at Cahokia noted extensive earthworks that appeared to combine ceremonial and defensive structures. (Ambrose: 1996) When Henry Brackenridge walked the earthworks of Cahokia, opposite the young town of St. Louis in 1811, he suggested that the complex must have been constructed for long-term use and a range of purposes. (Kennedy: 1994) Writing in 1813, he observed that the Cahokia culture, before its destruction in the Great Dying, had assembled more than 100 mounds among miles of river bluff earthen monuments.
Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis relied on the work of Gallatin, Jefferson, and Brackenridge when they undertook to survey the "ancient monuments" of the Mississippi River and its drainages, beginning in the summer of 1845. During the following winter, they devised a comprehensive plan for surveying earthworks and evaluating the earlier surveys conducted by others. In 1848, their work was published as Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, Volume I, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, the first book to be published by the Smithsonian Institution. Squier and Davis pondered the scope and design of the constructions they sketched, recognizing that different geometry's likely encoded specific site uses.
Modern researchers have taken the most perceptive field notes of their earlier colleagues and expanded those inquiries into specific archaeoastronomical projects. In particular, Bradley Lepper believes that indigenous North Americans incorporated astronomical markers into their earliest mounds and earthworks. (Lepper: 1998) Looking specifically at the monuments of the Hopewell culture, which flourished in Central Ohio from about 100 BC through approximately 400 AD, Lepper concentrates on "pivotal horizon points" and lunar alignments.
He believes that astronomy was an integral part of the Hopewellian lifeway. He further suggests that a "Great Hopewell Road" once joined an astronomical center in Newark, Ohio, with similar structures some 60 miles distant in Chillicothe. Common units of measurement appear to have been used in building the circle-and-octagon earthworks found in both locations. The circles precisely match in size, however the two sites are rotated 90 degrees with respect to one another.
The Archaeological Conservancy, a site preservation and research organization, holds title to the octagon portion of High Bank Works, the Chillicothe construction. Little evidence can be seen in a visual inspection of the Conservancy's site or the conjoined circle on private land, as plowing has nearly flattened the structures. Lepper and the Conservancy, however, intend to pursue further investigations of these possible astronomical markers.
Editors Robert Mainfort, Jr. and Lynn Sullivan collected 11 essays covering current research on the time-depth and cultural context of earthen construction in the Eastern Woodlands. Among the topics discussed are "architectural grammar rules" postulated by Robert Connolly. Connolly's investigations concern the Fort Ancient enclosure topping a bluff above the Little Miami River in Warren County, Ohio. The Fort Ancient culture flourished during and following the Hopewell Period, and persisted to the era of colonial contact. Some investigators believe that the gateways, mounds, and stone circles found at the Fort Ancient complex exhibit evidence of astronomical context. Connolly's careful analysis of the positions, massing, and relationships among these substructures will prove very useful for future archaeoastronomical researchers. The following list of selected references includes work cited in this brief discussion and additional background sources for further reading on the astronomy of the ancient Eastern Woodlands.
1996 Undaunted Courage, Touchstone, New York, NY
Hively, R. and R. Horn 1982 "Geometry and Astronomy in Prehistoric Ohio," Archaeoastronomy 4, pp. S1-S20
Kennedy, R. G. 1994 Hidden Cities, Penguin Books, New York, NY
Lepper, B.T. 1998 "Ancient Astronomers of the Ohio Valley," Timeline 15 (1), pp. 2-11
Mainfort, R.C. Jr. and L.P. Sullivan 1998 Ancient Earthen Enclosures of the Eastern Woodlands, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL
Marshall, J.A. 1987 "An Atlas of American Indian Geometry," Ohio Archaeologist 37 (2)
Pringle, H. 1998 "Hopewell, the Enduring Mystery," American Archaeology 2 (1), cover and pp. 9-13
Randall, E.O. (1908 edition reproduced by A.W. McGraw). 1997 The Masterpieces of the Ohio Mound Builders: Hilltop Fortifications, Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, Columbus, OH
Squier, E.G. and E.H. Davis (150th anniversary edition, D.J. Meltzer, Ed.) 1998 Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC