Whether the alignments of America's Woodhenge would turn out to be casual or not, the best way to trace astronomical alignments is exactly to draw a circle and indicate the alignments using the radii of the circle. This technique was well known in North America, where there are many ancient stone circles. They are often ruins of Native-American camp huts, but some of them have a complex structure, with a large ring made of stones with a central hub and rows radiating from it. Inside these circles there are often piles of stones laid out on the external perimeter in a precise way. The most famous of these structures is found in Big Horn, near Medicine Mountain, Wyoming, which is why it is called Medicine Wheel.
The purpose of Medicine Wheels remained obscure until the beginning of the 1970s, when the physicist John Eddy noticed that the line that can be drawn between the center of the Big Horn wheel and a pile of stones near the complex indicates sunrise at summer solstice. Intrigued by this fact, he studied all the other alignments defined by the lines between the center and other stone piles distributed around the circle, finding three stellar ones (out of four possible ones), referring to the heliacal rising of the bright stars Aldebaran, Rigel, and Sirius (Eddy 1974, 1977).
As we have noted, stellar alignments are strictly linked to precession and are therefore valid only for a couple of centuries. The Big Horn alignments calculated by Eddy are valid for only the last 300 years, and the carbon-14 dating of some wooden fragments found in Big Horn established that the site is about 250 years old, confirming the archaeoastronomical hypothesis. It was nevertheless necessary to extend the investigations to the other sites, which was difficult for Eddy because, as a physicist, he had no way to finance his astronomical interests. But with the help of National Geographic magazine, he and two archaeologists, Tom and Alice Kehoe, organized an expedition to study other medicine wheels. The group concentrated its efforts on the Moose Mountain wheel, in Alberta, Canada, and the results were unmistakable: the wheel showed a solstitial alignment and three stellar alignments toward Aldebaran, Rigel, and Sirius, exactly the same alignments of the Big Horn wheel.
But there was one problem: due to precession, the stellar alignments were valid only in the period between the second century BC and the first century AD. Thus, the archaeological investigations would have shown either that Moose Wheel was at least 2000 years old, and in this case Eddy's studies would have proved that the builders had great interest in the same celestial objects for a very long period of time, or that his theories were blatantly wrong.
Tom Kehoe and his team dug a part of the central hub of Moose Mountain and found a stone floor and under it a burned ground on top of a sterile ground. The burned ground was linked to the first stage of the construction of the structure, and therefore the wooden samples taken from it could be used to date it quite accurately. The carbon-14 dating left no doubt: it was from 2600 years ago, plus or minus a few centuries, and therefore compatible with the archaeoastronomical dating.
But this was not the end of the surprises. Both in Medicine Mountain and in Moose Mountain there is a pile of stones (labeled D) that Eddy was not able to explain with any known alignment. In 1979 the astronomer Jack Robinson suggested that the D alignment indicated the rising of the star Fomalhaut. Fomalhaut had heliacal rising and could be seen looking in that direction in Big Horn some 30 days before solstice, between 1050 and 1450, and in Moose Mountain 7 or 8 days before solstice, in a period some centuries later than that indicated for the other alignments. This fact can be explained by noticing that the radius corresponding to the D alignment clearly has been bent. It might therefore be that the external pile was moved according to precession, and that at the beginning it lay more easterly than that, since Fomalhaut rising occurred more easterly during the centuries before and after the first century BC; the stones indicating the Sirius alignment also showed signs of bending).
Thanks to Eddy's pioneering research, we now know that the wheels were used for a very long time. Nevertheless, our concept of a very long time may
not be adequate to describe the tenacity of the wheels builders. Moose Mountain, with its 2600 years of age, is still young. The Majorville Wheel, in Alberta, is basically a large pile with a diameter of 9 meters, with 28 rays made of stone running toward an external circle made of stones. The structure itself does not show signs of specific astronomical alignments. Majorville, however, is the center of a landscape of many square kilometers where, on the horizon, piles of stones indicate the direction of sunrise at solstice and at equinox. Since the alignments are a few kilometers long, the level of precision reached in Majorville was excellent. When the main Majorville pile was excavated, a rich stratigraphy was found, which allowed dating it with great accuracy. It turned out that Majorville is 4500 years old, which means it is as old as Stonehenge. The wheel was used regularly between the years 2500 and 1000 BC, and was then abandoned for about a thousand years and then used again for many centuries.
After Eddy's early studies, investigations regarding the medicine wheels multiplied, and the criticism of their astronomical links increased as well, based on the fact that most of the wheels' alignments are not precise, being obtained using only piles of stones positioned close to each other and it would have been much easier to perform such a task using poles and ropes (see Vogt 1993; other criticisms by the same author show, in my view, serious methodological failures). Eddy responded, calculating that the probability of a fortuitous alignment with astronomically significant events was low. As far as the accuracy of the measurements is concerned, it is likely that the solution would be similar to the one we mentioned regarding the megalithic observers, namely that the builders intentionally connected the monuments with the astronomical cycles, and that at least some of the monuments were created with the purpose of obtaining accurate measurements, such as the Majorville Wheel.
A problem remains to be solved: Who built the monuments? There is no trace of civilization in these areas, and many of the wheels are placed on mountains, at a high altitude, and can be reached only during a few months of the year—those bridging the summer solstice, of course.
Was this article helpful?