New World Medicine Wheels

At about the time that megalithic astronomy was at its height and Egyptian astronomy was just beginning, a parallel tradition arose in North America. Similar to the mega-

lithic monuments of Europe in structure and perhaps in function, the medicine wheels of North America span the millennia. The term "medicine" is here used in the American Indian sense of sacred power, including the possibility of healing. This tradition shows marked internal continuity but with a poorly defined relationship to later American archaeoastronomical data. It is, therefore, treated separately.

The medicine wheels are found predominantly in Alberta, but are found also in Saskatchewan, Montana, and Wyoming, with others reported as far south as New Mexico and Arizona. More are being reported every year. Brumley (1986) and Brace (1987) have summarized materials on medicine wheels and classified them into descriptive groupings. They reflect the views of "dirt archeologists," who have first-hand familiarity with many of the sites but who did not attempt detailed appraisals of the archaeoastronomy. Vogt (1993) has provided a comprehensive and critical study of known medicine wheels. Vogt cites references to 134 medicine wheels, of which 94 had adequate information for purposes of his statistical analyses. These analyses were the first attempt to establish groupings based on statistical clusterings of traits. The "important" characteristics for this purpose are those that permit clustering. This creates a degree of circularity in the reasoning and does not allow for the very real possibility that the important characteristics to the builders were those that distinguished one wheel from another.

The layout of medicine wheels is suggestive of megalithic circles, but the use of piled up rocks and boulders rather than standing stones decreases the precision obtainable relative to the megalithic circles of Europe. It has been suggested that poles may have been stuck into the tops of cairns; that could have substantially increased precision. There is some direct evidence that that occasionally occurred. The use of alignments to horizon markers has also been suggested in some cases. The sizes of medicine wheels vary greatly, ranging from less than 10 to more than 100 m. Ideally, there is a central stone cairn, a surrounding circle or oval, a series of spokes, and some outlying cairns. Some of the medicine wheels have a shape approximating that of a turtle rather than a circle, and they may belong in the general category of boulder effigy figures (also called geo-glyphs). Modern Indians claim that many of the medicine wheels are burials or memorials to dead chiefs, but only two are known to have burials in the central cairn.

Vogt (1993) makes a number of generalizations about medicine wheels based on his survey of the literature. They are normally on top of the highest local hill, usually with a good view in all directions. They are often regarded by local groups as sacred places. Many sites have associated caches and offerings, extending, at least at Majorville, over several thousand years. There are patterned repetitions of statistically defined types of medicine wheels. These include clusters of directional alignments. Fifteen sites show markers for true north, to the extent that the basic data are trustworthy. Vogt has demonstrated that previously proposed adaptations to local features of topography are inadequate to explain these clusters. He maintains that astronomical targets are the only adequate explanation for the alignments. Moreover, not all can be explained by solar, lunar, or planetary data. Some targets must have been either individual stars or asterisms. Precision may not have been an important factor in alignments. He maintains that these alignments were "scientific elements of what probably were largely religious knowledge systems." Vogt (1993) argues that the types of horizon-based observations earlier suggested by Eddy and others would often have been obscured by tents if the tipi rings, which are frequently found at such sites, are a good indicator. This throws doubt on the use but not necessarily the purpose because the layout could have been done in accordance with horizon observations and the tipis may not have been erected until the appropriate observations had been made.

Vogt (1990, pp. 48-49) discusses the way in which Plains Indians symbolize the cosmos in their dwelling places and ceremonies. He emphasizes the importance of the central pole of the Sun Dance lodge as representing both the "World Pole" and the center. The World Pole is the conceptual axis around which the sky revolves, associated in modern times with Polaris. The Sun Dance was particularly associated with the full moon following the summer solstice (Vogt 1993). Each family group had its assigned position in a circle of tents surrounding the Sun Lodge and in more permanent camps as well (Brace 1987, pp. 122-124). Among more southerly Siouan groups, it is attested that each clan was associated with a particular star or asterism. Hence, any alignment would indicate a particular clan (as Brace suggests) and a particular asterism. Given the view that the cosmos is reflected in the encampments, it seems likely that the association of clans and asterisms frequently held, even in groups for which the association is not attested. Such an association might have involved strict alignments from the center point toward the horizon rising point of "their" aster-ism among some groups during some periods and a much looser and astronomically imprecise alignment for other groups or during other periods.

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