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In considering that possibly one or both of these ellipses are oriented towards points on either horizon corresponding to some significant celestial rising or setting point, it is perhaps useful at this point to consider other evidence of such design.
It has been well documented that people in various parts of the world have utilized points along the horizon as a sort of calendar; the complex Hopi and Zuni ceremonial cycles are said to be determined by just this sort of calendar. A priest observes the rising and/or setting point of the sun along the horizons. When the sun rises or sets behind a specific prominent feature, the priest knows that it is time to begin a specific ceremony.
More dramatic are so-called “sun daggers” – rock petroglyphs that are positioned so that a sliver or “dagger” of sunlight marks the solstices and equinoxes upon the rock designs.
Here on the plains of course, it is more difficult to find suitable horizon points. Archaeologist Waldo R. Wedel has suggested that the alignment of council circles in Central Kansas may have functioned to record solstitial sunrise and sunset points; he has discovered that several sites miles apart align with one another, defining sunrise and sunset points in the absence of prominent points on the horizons.
He describes these circles as consisting “essentially of a low central mounded area averaging 60-90 feet in diameter, around which there is a shallow ditch or a series of oblong depressions placed more or less end to end to form a roughly circular, subcircular, or elliptical pattern.” He states that “…the Hayes circle appears as actually an ellipse whose long axis coincides with the 30 degree angle line of the winter solstice sunrise. The ellipse formed by the six surface depressions at Tobias is otherwise oriented, with its long axis east-northeast by west-southwest, and at an angle of 30 degrees from an east – west line. Continued to the eastern horizon, such an axis would coincide with the sunrise position at the summer solstice or, projected to the western horizon, with the sunset point of the winter solstice.”
He goes on to add that “the alignment of the Tobias, Thompson, and Hayes circles, together with the evident orientation of the Tobias and Hayes circles along lines that coincide with solstitial phenomena all seem to point toward purposeful, not accidental, placement.” Wedel adds, “that celestial phenomena figured in the mythology and ceremonialism of the Native Americans is well known….”
Also believed to contain alignments to celestial rising and setting points are the 50 or so “Medicine Wheels” that dot the landscape from Arizona into Canada. John A. Eddy, in Astronomical Alignment of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel, asserted that this “wheel”, 82 feet in diameter, constructed of small boulders and consisting of both a rim and spokes, as well as small cairns or piles of stones at certain locations, atop a mountain in Wyoming, was a sort of “American Stonehenge”; the spokes of the wheel pointing to solstitial alignments and the rising points of three bright stars.
Thomas F. and Alice B. Kehoe studied 11 boulder configurations in Saskatchewan and concluded that they contained not only solstice alignments but also alignments to the heliacal rising points of such bright stars as Sirius, Rigel, and Alderbaran, stating “Eddy was correct: summer solstice can be marked by means of the rock alignments in (some of these) prehistoric configuration(s).”
The appellation “American Stonehenge” seems more justly, however, to belong to the great Mississipian city of Cahokia, located near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in Illinois, where, Wedel states, “a great circle of 48 post holes, dated ca. A.D. 1000, is believed to have served as a device for observations of the solstices and equinoxes.” This site has been termed “Woodhenge” since it consisted of wooden posts rather than standing stones.
Further to the east, many of the Adena and Hopewell mounds display astronomical alignments and/or an underlying geometrical interrelationship. The gigantic square, circle and octagon in Newark, Ohio align with important points in the movement of the both the sun and the moon. The Great Serpent Mound in Ohio is believed to represent the stars of the Little Dipper, while certain arrangements of effigy mounds in Iowa may possibly symbolize the Big Dipper. Even a brochure from the Blue Mounds State Park in southeastern Minnesota states: “At the Blue Mound’s southern end is a 1,250 foot long line of rocks aligned in an east – west direction. Who built it and why is unknown. It is known that on the first day of spring and fall, the sunrise and sunset are lined up on this stone alignment.”
In light of this albeit brief consideration of other astronomically aligned earthworks, I feel it is reasonable to at least consider that such concerns went into the design of these mounds.
It appears at first to be a fairly straight forward matter to determine what astronomical bodies would rise or set in specific locations along the horizon. There is a simple formula that will convert azimuth, the direction in degrees going clockwise from north, into declination, the position relative to the celestial equator at which an object is located (for the stars declinations change only very gradually but the sun, moon, and planets change position throughout the year, the sun visiting each declination between its extreme positions (solstital points) twice every year, once moving south and again moving north). This formula takes into account the latitude of the observer (determined using GPS) since rising and setting positions appear to change the farther from the terrestrial equator one moves.
At the site it is difficult to determine a precise azimuth from the major axis of an eroded ellipse that is only about 30’ long. However, by analyzing the drone photos of the oval mounds it appears that for the East Oval the angle to the east is 104.56 degrees azimuth, or 14.56 degrees south of east and towards the west, 194.56 degrees, or 14.56 degrees north of west. The azimuths of the West Oval are 85.6 degrees and 265.6 degrees.
The azimuth of the East Oval aligns to a slight high point on the eastern horizon 4,886′ away. There is also a slight notch in the western horizon (over 3 miles away) that also aligns with the long axis of this oval.
Once the azimuths of the two ovals was determined it was necessary to calculate the height of the respective horizons. The path that a celestial body follows across the sky appears to slant towards the south for the first half of its journey and back to the north during the second, or setting, half, in northern latitudes. An elevated horizon will both delay an object’s appearance and also cause it to appear slightly south of where it would have appeared on a level horizon.
There are other factors that enter into these matters as well, including a slight adjustment necessary for elevation above sea level, and additional bending of the light due to graze, the light rays’ passing very near to the ground. In Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico Anthony Aveni suggests reducing declinations by “1 or 2 minutes of arc” to account for normal amounts of graze.
Thus for the northeast ellipse azimuths of 103.92 degrees and 283.92 degrees with horizon elevations of 1.41 degrees and .39 degrees respectively and azimuths of 85.43 degrees and 265.43 degrees with horizon elevations of .71 degrees and 1.34 degrees respectively for the southwest ellipse seem reasonable.
When near the horizon the light from celestial bodies must pass through more of the Earth’s atmosphere; this can either bend the light rays or obscure them, depending upon the brightness of the star and the conditions in the atmosphere. Only the brightest stars can be seen actually rising from and setting into the horizon, and not in all conditions. This phenomenon of disappearance when near the horizon is referred to as extinction. As was discussed earlier, the bending of the light is known as refraction, which is affected by temperature and barometric pressure, and graze, which is determined by the land itself. (While the effects of both refraction and graze are relatively small, they can prove dramatic. I observed the rising of Orion just after sunset on the winter solstice a few years ago. I was particularly interested in the bright star Rigel in Orion’s leg. It appeared first as a bright red light so close to the horizon that I wondered if it could be a car’s tail light. It disappeared after a few moments only to reappear several minutes later in the same position. It then proceeded to “dance” from side to side until it had risen a fair distance above the horizon. This strange behavior was the result of changing conditions in the atmosphere.) To best calculate declinations from these azimuths and elevations, I have endeavored to estimate local weather conditions. I contacted the state climatologist, Mr. Al Dutcher, who supplied me with 30 year averages or “norms” from several locations in the state where full records of the climate are kept. I then interpolated values for the pasture, taking into account distances and differences in elevation (all pressure readings were reduced to sea level amounts, then recalculated for this location’s elevation). This gave me reasonable figures for daily high and low temperatures, wind speed and direction, humidity, barometric pressure, rainfall, etc. I then utilized a computer program that took all of these figures into account to predict short term weather patterns. I found that I could run this program over a period of 36 hours or so and it would generate the predicted high and low temperatures accurately. It then was a simple matter to find reasonable estimates of temperature and pressure at any hour. I confined my calculations to sunrise and sunset temperatures however. For a general value of refraction to incorporate in determining declinations, I have selected the lowest and highest values and made calculations for both. While actually only accurate for a few days out of the year, they seem the most reasonable figures to proceed from.
In A Critical Evaluation of Medicine Wheel Astronomy, a criticism of Eddy’s and Kehoe’s medicine wheel conclusions, Steven C. Haack brings up two relevant points concerning the estimating of azimuths and the criteria for claiming an alignment to a rising point. He points out the need for lengthy sight lines to measure azimuths correctly and he also suggests that a range “of 2 degrees” to these azimuths as being an acceptable ‘window’ within which a rising or setting can be considered to be in alignment. This 2 degree window means that risings or settings that appear within one degree either side of the calculated azimuth are sufficiently close to be considered a “hit”, as Haack puts it. With that in mind, I have added and subtracted one degree from all of the above azimuths and made calculations accordingly. Using equations from the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Nautical Almanac, the declinations in question appear to be as follows: for azimuth 85.43 degrees, declinations 4.874 to 3.345 degrees; for azimuth 103.92 degrees, declinations -8.84 to -10.347 degrees; for azimuth 265.43 degrees, declinations -2.423 to -3.957 degrees; and for azimuth 283.92 degrees, declinations 9.572 to 11.095 degrees. These are based both on the extremes of azimuth and of refraction within the ranges selected above and represent the maximum declinations of celestial objects that could reasonably appear within this range of azimuths.
Given these declinations, I estimated the dates that the sun would rise or set in alignment to one of the long axes of either ellipse. I then utilized “norms” of temperature and pressure for the respective sunrise or sunset on those dates and recalculated the range of declinations. (Even at the extreme values of temperature and pressure used in these calculations, the declinations varied by only about 1 minute of arc; too little to really be a factor.) I then checked solar rising and setting declinations over the period of 4 years, from 1996 through 1999, since declinations change slightly from year to year (hence leap year to bring the sun’s position back into agreement with our calendar). It appeared that the sun would rise or set for 4 days each year within plus or minus one degree of the azimuths indicated by the ellipses. However, there is a one day shift in these dates due to leap year. I have included all dates on which the sun rises or sets in alignment with the ellipses in at least one year in the 4 year cycle. They are as follows: Sunrises: azimuth 85.43 degrees, 3/29 – 4/2, 9/10 – 9/14; azimuth 103.92 degrees, 2/21 – 2/26, 10/15 – 10/20. Sunsets: azimuth 265.43 degrees, 3/9 – 3/14, 9/28 – 10/2; azimuth 285.43 degrees, 4/13 – 4/18, 8/23 – 8/28. There are of course two sets of dates for each azimuth since the sun passes each twice every year. (I am presently unaware, what, if any, significance these dates may have possessed to earlier peoples. It is somewhat interesting that both my daughter’s and my birthday is 2/23 while my brother’s is 10/19, both signified by the 103.92 degree alignment.) Although there are patterns to the positions of the rising and setting points of the moon and planets, they vary within their own time frame and do not relate easily to the solar year. For a given year, it would be possible to compute the days that any planet or the moon would line up with one of the alignment points, but these would have to be done on a year to year basis. For this reason, I have not included any dates for the moon or planets.
I have also checked the declinations of the 20 brightest stars for alignments. Stars do slowly change declination over a period of many years due to the slight wobble of the earth on its axis. This is referred to as the Precession of the Equinoxes (there is also a lesser factor known as the rise and fall of obliquity). Precession occurs in a cycle of approximately 26,000 years. Over a period of centuries, this shift in the position of stars becomes apparent and is occasionally helpful in dating sites where a clear alignment to a star’s rising or setting point exists. It is so gradual, however, that it does not give anything close to precise dates, especially when a range of 2 degrees is allowed in azimuths. Currently, the star Spica is near the azimuth 103.92 degree rising point, while Altair is near the 283,92 degree setting point. I then checked dates near 1100 A.D., the approximate time of the Mollhoff site to the north. The reader will recall that Mr. Mollhoff concluded that the artifacts from our pasture appeared contemporaneous with the artifacts found above Loretto: therefore I feel justified in assigning a similar date to the pasture site. (It should be noted that no definitive identification or dating has yet been done.) [Mr. Lucas said, based on the artifacts I showed him, that the large village site at our farm appeared to be Upper Republican, similar to the Mollhoff site.] At any rate, only one bright star aligns with any of the calculated azimuths at this date; Rigel, in the constellation Orion. In the year 1162, Rigel would have risen precisely in line with the long axis of the northeast ellipse in our pasture. Rigel would, however, have risen within the 2 degree window from approximately 795 A.D. to 1530 A.D.