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HORUS VOL I. Issue 3
Investigating the Mound-Builders' Astronomy
F. Glenn Graham
Of all the early peoples of North America, none has evoked more curiosity or offered more mystery than the Mound Builders. Scattered up and down the Ohio Valley is a strange legacy of large burial mounds
and associated structures. The largest single mound is at Cahokia, Illinois. It was a tiered structure about 100 feet tall and nearly 670 feet wide, though it shows signs of erosive wear. It stands among a variety of
systematically aligned lesser mounds, some of which contained mass burials. The whole complex lay over a considerable area and obviously was once a major ceremonial center in the time before Columbus.
Atop the central mound, a tall vertical pole was erected to serve as a gnomon to measure astronomical time by the Sun's shadow. A small ceremonial structure stood at the northern edge of the upper level,
reached by ascending the wide stairway that began at the southern end of the mound. To the West, a woodhenge from which an observer atop a raised pedestal in the center of the ring of tall poles could observe
the sunrise on significant days in the ceremonial calendar.
The second greatest, attributed to an ancient people called the Adena is the Grave Creek Mound located in Moundsville, West Virginia. Relatively well preserved, and with a protecting museum next to it, this
earthwork is 70-feet high and 333-feet wide. It required over two million basketloads of dirt to construct by a people who have left no visible evidence that they used wheels. The project obviously required
considerable physical labor.
When it was first opened in 1838, the Grave Creek Mound yielded two skeletons in royal state within two wooden tomb rooms along the mound's axis. Some other skeletons were also found near the top of the
mound, as if buried much later. Initially, the Mound Builders were fancied to be one of the lost tribes of Israel that had come to North America. Careful later investigations by Henry Schoolcraft, Delf Norona
and D. W. Dragoo brought a consensus by American archaeologists that the Grave Creek Mound complex was built over the course of a millennium ending about the 1st Century A. D., by a people that
historical Amerindians called the Adena. From the 1st Century A. D. to about 700 A.D., another cultural phase generally called the Hopewell culture developed a more elaborate civilization and refined
agriculture. It is interesting in this respect that the Amerindian term for the Mound Builders simply means "the Ancient Ones". Their identity remains obscure.
A village adjoining the Mound and contemporary with its use was located in present-day Fairchance, a kilometer to the East and in the same river flats. This village had a smaller mound in the midst of it which
was opened by archaeologists in 1962. Inside, were 50 burials in which the skeletal remains showed consistent evidence of hard work; 66% showed extreme and unique osteoarthritis of the spine, as if heavy
loads had been placed on the spine repeatedly during the person's lifetime. Could these be laborers in the mound-building who were sacrificed at its completion?.
An inscribed tablet with a pictogram was found in the Grave Creek Mound when it was opened in 1838. Some scholars then had recognized the script as ancient Iberian but this alphabet - a type used in Spain
for a thousand years or so B. C., had not yet been deciphered. Barry Fell, Professor Emeritus, Harvard, points out that recent research has identified the language written in the script as Punic (the Phoenician
dialect of ancient Carthage), and that it may be translated as follows: 'The mound raised-onhigh for Tasach. This tile [his] queen caused to be made. " [Fell, America B. C., p. 21]
[*!* Image: Inscription found in Grave Creek Mound. Initially branded as a forgery, the inscription later was discovered to be ancient Punic written in the Iberian alphabet.]
The implication that people from the Old World obviously had sailed the Atlantic long before Columbus sorely upsets the conventional scheme of the history of the New World and so the matter remains
controversial in academic circles. The most frequent rationale is that the tablet is a forgery placed there when the mound was opened. But even if the alphabet had been forged, how could the forger have caused
the signs to spell out a
perfectly readable message when neither the alphabet nor the language it encoded had been deciphered at the time the tablet was found? Dr. Fell's translations of ancient rock inscriptions found across America
have made a convincing case for transoceanic contact and trade before Columbus, and for a period that stretches back perhaps to several centuries B. C. But whether the original Mound Builders were from
across the sea or not, the possible astronomical significance of the numerous earthworks found in North America remains an intriguing study.
My own project in this regard was to determine if the Grave Creek Mound Builders could have intended these works or other still identifiable formations to be used for purposes of astronomical observation.
This project was not as hopeless as one might think; in 1845 Henry Schoolcraft, an early investigator, had published a map of the Grave Creek mound and its associated structures before modem development
destroyed them. This map shows raised ceremonial circles, and enclosures no longer there or apparent, and also a very interesting array of raised areas which Schoolcraft called "Lookouts".
If the Lookouts ever were used for a military purpose, it seems unlikely that they were constructed for this use originally. While there are many on high places, as military lookouts might be expected to be, the
Adenas and Hopewells had no known enemies and no evidence of battles or military casualties were located in the archaeological record. In addition, rather than being scattered randomly on the Schoolcraft
map, they form lines in groups of three or four with each other, the ceremonial circles, and the large mound. Some deliberate alignment was intended, and as with so many other ancient monumental works, it
seems likely to have been astronomical.
To develop an accurate calendar - essential for effective planting and harvesting, hunting, fishing, and animal husbandry - ancient people had to master the measurement of time by astronomical cycles,
particularly that of the solar year because of its direct relation to the cycle of seasons. The equinoxes the two days in each year when the Sun rises and sets exactly East-West can be determined with relatively
crude methods: one first determines the true North-South line with a stick gnomon, then obtains the East-West line geometrically. One then waits for the day the Sun appears to rise and set exactly East to West.
Because the Sun's daily change in position on the horizon at sunrise is greatest at the time of the equinoxes, its path appears clearly East to West only one day each half-year even if the measured alignment is
not exact. A small error in determining true East-West would still allow ancient astronomers to mark the days of the equinoxes consistently.
Not so easy, however, with the solstices! Because the Sun's apparent daily shift in position on the horizon is very slight at the solstices, an error of one degree can result in the wrong day being declared the
solstice and the whole calendar gains or loses time. If ancient astronomer-priests had a distant, distinct natural formation on the horizon that aligned with a specific location from which they viewed the solstice,
so much the better. If the terrain did not provide such cues, ancient societies generally constructed them.
Over the years many different investigators have looked for solar alignments at the equinoxes or solstices using the central mound itself as the observation point; to my knowledge, none have been reported.
Perhaps the mound served a purely ceremonial purpose in the astronomical festivals. It is located in the Ohio River Valley flats, surrounded by high valley walls, and is a poor location for viewing the horizon.
Instead, it seems much more likely the raised Lookouts were the actual observation stations, mutually aligned for marking the solstice and possibly astronomical cycles involving the Moon, planets, or bright
stars to mark other important festival days.
There is some implication that the astrological lore of these people may have been complex. An inscription found in Europe in the same alphabet and language as the Grave Creek tablet has been translated as
"Various ways of making a prediction - the planets reveal indications of... (letters missing). He who understands how, may himself obtain information about hidden truths. When the radiant gleam is seen
of the myriads of the heavenly host following their courses on high, the directions of their wanderings are the signs of omens. The crescent Moon, appearing below the planet Mars, is a favorable sign.
When Venus makes a transit through the constellation of the Ram, She bestows upon mankind peace and a mild government." [Fell, America B. C., p. 21]
Because astrological lore itself rests on a knowledge of recurrent celestial alignments, the recognition and measurement of these cycles astronomically, - i.e. by systematic observation - must have occurred first.
The astrological formulae in the inscription above resembles similar examples from ancient Babylon and China where it is known that astronomical measurement already had reached a high degree of
sophistication. If the culture which placed the tablet in the Grave Creek Mound is related to the same culture that recorded the European astrological formulae, we could expect with additional confidence that
measured astronomical alignments were an important aspect of the Grave Creek traditions.
As an initial exploration into this question, since it was the time of the summer solstice, I set out first to see if any of the Lookouts marked on the map seemed to fit this alignment. Immediately, it became
apparent that the Schoolcraft map had not been surveyed accurately, so the alignments shown between the lookouts did not exactly match their actual location. It was necessary first to determine on a modem
topographic map where the Lookouts marked on the Schoolcraft map actually were; no mean task after 142 years of modem development since the map was made.
Of the possible alignments I settled on one between two lookouts which seemed to be roughly in a summer solstice alignment on the Schoolcraft map. The sites are labeled "O" and "S" (See Figure 1). It seemed
that if one stood at "0" one would see the summer solstice sunrise aligned with "S"; perhaps conversely, one stood at "S" and observed the winter solstice sunset at "O". This second possibility seemed less
likely, since the location of "O" was higher in elevation than "S", providing a better view toward the horizon.
Furthermore, "S" itself was an interesting location, situated near Parr's Point, a hill overlooking Moundsville. A drawing by a military illustrator with Schoolcraft in 1843 shows the ruins of an ancient stone
tower, precisely the kind of structure one might use for marking an alignment with some distant observation point. Today, only the bottom ring of stones is visible as a raised, clearly artificial, circular feature
now covered with soil. Although the stone tower itself was gone, the existence of the foundation enabled me to fix accurately the position of "S" on a topographic map.
[*!* Image: Figure 1. Schoolcraft's 1843 map of the Grave Creek Mound and surrounding circles, enclosures, and lookouts. From H. Schoolcraft, Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History,
Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, Vol. 1.]
[*!* Image: The remains of the Stone Tower at Parr's Point, as sketched by Capt. S. Eastman in 1843]
[*!* Image: Solstice sunrise over Parr's Point Stone Tower, view from Lookout "O". Note that both elevations were sufficient to avoid the fog-filled Ohio valley below.]
The situation at "O" was different. The investigators did not report what kind of artificial edifice, if any, constituted the Lookout in 1843, and there is nothing similar to the stone tower ruin here. Instead there is
presently a large power- transmission tower whose construction probably would have obliterated any ruins that might have been there originally. However, this position marked as a Lookout on the Schoolcraft
map is fairly obvious as a high knoll jutting out over a failed channel and there is nothing else that could have been a satisfactory lookout within 900 feet. Thus, in spite of having no ancient ruins as
confirmation, I felt confident that this spot clearly corresponded to the Lookout shown on the Schoolcraft map.
It seemed noteworthy that the stone tower at "S" had not been placed at the crest of Parr's Point, as one might expect if it had been a military lookout. Instead it was located some distance away from the crest.
The reason became clear at the solstice sunrise which I observed and photographed on June 2 1. The Sun rose over the site "S" at Parr's Point virtually on top the ruins of the ancient stone tower.
It is also interesting that the "ceremonial" circles in the creek flats are located generally among the mounds and lookouts. These circles were quite large as shown on the Schoolcraft map. Could these have been
ceremonial circles, where people chanted and ritualized on the day of the solstice? Whatever the purpose of these circles, there is a good case for at least the two selected Lookouts being an intentional
astronomical alignment. Whether other Lookout alignments mark the equinox or the winter solstice, or perhaps significant cycles of the Moon or planets, remains a question.
But to find that this is true would not be a surprise. Ancient peoples around the world not only found astronomy to be necessary for accurate timing of the seasons or for navigation. With a geocentric point of
view, and without modern knowledge of the solar system, they also revered the visible sky as Heaven itself and saw the Sun, Moon, planets and stars as living gods or spirits in that realm. They studied the
order in the cycles of heaven because they believed these cycles controlled human destiny. It seems likely that religious festivals and rituals, astronomical calendars, agriculture, skills in stellar navigation and
the like, grew linked together in ancient cultures generally, out of necessity on the one hand, and out of awe for the grandeur of these celestial lights on the other. The research reported here suggests that the
Grave Creek Mound Builders were themselves a part of this widespread ancient tradition of astronomical knowledge.
[*!* Image: Artists representation of the first Adena burial ceremony in the Grave Creek Mound.]