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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, August 2016

Indiana’s Largest Hopewell Earthwork Was Utilized in the Path of Souls Rituals:
Stellar alignments at the Winchester, Indiana Ancient Earthworks

by: Dr. Greg Little

Hopewell earthworks and mounds are among some of the most intriguing and mysterious geometric formations created in the ancient world. “Hopewell” refers to a Native American mound-building era that developed from the earlier Adena culture, with both names derived from excavated mound sites (on historic plantations). Adena and Hopewell spanned the approximate timeframe of 1500 BC to AD 900 and were gradually replaced by another mound culture called “Mississippian.” See the newly issued Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Indian Mounds & Earthworks for background information.

The largest and most complex geometric earthworks in the world were constructed by the Hopewell. These incredible earthworks have been the topic of countless speculations, but in more recent times archaeologists generally agree that the earthen formations created ceremonial spaces used in periodic rituals, public gatherings, and feasts. It is also accepted that the key times of the rituals centered on the solstices and equinoxes. Many Native American mound & earthwork sites have shown alignments marking solar, lunar, and star movements. The solar and lunar alignments incorporated into the sites were said by archaeologists to be a means to time the ceremonies and sometimes, archaeologists have written, were evidence of sun and moon worship.

More recently, evidence has accumulated that some mounds and earthworks were constructed in ways that allowed precise sightlines to specific stars involved with mortuary rituals. (See The Path of Souls for information.) A series of articles has shown that a host of ancient Native American mound/earthwork sites were constructed in a way that facilitated a death ritual that would lead deceased souls to the stars. This “Path of Souls” ritual took place on the Winter Solstice and involved Orion’s Nebula, the Cygnus Constellation, and the constellation of Scorpius. The key alignments on the Winter Solstice were the sunset, the setting point of Cygnus (specifically the star Deneb), and the rising and setting points of Orion’s Nebula. Lastly, it was important that the constellation of Scorpius was not visible during the night. Scorpius was the ruler of the underworld and would not allow souls to make the journey. The final part of the ritual was performed just before dawn and was intended to assist the soul to make a leap to Orion’s Nebula. This leap was to the West and usually was over a body of water—a lake, pond, river, or stream.

On the night of the Winter Solstice, after the sunset alignment was viewed from one key spot across another, a series of star alignments were viewed. These alignments were typically made from the top of a prominent mound directly across another important mound or key earthwork point such as an opening or corner of the formation. On the distant horizon and directly above the aligned mound, observers would see the setting and rising of the stars involved. The important alignments to Orion and Cygnus were cited in the paragraph above. The Hopewell sites of Portsmouth and Marietta (in Ohio) have shown these alignments, as have various other mound complexes in the south. Both Portsmouth and Marietta are extensive sites with miles of earthworks connecting mounds and geometric formations. However, one unanswered question is whether some of the simpler Hopewell earthworks might have also somehow incorporated stellar alignments central to the Path of Souls’ ritual?

The Winchester, Indiana “Ancient Works”

One relatively simple—yet intriguing—Hopewell earthwork site that has been shown to have alignments to the sun at the winter and summer solstices was included in Squier & Davis’ “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley” (1848). They wrote only 5 brief sentences about it but included a site survey in their book. It was referred to as the “Ancient Work” in Randolph County near Winchester, Indiana. Archaeologists refer to it as the “Fudge Site” (#12R10). It is supposedly “the largest earthen structure recorded in Indiana” (cited in McCord & Cochran, 2006). Attempts to conceal its exact location have been made and the site has been nearly destroyed by a variety of activities. About half of the outer walls are noticeable today and an odd-shaped gateway (opening) remains discernable. The immediate surrounding area of Randolph County has 11 known Adena/Hopewell sites.

The Fudge Site (see Squier & Davis survey below) was a square-shaped earthwork enclosing just over 31 acres. The square was initially cited to have sides of 1080 by 1320 feet. The outer walls of the square were from 7 to 10 feet in height and 25 feet in width. There were two openings or “gateways” through the square’s walls—located on the eastern and western sides. The western gateway was itself an oddly shaped square enclosure, most certainly indicating a special purpose. McCord & Cochran’s (2006) Ball State University survey showed the square’s sides as 1082 feet by 1263 feet. They took three radiocarbon samples indicating that the site was probably constructed between 110 BC-AD 220. These dates agreed with earlier archaeological findings.

A 100-180 foot diameter oblong mound was situated in the center of the square. It was said to be somewhere between 8-15 feet in height. Old surveys of the site vary somewhat in the sizes of the earthworks and the mound. In 1929 the central mound was excavated. Three burials were found along with burned logs. A sub-mound burial pit formed by logs and bark was found in the center. Two caches of artifacts were excavated. Burned bird bones, a stone tablet, several large points, and a gorget were among items found in one cache. The other contained 16 copper bracelets in leather pouches with what is believed to be human arm bone pieces. The central mound was deemed to be from the Adena Era and it has been accepted as a “mortuary” site—precisely what the Path of Souls ritual implies.

Solar Alignments at the Fudge Site & Concepts of “Precision”

In a 1992 paper, Cochran calculated that the sunrises and sunsets at the summer and Winter solstices were incorporated into the square earthwork at the Fudge Site (see figure below). In their 2006 report, McCord & Cochran found that the precise compass orientation of the square was slightly off from prior surveys (by a couple degrees), but the difference found “did not change the orientation of the site enough to affect the interpretation of the solar alignments” (p. 96).

In another relevant archaeological report on solar and stellar alignments investigated at mound sites (Sherrod & Rolingson, 1987), a caution was given regarding differences between modern concepts of alignment precision and the ideas employed by the builders of the mound and earthwork sites using “naked eye astronomy.” The authors wrote, “Today, we are able to measure these alignments with transits, meter tapes, and lasers, and our interpretations of precision may surpass what aboriginal groups considered necessary or significant for their purposes. Thus, perhaps we should examine mound position and construction concepts generally rather than specifically when we speak of angles and distances. … Those designing the community might have had a different concept than we do of precise alignments…” (p. 9).

In their extensive report, Sherrod & Rolingson found consistent solar (solstice & equinox) alignments at 33 mound/earthwork sites and also found that several star alignments were also present. At that time, the important stars in the Path of Souls death ritual were not yet known and the authors wrote, “Without knowledge of which stars were considered important to the prehistoric resident of the community, it is difficult to determine significant stars and alignments” (p. 6). The discovery of the important stars in the The Path of Souls ritual in the 2000s, has changed that assertion. We now know what key stars are important: Cygnus, Orion, & Scorpius.

Star Alignments at the Fudge Site

Knowing that the Path of Souls’ rituals were performed on the night of the Winter Solstice, it became an interesting question to investigate the Fudge Site for the key stellar alignments involved in the ritual. These are the rising and setting points of Orion, the setting point of Cygnus, and the lack of visibility of Scorpius. In addition, it has become apparent in prior studies that when a central mound is located in such a complex, it is usually incorporated into the stellar alignments. Finally, it also seemed clear that the gateways of the square should also somehow be incorporated into stellar alignments.

To determine the horizon sightlines from the central mound and the points of the square, the precise GPS location and surrounding altitudes were determined on Google Earth and from location information supplied by McCord & Cochran (2006). “Starry Night Pro” was used to generate the movements and azimuth positions of the stars on December 21, AD 55. That particular year (AD 55) was utilized for stellar calculations, as it was the center point of the radiocarbon ages obtained from the site. The “Cross Azimuth/Distance Calculator” was used to determine the exact horizon altitudes and azimuths of the stars investigated.

Results showed that Cygnus (specifically the star Deneb) set on the northwest horizon at 12:01 am at 323°. Viewed from atop the central mound, Cygnus would have set directly over the northwestern point of the square. At 6:22 pm, shortly after sunset, Orion would have been seen slightly elevated in the sky at 103°. As viewed from atop the central mound, Orion would have been seen directly above the gateway opening on the eastern side of the square after daylight had sufficiently faded. Orion would then have been perceived to move over the site and toward the west. The slightly southwestern horizon setting of Orion (specifically Orion’s Nebula), took place at 5:21 am, not long before dawn, on an azimuth of 262°. From the northeast point of the square, the setting of Orion would be seen directly over the odd-shaped gateway on the western side of the square. (That gateway would have served as the portal for souls to leave the square and make the leap.) Scorpius, the ruler of the underworld, was not visible in the sky at that time and began to rise a few minutes before sunrise. Finally, while the site survey show the White River on the north edge of the earthworks, the river bends to the south on the western side of the earthwork.

The Fudge Site was clearly a mortuary site, perhaps with Adena-era elements (central mound) incorporated in a later Hopewell earthwork. It shows all of the key alignments associated with the Path of Souls rituals. Preliminary investigations of various other Hopewell earthworks have shown that most of the geometric formations have incorporated these same alignments. Future reports will detail these findings.


Cochran, D. R. (1992) Adena and Hopewell Cosmologies: New evidence from east central Indiana. In: Proceedings of the East Central Indiana Native American Cultural Symposium, edited by Ronald Hicks (pp. 22-46). Muncie, IN: Minnetrista Culture Center.

McCord, B. K. & Cochran, D. R. (2006) The Fudge Site: A new look at an ancient monument Randolph County, Indiana. Muncie, IN: Ball State University, ARMS.

Sherrod, P. C. & Rolingson, M. A. (1987) Surveyors of the ancient Mississippi Valley. Fayetteville, AR: Arkansas Archaeological Survey.


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