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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, April 2016

Archaeoastronomy Alignments to the Path of Souls at the Etowah Mounds

by: Dr. Greg Little

Portions of this article are derived from The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Indian Mounds & Earthworks (2016)

The Etowah Mounds are located 3 miles west of Cartersville, Georgia at the juncture of the Etowah River and Pumpkinvine Creek. It is considered to be one of the most important Mississippian sites in America.

Site Description

Etowah was a large ceremonial center dominated by three large temple mounds surrounded by a plaza area and enclosed by a moat. Four smaller mounds were also at the site, which encompassed 54 acres. The tallest mound is 63 feet high with a base covering three acres. The site was begun around A.D. 950 and probably reached it peak around A.D. 1200. The central mounds are arranged along east-west/north-south alignments and it has long been believed that astronomical alignments were incorporated into the site’s construction. Some of the most exquisite artifacts relating to the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex have been recovered from the site. Early maps of the site were found to be inaccurate with a later survey map published by Charles C. Jones in 1873 considered to be accurate. In 1981 Daniel-Hartung asserted that Etowah was one of several mound sites that incorporated both the sun (solstices) and moon’s movements into the site’s alignments.

Path of Souls Death Ritual

Prior research by the present author has shown that numerous sites from the Hopewell and Mississippian cultures were used in death rituals intended to send the souls of the deceased to the stars. This ritual, known as the Path of Souls, took place on the Winter Solstice night, and involved the sunset, the first sighting of Orion’s Nebula, the setting of the star Deneb (the brightest star of the Cygnus Constellation), and the setting of Orion’s Nebula just before dawn. During the ceremony the Constellation of Scorpius could not be visible. Scorpius was the ruler of the underworld and would snatch the soul if it was seen in the sky. The final necessary component in the Path of Souls ritual was that a body of water had to be located to the west.

It should be noted that the assertion that Native American mound and earthwork sites such as these were used for the Path of Souls death ritual, does not preclude other ceremonial functions. These sites were likely ceremonial centers used in other rituals and in other seasonal celebrations. However, the most frequent astronomical alignments to be found at mortuary sites should be those associated with the Path of Souls and the timeframe of their use should zero in on the Winter Solstice. It is clear from burials and artifacts excavated at Etowah that it served as a mortuary center as well as other functions.


The precise GPS locations of the Etowah Mounds and the surrounding sightline altitudes were determined on Google Earth and coordinates listed on the official Etowah website. The computer programs “Starry Night Pro” and “Stellarium” were used to generate and cross verify the movements and azimuth positions of the stars on December 21, 1200 A.D. That particular year (A. D. 1200) was utilized for the stellar calculations because it was near the center point of usage dates cited for the site. The “Cross Azimuth/Distance Calculator” was used to determine the exact horizon altitudes and azimuths of the stars investigated. One limitation and issue associated with the Etowah analysis is related to the relative proximity of the main 3 mounds at Etowah and their relatively large size. The base of Mound A, the largest of the 3 central mounds, is less than 100 feet from the base of Mound C and just under 60 feet from the base of Mound B. In essence, because the large mounds are so close, precise azimuth alignments of the sun and stellar events made between mound tops yield wide angles. For example, when the top of Mound C is viewed from the top of Mound B, there are 20 degrees of the horizon visible.

Figure 1 (below) shows the results utilizing the 1873 site survey made by the Jones. When the map is placed on the aerial image of Etowah on Google Earth it yields a near perfect match.

Figure 1

Winter Solstice Sunset: Analysis revealed that on A.D 1200 the Winter Solstice sunset occurred at 6:40 PM on an azimuth of 242 degrees. The Winter Solstice sunset was seen from Mound B across the centerpoint of the ramp of Mound C located to the southwest.

Orion’s Rising: At approximately 7 PM Orion’s Nebula would have been prominent in the southeastern sky at 99 degrees. This would have been visible from the top of the ramp of the large central Mound A across a small conical mound (D) located less than 80 feet from Mound B.

Cygnus’ Setting: At 11:30 PM Deneb and Cygnus set at 320 degrees. This alignment would have been viewed from the top of Mound B across the ramp and northeast corner of Mound A.

Orion’s Setting: The setting of Orion’s Nebula took place at 5:48 AM at an azimuth of 262 degrees. From the top of Mound B this would have been viewed directly along the side and base of the large Mound A. The Etowah River is on the south side of the complex, however, just to the west it bends north providing the western body of water necessary for the Path of Souls ritual.

Scorpius: Finally, Scorpius was not visible during this timeframe and became visible at 6 AM just as the sun rose.


From the results of this analysis, it is highly probable that the Etowah Mounds were utilized around the Winter Solstice for the conducting of the Path of Souls death ritual. There is no doubt that the site was used for other ceremonies and rituals and it is likely that various other alignments are present at the site. However, this brief study and many others show that a wide range of mound and earthwork sites were constructed in ways to create obvious sightlines to the Winter Solstice sunset, the setting of Deneb, and the rise and setting of Orion. All of these studies lend support to the theory proposed by Andrew Collins that Cygnus was revered by many cultures in the ancient world.

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