Archaeotrek—Alternate Perceptions Magazine, June 2016
America’s Ancient Mound Alignments to Stars Reveal Widely-Shared Rituals and Beliefs
by: Dr. Greg Little
Later mound cultures in America took mound building to spectacular levels combining massive conical mounds with huge platform mound complexes arranged with geometric earthworks of a wide variety of shapes. These earthworks often extended for long distances. (The longest is thought to be 56 miles in length.) Effigy mounds of animals, birds, and people were also made. According to the “Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Mounds & Earthworks,” it is likely that about one million mounds once existed in America. Today, perhaps 100,000 survive.
Archaeologists have asserted that the mounds and earthworks were sometimes utilized for burials and seasonal celebrations, sometimes created to form sacred spaces, and gradually evolved in bigger ways for the rulers to consolidate power. In the latter period of mound building, the Mississippian culture constructed huge, walled complexes of pyramid-shaped platform mounds. These fortresses housed the elite of the society including the hereditary leaders and the keepers of secrets—secrets that are thought to have been used as a way to control the masses. Shaman and medicine men and medicine women often lived in temples erected on the tops of mounds where regular rituals were held.
When the first Spanish “explorers” encountered these societies (in the 1500s) the Mississippian mound cultures were in a gradual decline but were controlled by a powerful class of elite rulers. Most people see these early “Indians” as primitive and unsophisticated. However, the 2014 book Path of Souls describes the Spanish incursions into the mound cultures and what was found during their looting of these sites. Inside many temples were exquisitely-carved, life-size statues, lavish decorations, well-made wooden boxes filled with pearls, furs, and other goods, comfortable furnishings, and a wide variety of finely-crafted goods. The Spanish chroniclers wrote that what was found rivaled the best artifacts found in Rome in Greece—a fact conveniently ignored by a society justifying its destruction of a different culture by describing it as savage and inferior.
Probing the Mysteries of the Mound Builders
There are many, many aspects about the mound builders that remain completely unknown, however, two important mysteries are close to being resolved. These two mysterious aspects of their ancient culture are intertwined. The first is how the society apparently organized itself into powerful chiefdoms and maintained power through many generations where power was handed down through hereditary lineage. The elite in these societies held a very important secret, one that can best be thought of as the power over the afterlife. This was made even more important to the culture because many infants died and the average lifespan rarely extended into the 30s. In essence, the powerful elite of this intriguing culture were literally seen to wield the power of life and death for members of their culture as well as the power and control of what happened after death.
Through sacred rituals held at specific times of the year, the elite controlled the movement of departed souls to the stars and beyond. The possibility of reincarnation, the condemnation of souls to the underworld, or the journey to the origin of human souls and a joining with one’s ancestors were all controlled by these rituals. Future articles will detail how this was done through specific rituals involving the manipulation of symbols, the use of substances, the disposition of the departed one’s remains, and the movement of people through carefully designed space.
The second mystery—that has now come into much clearer focus—directly relates to the first one. It is why mounds were placed in certain patterns and in specific places. To start with, mound sites were placed near sources of water and food for obvious reasons. However, the arrangement of the mounds’ placement and the geometric earthworks associated with them were done with deliberate intention. At a vast number of mound complexes the mounds were placed in specific spots to allow for the sighting of a few key star “patterns” (constellations) at a specific time of the year. The time of the year was on the Winter Solstice (generally on December 21) and the rituals began at sunset. It isn’t known what the mound builders called the ritual, nor do we know their tribal names. However, in recent times archaeologists have referred to it as the Path of Souls.
The Key Ideas in the Path of Souls
The Path of Souls ritual involves four key alignments of mounds and earthworks to the horizon, all of which are designed to allow observers to view the stellar event from the top of one major mound across another mound or earthwork placed in a precise position. It is thought that tall, large wooden posts were sometimes erected on the mounds to show the spot on the distant horizon where the stellar event took place.
The necessary stellar alignments in the Path of Souls journey appear to be: 1) The place on the horizon where the sun sets on the Winter Solstice; 2) The horizon location where the Cygnus Constellation sets shortly after sunset; 3) The place on the horizon where the Orion Constellation is first seen at sunset; and, 4) The location on the horizon where Orion sets just before dawn. One additional stellar element is needed. That is that the Scorpius Constellation needed to be below the horizon and not visible when the ceremony took place.
At some mound sites, such as that found in Moundville, Alabama, a central mound was constructed in the middle of a wide, flat plaza area. Surrounding this central mound were numerous other mounds. The key sightings of the stars was done from this central mound. For example, at Moundville, the religious leader probably lived atop the central mound where the rituals would be based. At Moundville, the chief or political ruler actually lived atop a much larger mound found on the perimeter of the plaza. However, at smaller sites, mounds were arranged around a plaza area without a central mound. At these sites, the tallest and largest mound was utilized by the political ruler while the shaman and medicine men/women lived atop smaller platforms adjacent to the larger mound. The key sightings probably took place from the religious rulers’ platforms.
It was believed by many Mound Builder tribes that the individual’s soul, termed the “free-soul,” made a journey to the stars after death. The journey could only be taken at a time when the constellation of Scorpius was not visible. This was because Scorpius was believed to be the ruler of the underworld and would snatch the soul. Thus, the journey was typically made at a time in the winter when the Scorpius Constellation was below the horizon. At many mound complex sites, the best time was at the Winter Solstice, when all of the key elements aligned.
In brief, at dusk, the soul journeyed to the west where it came to a body of water. It then waited till early morning when Orion’s Nebula (Messier-42) was about to descend below the horizon, always just before dawn. Orion’s Nebula is the fuzzy spot below the three belt stars of Orion. At that moment the soul made a leap toward the nebula. It was thought to be a slit in the sky, a portal (called an “ogee”) that allowed the soul to pass safely through the underworld during the day. The mound builders viewed Orion as a severed hand. The three “belt” stars of Orion formed the wrist of the hand with the fingers dangling below. Inside the palm of the hand was the ogee, depicted on artifacts as an “eye-in hand.”
After making the leap to the ogee, the soul started a journey along the Milky Way toward the north. The Milky Way was the Path of Souls. The Milky Way was seen as a river of other souls making the same journey and was the pathway all souls took. On the path there were various tasks, but the soul eventually made it to a fork in the path. The fork was the Dark Rift of the Milky Way, where it splits into two sides. At this split, the soul encountered a judge or mediator represented by a large raptor bird. The Constellation of Cygnus was the bird. If the soul passed the tests, the soul was allowed to make a final journey out of the sky dome through a portal (another ogee) now thought to be the star Deneb, the brightest star of Cygnus. Deneb’s true importance was first proposed by the British author Andrew Collins who found that Deneb, the brightest star of the Cygnus Constellation, was revered by many ancient cultures around the world. Some 15,000-18,000 years ago, Deneb served as the North Star. It was viewed by ancient people as a portal, which gave access to the sky world.
A series of articles has shown that the key stellar alignments were present at a host of mound sites spanning several different cultures. The period of time that this death journey concept was seen as important appears to span at least 2000 years, however, it is likely that further research will push it back much further in time.
Sites where the major alignments have been identified include the Hopewell sites of Portsmouth and Marietta in Ohio. In addition, the Mississippian sites of Moundville, Alabama, Angel Mounds, Indiana, and Winterville, Mississippi all show the same stellar alignments.
Additional Sites Studied
As part of an ongoing project, the key stellar alignments of several large mound complexes were evaluated. The focus was on sites that did not appear to have a central mound. The alignments studied included the sunset on the Winter Solstice, the horizon setting point of Cygnus (Deneb) on that night, the rising and setting points of Orion’s Nebula, and the visibility of Scorpius during the night. At all of the sites studied below, Scorpius was below the horizon during the night and was not visible.
One factor raised by skeptics has been that a precise setting point (degree on the azimuth) and altitude above the horizon needed to be established for each site and each alignment. The vast majority of the Mississippian sites chosen for analysis are found in flat, elevated areas near water. The horizons at these sites are virtually level with the mound tops and were chosen because of this factor. There are no mountains or high hills surrounding any of these sites. It is also known that when they were in use, large areas were burned and forest areas were kept some distance from the main mound complexes. This was for defensive purposes as well as allowing close areas for crops.
A site visit to Moundville in May 2016 not only confirmed the flat horizon, but also revealed that the sighting of the stellar event from the top of one key mound over another allowed for a wide +/- 3 degree azimuth variation. This means the alignments at these sites were accurate for long periods of time and that posts marking the setting of stars could have been easily moved as needed. However, all the earlier evaluations and the current one used precise azimuths.
The new sites evaluated were chosen because of their location, number of mounds, lack of a central mound, and flat horizons. They are the Anna Complex and Jaketown sites in Mississippi, and the Greenhouse Site, Jordan Site and Fitzhugh Mounds in Louisiana. Survey maps made by archaeologists and the US Park Service were utilized and the precise GPS coordinates of the key mounds were obtained from the site surveys or directly from Google Earth positioned over each mound. Starry Night Pro was used to calculate the star movements and positions at the time period each site was asserted by archaeologists to have reached its peak.
Anna and Jaketown, Mississippi Sites
Both of these Mississippi sites are to the east of the Mississippi River, confirming that the western journey to a body of water was available. The Anna site was a Plaquemine Culture Mississippian mound complex reaching its zenith around AD 1100. It had 8, large, truncated pyramid mounds arranged around two plaza areas. The Jaketown site is somewhat older and has some small mounds attributed to the earlier Archaic culture. In the Mississippian era, around AD 1100, the site had a complex of 12 platform mounds. All of the key alignments associated with the Path of Souls ritual were present at both sites across various mounds. The archaeological site reconstruction illustrations below, by Dee Turman from the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Mounds & Earthworks, of the two sites are used because they depict the sightlines in a visually understandable way. The illustrations are an aerial view of each sit. Only the Anna illustration is oriented to the north.
Greenhouse, Jordan , Fitzhugh Mounds, Louisiana Sites
All of the Louisiana sites are to the west of the Mississippi River. Greenhouse has no large body of water to the immediate west but there are numerous bayous and rivers a few miles west of the site. Located just to the west of the Jordan site are Bayou Galion and Bayou Coulee. At the Fitzhugh site, Gar Bayou and Roundaway Bayou are located just west of the site. The Greenhouse Site dates to AD 600 and is a Troyville-Coles Creek Culture Site. There were 7 platform mounds arranged around a central plaza. The Jordan Site (AD 1540) had 7 truncated pyramids around a central plaza with a long C-shaped earthen embankment. The Fitzhugh Mounds site (AD 1200) was a curious arrangement of 7 large platform mounds with smaller platform mound connected by elevated, flat earthen walkways. At the extreme north side, beginning behind the largest platform mound, was a 2700-foot-long, 75-foot wide, elevated terrace running from the large mound nearly toward the west. Analysis of the stellar alignments at all three Louisiana sites with Starry Night Pro also showed sightlines from key mounds across other mounds to all of the necessary Path of Souls elements. Curiously, at the Fitzhugh site, the long pathway running toward the west was directly toward the setting of Orion’s Nebula early on the morning of the Winter Solstice just before sunrise. The archaeological site reconstructions below, by Dee Turman from the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Mounds & Earthworks, show the key alignments. Only the Greenhouse illustration is oriented to the north.
Conclusions & Future Work
There is no doubt that the Path of Souls rituals held a major influence over America’s ancient mound building cultures. It is likely that many more sites will show the same key alignments and that older mound sites will contain some, if not all, of the same alignments. Work is underway to evaluate these. However, due to recent advances in archaeology in other parts of the world, the importance of Cygnus, Deneb, and Orion to ancient cultures is becoming increasingly apparent. The “oldest temple in the world,” at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, is clearly aligned to Cygnus as Andrew Collins and others have shown. In addition, preliminary research on other megalithic temple sites in the Mediterranean area also appear to have the same alignments, especially to Cygnus. Future articles will detail these as well as the actual rituals involved.