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Archaeotrek—Alternate Perceptions Magazine, February 2017

The Purpose of America’s Indian Mound Complex Alignments

by: Dr. Greg Little

Since the “discovery” of mounds and complex geometric earthworks scattered across the American continent by the early European “explorers” and settlers, the purpose underlying the arrangement of these sites has been speculated. In general, geometric earthworks were initially thought to be defensive or simply “ceremonial.” Mounds complexes were thought to be shows of power and represented centralized chiefdoms. The arrangement of mounds in such complexes was thought to have been designed to incorporate the four directions and mark the seasons using solar alignments from key mounds.

In the 1980s, archaeologists began to take seriously the idea that some geometric earthworks were formed to mark the movements of the moon during its 18.61-year cycle. Archaeoastronomy, the study of ancient astronomy and possible alignments at ancient sites, took real root in American archaeology around the same time. Stone medicine wheels, found in Canada and in the northwest of America, were shown to have specific alignments designed to show the setting of specific stars. In 1987 & 1988, I wrote a two-part article for “Fate Magazine” (December 1987; January 1988) showing how the mound complex at Pinson, Tennessee was probably arranged in a way similar to the Big Horn, Wyoming Medicine Wheel. Alignments sighted across mounds appeared to target the stars Aldebaran, Sirius, and Rigel (of the Orion Constellation). In “People of the Web” (1990) these alignments were explained as key timing markers for the 56-day Native American “massaum” ceremony, which began on June 22 of each year.

A remarkable series of mound-based astronomical studies were begun by anthropologist Martha Rolingson and archaeoastronomer Clay Sherrod in the early 1980s. By 1987 they had analyzed 33 mound complexes in the south for significant astronomical alignments. They related that the most consistent finding was that mound complexes usually had a sightline to the winter solstice sunset and sometimes to the sunrise. They also found a few consistent stellar alignments but explained the (then present) problem with stellar alignments as essentially not knowing what specific stars to look for nor knowing the precision of alignments that were necessary. “Those designing the community might have had a different concept than we do of precise alignments … Without knowledge of the specific concepts of celestial phenomena and time, it is difficult to assess what factors may have influenced the patterns we see today” (p. 9; Surveyors of the Ancient Mississippi Valley; Ark. Archaeological Survey, 1987).

Serendipitously, the important celestial concepts that were probably incorporated into many mound and earthwork sites were uncovered by archaeologists working on a seemingly different problem.

The Mississippian Iconography Conference

In the late 1990s a large group of archaeologists and anthropologists began a yearly conference intended to solve a long-standing mystery in American archaeology. Over a nearly two century long series of excavations and mound explorations, artifacts were found at various mound sites displaying the same curious symbols. These included an “eye in a hand’s palm,” skulls with wide eyes—sometimes with what appeared to be fire from the mouth, decorated raptor birds, people dressed as birds, feathered serpents, and crosses and circles usually with holes in their centers. By the middle 2000s the large group of scientists had concluded that these symbols, predominantly from Mississippian-era mounds, represented key elements in what is referred to as the “Path of Souls” journey—the journey of the dead souls to the sky world. The key elements in the sky world included the Winter Solstice sunset, the Milky Way, the Scorpius constellation, the Orion Nebula, and the Constellation of Cygnus. The Path of Souls ceremony took place on the night of the Winter Solstice and was designed to propel dead souls to Orion’s Nebula (an ogee), then to the Milky Way, and finally, to Cygnus. The ogee at Orion’s Nebula was depicted on ceremonial artifacts as an “eye in hand” and Cygnus was depicted as a large raptor bird with an ogee located at Cygnus (probably the star Deneb), which was shown as a portal or ogee inside a cross. Scorpius, depicted as a feathered serpent, was the ruler of the underworld and could not be in the sky during the ceremony. The 2014 book, Path of Souls, explains and shows the iconography. In addition, the idea is so mainstream that it is featured in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Indian Mounds & Earthworks (2016).

American Mound Alignments & The Path of Souls

In 2016 I began a series of investigations into the stellar alignments of a host of ancient earthwork and mound complexes specifically targeting the night of the Winter Solstice, the absence of Scorpius in the night sky, and the alignments of the sites to Orion and Cygnus. The computer program Starry Night Pro was used to calculate stellar position at the critical date and the “Cross Azimuth/Distance Calculator” was used for precision alignment. The initial investigation showed that the Hopewell earthworks at Portsmouth, Ohio fit the alignments perfectly.

Marietta, Ohio’s ancient mound and earthwork complex was then found to show the same alignments, along with the Moundville, Alabama mound complex, Indiana’s Angel Mounds, the Winterville, Mississippi mounds, several mound complexes in Mississippi and Louisiana, Ohio’s Hopewell “Liberty Earthworks”, and at the Hopewell “Fudge Site” in Winchester, Indiana.

There is little doubt that many mound complexes served as ritualistic “Path of Souls” death ritual sites, and recently archaeologists have speculated that the massive site in Moundville, Alabama was a ritualistic site rather than population center. In addition, there is evidence that the beliefs associated with the Path of Souls is old, extending back to at least the Adena era in America and is found in other countries as long ago as 3800 BC.

Monday, August 08, 2022