StoneWheels asAnalog Star Computers
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You're sitting at a computer right now thinking the idea is silly: a bunch of stones, laid out in whatever shape hundreds (and as we'll see here later the beginning of it was more than 2,000 years) ago cannot be computers! But an analog computer is a device, not necessarily electrical, which mimics some phenomenon, so that observations or measurements on the device tell us about the phenomenon itself. Early electronic computers were often analog. The big breakthrough was sufficient electronic speed -- and memory -- so that by digital internal models composed of arrays of on/off electric signals, any phenomenon someone is sufficiently clever to write a program for can be modeled internally that way.
The diagrams below show what Dr Eddy (and later other astronomers) found:
Bighorn Medicine Wheel
Sunsight cairn E sights through gnomon (branch or pole) in center hub Cairn O to mark solstice sunrise. Cairn F is the starsight cairn, where dawn risings of 4 stars were sighted against other rim cairns: at A (Aldebaran), from 1400 - 1700 rose heliacally there the morning of summer solstice.
|At Cairn B Rigel during this period rose heliacally 28 days after the solstice. At Cairn C Sirius rose 28 days after that at the end of August, marking the end of summer, time to leave the mountain. The starsight alignment with cairn D (Fomalhaut) was discovered only 8 years later, by Jack Robinson. At Bighorn, Fomalhaut rose heliacally about 33 days before solstice, when snow would be deep on the mountain.||--Jump to Moose Mountain Wheel|
Celestial globe peeled--Just as flat paper earth maps greatly distort land the further north or south of the equator the map goes, so representations of starry skies impose a similar geometric distortion. This peeled globe provides a way to represent stars reasonably accurately, with "caps" for the northern stars, stars in which (for reasons of navigation) we may be especially interested.
Celestial section showing key stars--On this segment of the map, I've highlighted the 3 key stars whose dawn-rising alignments hundreds of years ago were "recorded" by aborigional astronomers. Note the 3 key Medicine Wheel stars -- Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius -- are also key stars in the Lakota sacred circle constellation The Animal. Helical or dawn-rising times of any stars in the Black Hills would be different -- because it is much further south -- from those at any of the Medicine Wheels.
"Could the solar and stellar alignments at Medicine Mountain be accidental? Calculations of mathematical probability of chance alignment could be given. (In fact Dr. Eddy found the odds of a chance line-up to be less than 1 in 4,000, for social scientists (but not astronomers) that would mean the hypothesis of knowledgeable construction was proven.] But I have never believed very much in that approach. It would be better to examine other medicine wheels to see if any of them show the same alignment."
One wheel he could afford to hike to and measure is near where he then lived and worked: the one at 11,600 feet on the continental divide, off Trail Ridge Road, near an old Ute travois trail. This has 2 spokes or arms, aligned through a huge central pile of rocks at the hub. The line of sight thus formed is at the appropriate angles for summer solstice sunrise. The Fort Smith medicine wheel on the Crow reservation, about 60 miles north of the Bighorn wheel has 5 spokes around a central rock hub, but spokes are bent from soil creep and rerosion. However the longest spoke is oriented exactly as the one high on medicine mountain, and lines up through the hub with the summer solstice sunrise.
This was about the limit of what Dr. Eddy could do as a family hobby. His job was to be a solar physicist and the U.S. government didn't care about supporting findings that the pre-contact aboriginal peoples were astronomers. Travel to observe and measure the other wheels -- all at remote locations -- for exact calculations wasn't something he could personally finance. But the National Geographic Society provided a small travel expenses grant, so in the summer of 1975 Eddy accompanied archaeologist Dick Forbis (University of Calgary) and Tom and Alice Kehoe (University of Wisconsin) in an aerial and ground survey of 20 rock structures on the plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan where the locations map shows that most were built. About 20 were visited then, many just by bush plane overflight.
They found the rock structures to be not all wheels, and most likely built at many different times by different peoples for different purposes. Local tribal informants have identified some as memorial markers for the deaths of long-ago famed Indian leaders, for example. One, near Minton, Saskatchewan, is a large central pile of rocks in the shape of a huge turtle (whose nose and tail-tip are aligned with summer solstice sunrise). Another is in the shape of a man's outline. Others are too dispersed or vandalized to tell much of make measurements on. The remote sites were first overflown and photographed, then a few -- such as they could afford to do in the short time with limited funds -- were visited and measured carefully. All are in fairly remote areas, all are on the highest hilltops or bluffs of the rolling, barren, nearly treeless, nearly waterless high plains.
Moose Mountain in southeastern Saskatchewan (blue on my locations map) seemed the most promising to the Kehoes, who in the '50's and early '60's had visited and studied these sites extensively. Mountain is an odd name for it; it's just one among many rolling ridges, and the mountain part is a slightly elevated hump on the ridge's back, which, seen from an abandoned farmhouse on the approach might be thought to resemble a moose's humped back.
There are local legends -- Cree, Plains Ojibwe -- of a woman who walked along the ridgeline and fell in love with the sun. He carried her away from the bump where a 5-spoked wheel is located. (A sixth spoke may once have connected cairn C, that lies close to the inner circle). This doesn't have the 28 spokes and outer rim of Medicine Mountain, but that's unique (and was determined to have been built later than its hub and sighting cairns). Below, the survey-measured diagram of the wheel is shown, with north alignment the same as for Medicine Mountain.
Moose Mountain Wheel(Southeastern Alberta). shows similar directional alignments of sighting cairns. Cairn at the end of the longest spoke, E, sights through the hub at the solstice sunrise. Cairn F, positioned similarly to F on Medicine Mt., also serves as a starsight, with similarly-positioned rim cairns.
|--Jump to compare Medicine Wheel diagram Using F as starsight, the same dawn-rising stars -- Aldebaran (A), Rigel (B), Sirius (through the hub) are calculated. The same relative dawn-rising day relationships were found -- Aldebaran at solstice, Rigel and Sirius respectively a month and 2 months later.These alignments occurred between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. By the dawn-rising stardates, Moose Mountain Wheel is about 2,000 years old. It was perhaps the prototype of the astronomical knowledge that went into creation of Medicine Mountain Wheel's cairn layout. You can jump back and forth to compare the star alignments.|
Dates of heliacally-rising stars -- even if the sighting alignments are similar -- don't remain the same at different places. Because of the earth's axial inclination (shown here) the plane of the ecliptic appears to wander through the fixed stars, making a kind of sine curve throughout the year, as we saw in considering the Lakota sacred star-circle. where over relatively short time periods as things go with the earth and stars, rising and setting times are constant for the fixed stars at each date. But because of the gravitational precession of the earth's polar axis of rotation, the north pole in the celestial globe wanders in a great circle, over some 26,000 years -- and over time periods measured in centuries, this does change what stars can be seen dawn-rising, where, and when.
In the December, 1977, issue of Technology Review, Eddy wrote "Relying upon the data [which he shows in a graph] I went out on a limb and announced that the astronomical alignments indicated that Moose Mountain Wheel was about 2,000 years old. I don't think that Tom or Alice Kehoe believed me. Nor was I very sure myself.
"Then, last January [of 1977], I got an excited telephone call from Tom Kehoe. In the summer of 1976, the Kehoes had made further studies at the site. Specifically, they had excavated a part of the central cairn, cutting out a wedge so as not to destroy the structure. At the very bottom of the cairn they had found a flat stone floor; they felt sure they were down to the original construction. Under that, they found charcoal, apparently the ground had been burned off before construction started. There was enough to permit radiocarbon dating. The result, Tom reported, was that this fire had burned 2600 years ago, plus or minus 250 years! This seems close enough to support the astronomical dating of the site, and proves that sometimes we astronomers are lucky."
It proves something else, too. Judging from the locations of the wheels, and the fact that the oldest ones are in Alberta, it appears that Native astronomy got going in the north more than 2,000 years ago, and spread south to othr tribes from there. At just a few hundred years old, the Bighorn wheel is only a youngster. This isn't saying that all Natives were scientists 2 millenia ago. It seems most likely that the many decades and centuries of makint careful night observations and learning the changing patterns was the work of just a few -- maybe about proportionally the same to the Native population then as astronomers are proportional now to the world's population (a very tiny fraction of people).
Something almost as exciting happened in 1979. Eddy found no astronomical correlation for Cairn D, either at Medicine Mountain or Moose Mountain, other than to suppose perhaps these south-lying cairns marked a north-south axis on their wheels, which didn't seem necessary. (Polaris gives the best north-south orientation.) In 1979 Florida amateur astronomer Jack H. Robinson made calculations which show that the southerly bright star Fomalhaut -- the mouth of the constellation Pisces (fish) Australianus (south-lying, not the zodiacal "Pisces" of astrology) -- rose heliacally and could be sighted from cairn F, the star-sight at both wheels, through cairns D at both sites. At the Bighorn wheel, this occurred around 1050 to 1450 AD, consistent with Dr. Eddy's dating and a finding by Calgary Archaeologist Michael Wilson that the cairns were probably built considerably earlier than the spokes and rim.
This dawn-rising of the star Fomalhaut occurred at the Bighorn Wheel from 35 to 33 days before the solstice, when the snow on the way up there would have been pretty deep, but ceremonial watchers probably could have made it up there with snowshoes. The wheel shoulder would be windswept and clear. At Moose Mountain , Fomalhaut's dawn-rising alignment occurred from 600 - 900 AD, several centuries later than Dr. Eddy's date based on the other 3 stars, but just 7 or 8 days before the solstice.
Fomalhaut's dawn-rising may actually have occurred exactly in the 2-millenia-old period Dr. Eddy found for the other stars. If you look again at the Moose Mountain diagram, you'll notice that spoke OD is markedly curved along its length. The spoke looks as if it originally may have extended to a cairn more westerly (to the left), perhaps the original sighting cairn for Fomalhaut in the earlier period of Aldebaran, Rigel and Sirius dawn-risings there. Fomalhaut lies more than 30° south of the celestial equator, and is more greatly and quickly affected by equinoctial precession, so while the others persisted in lined-up dawn risings over a couple of centuries, Fomalhaut wouldn't.
If Robinson's calculations represent how they really built it around 2,000 years ago, perhaps they tried to keep a line on Fomalhaut by moving the cairn east and curving its spoke somewhat. Cairn C, which lies a short way outside the inner circle may also have been moved in an attempt to keep pace with Sirius, also a southerly star more quickly affected by the precessional cycle than north-lying Aldebaran, and Rigel which is only a few degrees south of the celestial equator. Robinson's calculations provide an interesting confirmation of Eddy's, and together they suggest that Aboriginal peoples of the northern plains -- probably only a few of them, the students of the night skies -- had solid and sophisticated astronomical knowledge of their night skies.
Many anthros, Indian "experts" of various persuasions have been crtitical in the 20 years since Dr. Eddy -- not a member of their club -- published his amazing discoveries. Others have said it could be coincidental, these ancient stellar sighting alignments. My then- husband, a physicist specializing in ion-molecule reaction studies, remarked cynically (when I excitedly showed him Eddy's original 1974 article in Science "Oh, astronomers are all nuts anyway. That guy can make all sorts of calcs on any old stars, so he's sure to come up with something that lines up."
Remarking rather cattily that his own research had involved (at that point) making calcs virtually at random about atomic and energetic considerations in hopes of hitting on something from which a valid theory could be derived, I ignored it at the time, and went on to write an article published in 1975 about this exciting discovery for Akwesasne Notes.
Since then, I have come to believe that many non-Indian "Indian experts" would rather not have any kind of proof that pre-contact aborginal peoples had sophisticated sciences, involving long periods of careful observation and measurement, as well as being highly "civilized" in other ways. They'd rather think of pre-contact Natives as total primitives, who ought to be grateful to have received civilization (along with genocide and loss of land).
For 2 reasons, then, I'm publishing here an observational table that shows what astronomers concerned with dawn-risings have to work with. There ar only 20 stars of First Magnitude -- the brightest, on a 6-magnitude brightness scale gradient visible to the naked eye -- not all visible at northern latitudes, and at the end of the table they are fairly faint, closer to second than first magnitude.
This is a relatively small number of "skymarks" to memorize and learn, for learning the night sky. It is quite possible for a people with self-trained memories, though lacking writing to memorize sky patterns and observe their changes over the years, teaching this to apprentices. This would have been a tribal person who would be considered a wise man. (The anthros' and New Agers' word "shaman" seems quite inappropriate), probably with a religious function connected to ceremonial time.
It's also very useful for today's students and others who want to learn to know the starry night skies without instruments, naked eyes-only. You can easily memorize the First magnitude stars and their constellations. They are excellent anchors for exploring the night sky. Only "first magnitude" stars can be seen to rise briefly in the lightening predawn skies in which all other stars but first magnitudes have disappeared (heliacal or sun-risings). There really are not so many of those as to provide calc-happy folks with unlimited possibilities to make everything come out fo fit some theory. In particular, there were really only 2-3 choices for Richardson to make calc tests on for dawn star alignments on the very southerly cairns at Medicine and Moose Mountains.
Here they are. My table arranges them in order of magnitudes. Smaller numbers mean brighter stars (and Sirius's magnitude, as the very brightest of the fixed stars, is actually negative). I'm using magnitudes recorded in the late 19th century for naked eye observation, by Richard Hinkley Allen, in Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Dover reprint, NY 1963 of the original published in 1899.
We've been looking up for so long, it's time to look down, at and into th earth. There is something very special about Medicine Mountain, aside from the Wheel located there. You can -- or could, before it bcame a crowded trourist attraction -- feel a power in this lonely high place. Probably that is why the Whel was built there; the others are on raised hills, but this one is uinque in its location, far from any place that any tribespeople were accustomed to go.
Perhaps looking down and within can help to explain the feeling. Medicine Mountain is very high, but it is also deep, old. It is a very strange and interesting place, of the earth's geological features. Perhaps this helps to explain the feeling of great powers who inhabit it there, usually just out of sight somehow. (I don't know where they go when th tourists crowd around. Maybe they're still there. Maybe they moved somewhere else.)
A videotape of the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, and Dr. Eddy's discovery it is an ancient solar/star analog computer was made in 1977-78 as a 16 mm film, never distributed widely. Seaching for it, for a Heart of the Earth school science class I was able to find one print of a pre-release version at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minneapolis. Since it was acquired in 1980, no one had ever checked it out or screened it; the film proved to be damaged when I tried to view it. But the filmmakers have converted it to videotape -- more readily usable in today's classrooms. It is available for $49 from:
Bighorn Medicine Wheel Videotape: "Is there an American Stonehenge?" Harold Mayer Productions 50 Ferriss Estate New Medford, CT 06776 (203)/355-2877
This video is useful both for science and multicultural education; grades 7 - college. They have no literature about it.
CREDITS: Diagrams of the Bighorn and Moose Mountain wheels, showing solar and star alignments are from the writings of Dr. John Eddy -- the original publication in Science, 184 (1974), 7 Jun, and later writings where he examines the Moose Mountain and several other sites. Fomalhaut star sighting lines/dates were added from the research and calculations published in 1980 by Jack H. Robinson in Archaeoastronomy.
Diagram of the earth's equator and plane of the ecliptic projected onto an enclosing celestial sphere is from Astronomy by Fred Hoyle, Doubleday, NY: 1962.
Page prepared by Paula Giese , text and graphics c. 1995, 1996
Last updated: Tuesday, July 09, 1996 - 10:05:26 AM