CODY — Modern stargazers have a host of sophisticated options for locating and tracking celestial bodies, from charts and books to telescopes and smartphone apps. In fact, the smartphones that run such sophisticated astronomy apps have far greater memory and processing power than the computers that charted a path for Apollo astronauts to reach the moon.
But early inhabitants of the greater Yellowstone region may have relied on their own technological tool to chart the stars and track events like the summer solstice, according to one researcher who presented her findings to a packed house Thursday, Apr. 4 at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
Ivy Merriot, a Bozeman, Montana-based writer focused on indigenous astronomy, theorizes that Native Americans used a series of stones arranged like a spoked wheel to understand, remember and predict astronomical events.
Merriot has spent a decade studying the Medicine Wheel, a centuries-old site on Medicine Mountain near Lovell. Merriot posits that early cultures used the Medicine Wheel not only as a cosmic observatory, but also as a kind of Rosetta Stone and mnemonic device that helped pass down astronomical knowledge to later generations.
Research by others conducted over the last several decades suggests that the 80-foot diameter wheel of limestone rocks in the Bighorn National Forest served a range of uses dating back hundreds of years or more. It may have been a site for vision quests, camping, medicinal plant gathering and prayer.
But that same research also shows that spokes on the 9,640-foot elevation wheel align on important astronomical dates with bright landmark stars like Rigel, Aldebaran and Sirius. The wheel has 28 spokes, which could tie to the 28-day lunar cycle, Merriot said. The spokes and moon serve as a kind of night clock that can chart with precision the passage of time as the heavens appear to swirl with the earth’s rotation.
Early cultures also used stories and folklore to connect the stars and constellations above to the stones below, all as a way to remember and teach important knowledge, Merriot said. Knowing when the days were getting shorter or longer, how to navigate the landscape by the stars or when seasonal weather patterns were likely to change were all hugely important. And that all could be predicted by the stars.
“Because of where and how the spokes turn, they’re going to line up with different things in the sky at different times,” Merriot said. “And the 28 different units are not evenly spaced, because items in the sky are not evenly spaced.”
“Cultures all over the world have divided the night sky into 28 sections so they can track everything,” she said. “It’s really a magic number.”
No one knows for sure who built the Medicine Wheel. Some estimates say it is 500 to 1,500 years old, but Merriot believes it was created more than 5,000 years ago. A lack of artifacts at the site has made dating it based on cultural eras or carbon dating difficult.
Merriot made a series of observations over many days and nights and on key dates like the summer solstice, then used astronomical software to chart the historic positions of the sun and stars over thousands of years.
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Merriot believes a spoke that almost aligns with a sighting stone on a ridge line 4 miles away at sunrise on the summer solstice would have lined up perfectly 3,200 years before the Common Era.
Other cultures, including ancient Polynesian seafarers, have long used circular star charts to study, memorize and teach navigation by the stars, Merriot said, and similar wheels have been found across North America.
Connections between the stars, sacred sites and folklore run deep, Merriot said. Her latest research explores potential connections between indigenous astronomy, the Medicine Wheel and petroglyphs across the Bighorn Basin.
“Going back over time, our stories are powerful, and full of science,” she said.
The Big Horn Wheel seems a southern and relatively recent outlier (c 1760 CE). By far the greatest number of extant wheels are found in Alberta, then Saskatchewan, and a few in Montana. The oldest appears to be near Majorville, Alberta, Omahkiyaahkohtoohp (Blackfoot: ‘old, big arrangement’), maybe 2500 BCE. The hot spot is by the Red Deer River, Alberta, just west of its confluence with the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan. More than a dozen in this area. A very fine book on the Majorville Wheel: “Canada’s Stonehenge; astounding archaeological discoveries in Canada, England, and Wales”, Gordon R. Freeman (emeritus prof U of Alberta), 2009, Kingsley Publishing. After attending a symposium at the U of Calgary, “From Megaliths to Medicine Wheels” in the late 1970s, I enrolled — but at the U of Alberta, Edmonton — and got a BA in Medicine Wheels, so to speak. The more proximate trigger was the total solar eclipse of 26 Feb 1979, path of totality arcing up and across the wheel on Moose Mt, SK. (built or at least occupied c 800 CE ). Here there was SNOW! And absolutely no-one else except us moosekins from Edmonton. (Amazing — snow in Wyoming in JULY?!) There are 3 components of a complex and complete medicine wheel: ring, spokes, and central cairn; and 3 simple types that lack one component. Each simple type tends to have a different range on the prairies, generally eastern, western, and southern; but with much overlap in Alberta. Big Horn is furthest south; and, interestingly, one of the few that are complete and complex. Big Horn is also the wheel most like Majorville — despite their distance in time and space. Construction and usage seems more or less continuous for about 5000y then, not surprisingly, drops off with the advent of Europeans. In more than few cases units of measure and complex geometry are akin to stone rings in Britain.
I’ve spent a great deal of time pondering the Big Horn megalith , which is not a singular edifice . Similar large spoked stone wheels exist from the Canadian provinces south. Count me in the camp that thinks the Medicine Wheel was originally built at least 5,000 years ago. Maybe 8,000. Those ages are related to a climate even sometimes called the Mid-Holocene Warm Period , the Altithermal, or just Climate Optimum. A warm dry spell after the glaciers receded that lasted 4,000 years , peaking 8,000 years ago. The lowlands of the Big Horn Basin and the Plains east of the mountains would have been decidedly hot and arid; hard to eke out a subsistence living upon , and with much less big game. The top of the Big Horn Mountains would have been the preferred habitat for the Paleolithic Peoples , offering more water and vegetation and milder weather than the furnaces of the flatlands. The Paleos would’ve spent most of the year at the higher elevations. Especially since the seasons in Wyoming would’ve produced shorter but hotter summers and longer but colder winters due to orbital variations, similar to what Australia is experiencing now as the Southern Hemisphere takes it’s turn..
The astronomical alignment of the Wheel and it’s cairns and spokes on the rising dawn stars remains reasonably accurate, once adjusted for Precession of the Equinoxes on it’s 13,000 sky cycle. The whole Sirius-Aldebran- Rigel phenom was first popularized by Dr. John Eddy of the University of Colorado at Boulder, back in the 1970’s . Generations of Paleos living on the broad tops of the Big Horns would’ve certainly noticed the bright stars’ annual promenade and cast it into stone. I’ve done the very same thing myself, for fun. Built medicine wheels from stones aligned to equinoxes, solstices, planets and stars. My Wheel at the front gate of the Pitchfork Ranch west of Meeteetse was good enough and aged quickly enough tot toally fool a troupe of astronomers going 700 miles out of their way on the road home from Tucson to Seattle after the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Union academic group. They’d heard about this ” newly discovered” megalith that nicely aligned with the Heavens. All true. ( Photos offered as evidence for ye skeptics ).
One more anecdote worth sharing. In the mid-1980’s it was still possible to drive all the way to the Big Horn Medicine Wheel , and even spend the night or camp thereabout. I did this several times , up until thats ad day when the elitists took the place over and convinced the Forest Service the Medicine Wheel as an active spiritual cultural site that needed to be prtotected, as in outlawing vehicular traffic. Those elitists cliam ed the local Tribes were still usinf the Wheel for ceremonies and such, especially near or on the propitious Summer Solstice . I will say outright that they were not. I stayed at the Wheel over three separate June solstices in the 1980’s. On thos excursions only one visit by any Native Americans was made to the Wheel. Two men and two women in an old pickup truck showed up during the day long after sunrise, and spent maybe ten minutes there. Two of them were wearing red satin jackets emblazoned with Mint Bar – Hardin Montana. They had as much spiritual religious cultural connection to the Medicine Wheel as they did to the aforementioned saloon.
Who – besides me – did come to the Medicine Wheel for the Solstice. Here’s the 1986 tally : at sunrise , a group of 30 students from Boulder and Dr. Eddy were present. There were also a few other Anglo visitors whos eemed aware of the Wheel and it’s solstice-cairn alignment since that had been published beforehand. During the day a copuiple dozen folks stopped by. I saw dancers, poets, drummers , and one trumpet soloist at sundown who played a lovely reverant melody. The largest category of visitors to the Wheel on solstice day were various sorts of New Age hippies and their pet crystals. In three years I saw absolutely zero Native Americans there for any cultural purposes. The Tribes simply were not using the Wheel that way.
nevetheless a movement arose, and suddenly claims were abundant that the Wheel eneded to be closed off and respected once again as a cultural Plains Indian mecca megalith . Those claims were fabricated at first , but became self-fulfilling prophesies in coming seasons. People actually did start showing up to the Wheel for the Summer Solstice again , including some tribal types. They started leaving offerings on the barbed wire fence around the Wheel…feathers, tobacco bags, ribbons galore… all manner of things. In a few short years the medicine Wheel went from being a barren unused mostly forgotten megalith to a festoonery of festive decor and choreographed ablutions and a chantfest. Shortly thereafter I quit going up there, not wanting to make the 3 mile hike roundtrip down and back. I do still visit the huge FAA radar dome located neaby since it is truly fasinating and alive and that is the best vistapoint by far.
On the night of July 4-5 in 1982 my friend and I camped at the Medicine Wheel to observe a total lunar eclipse. We somehow got his VW Rabbit across the rocks and thru the snow to the Whewel where we set up the lounge chairs and blankets, the cameras and tripods, and refreshment sideboard to watch the eclipse for hours through the night. We cued up Pink Floyd’s ” Dark Side of the Moon ” – twice , actually. Shortly before the Moon started into eclipse these three wet cold guys came stumbling out of the darkness and were as surprised to see us as we were them. The had come all the way from Ohio. Their charismatic leader in his Aussie-style bush hat went over the fence to station himself at the center cairn of the Wheel. His two acolytes remained outside the Wheel and pitched him questions, whose answers he divined as though the Big Horn Medicine Wheel was a giant limestone Ouija Board. Swear to the Old Gods and the New, this guy deemed himself a prophet who used the Wheel during a lunar eclipse to get visions and divinations. THAT was highly entertaining to me and my Decadent Astronomer colleague present. Those Ohio boys were mighty glad to share our food and drink and warm up in the Rabbit before they trundled back off into the cold wet darkness back where they came from. Did I mention it spit snow, sleet, and rain off and on all night ? Extra points for slogging thru mountain weather , Ohio delegation. The eclipse was still entirely visible thru the clouds. Sunrise was fantastic, a Wagnerian cloud symphony.
It was, in fact a metaphysical magical megalithic night to remember. I truly thank whomever built the Medicine Wheel hundreds or thousands of years ago. I do know this: NONE of the present day Native Americans in the region have a clue who built that wheel or why . It was there long before their people migrated up from the Plains about 350 years ago. The Medicine Wheel guards it’s origination mysteries well, to this day.
( apologies for the length , but it’s an important narrative to add here )
Medicine Mountain lies near the intersection of several American Indian trails described in Steve Platt’s 1992 University of Montana master’s thesis, “Trails and Aboriginal Land Use in the Northern Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming.” Recent Wyoming Game and Fish Department GPS collar tracking studies of migratory elk in the northern Bighorns show that the elk herds reestablished in the early 1900s fit closely to routes used in the past by American Indians. So the travel routes of people and animals come together around Medicine Mountain. I also wonder if the limestone geology of the mountain, including the caves and fissures near the Medicine Wheel, may have also played a role in the mountain’s cultural significance.
A curiousity : there is a profound lack of archaeological artifacts in the immediate area of the Medicine Wheel , from any culture predating the Anglo settlers. Over on the other side of the Basin in the sandstone there are abundances of artifacts from nomadic Plain tribes . While stone points go back 7500 years, most everything else is contemporary with the Tribes we know today in their earliest forays here… Shoshone, Crow et al. Including a fair number of bundle burials in cliffisides ( one west of Meeteetse had an 18th c entury trade rifle and was wearing a red British army coat. Go figger. )
Once upon a time I saw a photo taken at the Big Horn Wheel back about 1920 , clearly showing a sweat lodge there. A man whose family ran sheep up there for most of the 20th century told me the Crows quit going up there during the Depression years, and the place was fallow till the 80’s execept as a white man tourist curiousity. Given the location , the broad expanse of the mountaintop, the fairly easy access it would seem logical there should be troves of archaeology to delve thereabouts, but the timeline is mostly barren around Medicine Mountain , upper Porcupine Creek… all of it. Yet the Absarokas and especially the Owl Creek Mountains over on the other side of the Basin are saturated with paleolithics. It’s an anomaly to me given the artifacts at Medicine Lodge State Park and the Tensleep area not that far away down below the Medicine Wheel. The megalithic era in Wyoming is Zeitgeist. ( Time Ghost )