Sacred Geography: Astronomical Alignment & GIS

am_equinoxAt Mounds State Park, Anderson Indiana you will find the best preserved Adena-Hopewell earthworks in Indiana.  The 2000 year old earthworks were constructed by prehistoric Native Americans as a place for religious worship and observation of seasonal events.  The presence of these earthworks created a landscape perceived as sacred, which continues today.  fourfeatures

The earthworks at Mounds State Park are referred to as enclosures and have four features: an outer embankment, an inner ditch, a central platform and a gateway. These features are common to these large structures often referred to as sacred circles.

labelsDuring a 1988 survey of the southern ceremonial complex at Mounds State Park, archaeologist Don Cochran noticed that when standing in the Fiddleback Mound he could see another person in the Great Mound through a dip in the embankment.  This is unusual as vision is impaired at other places along the embankment. Further investigations revealed a dip aligning with the Woodland Mound to the west.  These are the only places from which the interior of the Great Mound is visible. Further investigations demonstrated that dips in the embankment also aligned with the summer solstice at the Fiddleback Mound and the winter solstice at the Woodland mound.


This line of sight representation demonstrates visibility from the center of the Great Mound to the Fiddleback mound.  The red lines represent areas not visible to the observer and the green lines visible areas. I put this to the test. I had my daughter stand in the middle of the Great Mound. She put her shirt on a stick and then I walked around the mound and verified that these two dips are in fact the only places you can see into the Great Mound.

A side note to the research…I tested this theory early in the morning. We had forgotten to bring a cloth to put on the stick she would hold up. I told her to use her shirt since she was wearing a sports bra. I’ve seen women running in these and thought “not a big deal”. Well it was to her. She was a little insecure about it. I reassured her it was early and no one would see her anyway. By the time I got back around to the front there was a group standing in the entrance. I did recue her and laughed uncontrollably. Poor kid, I do anything for research.

as_equ_flat2ArcScene provides 3-D representation and animation of the landscape which is invaluable to geographers, planers and landscape architects; however, this application had rarely been applied to archaeological or historical sites.  The application of 3-D and animation to prehistoric sites provides archaeologists with a tool to examine and interpret prehistoric landscapes as they were in the past.  Of course, this may not provide a completely accurate representation, nevertheless, the use of spatial analyst and 3D analyst can aid in interpolating past landscapes by adjusting for rates of erosion and variations in vegetation.  This will aid the archaeologist in planning fieldwork, analyzing data and instruction. 

References: Geopiety and Landscape Perceptions at Mounds State Park, Anderson, Indiana by Barbara A Perry

Sacred Geography: Astronomy, part 1

Ancient Native American sacred places were not chosen but are revealed through an encounter with the divine.  Different groups responded to the same astronomical phenomena differently developing a variety of astronomical viewpoints.  Medicine wheels, such as Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, align with sunrise and sunset at the summer solstice.  The Hopi and Hopewell developed systems for charting lunar and solar cycles with associated festivals integrated with concepts of fertility, birth and growth.

Many prehistoric groups transformed their landscape based on a cosmic model and ritual myths.  The layout of Native American villages included the use of poles and arrangements of buildings to depict the heavens, sunrise/set and solstice alignments.  Such cosmological beliefs are not confined to North America, as similar cosmological beliefs can be found worldwide in such cultural landscapes as the Dogon of Burkina Faso, Teotihuacán of Mexico and ancient Near Eastern temples, tombs and altars.


woodhendge, CahokiaA common feature of both Fort Ancient and Mississippian Cultures, and a unique feature in central North America is a circle of vertical poles referred to as Woodhenge. This feature was used to predict eclipses and other celestial events.  This pattern of arranging poles also exists in late Hopewell Culture groups.  The Fort Ancient people did not build ceremonial centers of earthworks, as did the Hopewell or Mississippian.  The arrangement of villages was used as their ceremonial center by placing buildings and other structures in alignment with celestial events.

SunWatch Village, Dayton, Ohio

sunwatch villageSunWatch is a middle Fort Ancient Culture settlement site located in Dayton, Ohio.  It was rebuilt between 1971 and 1989.  The village was nearly circular and surrounded by a stockade.  Inside the stockade were dwellings and special buildings arranged in concentric rings subdivided in districts of distinct socio-political units.  Villages were arranged as a solar calendar to identify significant dates in an annual cycle.  The center post is two feet in diameter and has two clusters of smaller stakes.  This served an important function in the identification of annual dates.  The reconstructed site contains a portion of the village including a stockade, council lodge, ceremonial men’s house, museum and interpretive center.


Reference: Geopiety and Landscape Perceptions at Mounds State Park, Anderson, Indiana by Barbara A Perry

Sacred Geography: Pyramid mounds

Pyramid (truncated) mounds were used for ceremonies as well as platforms for home of the elite. Pyramid mounds were created primarily by the Mississippian Culture throughout the Midwest and southern United States.

Cahokia Mounds

Monks Mound, CahokiaThe Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is located along the Mississippi River in western Illinois across from Saint Louis. This site is well maintained by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Cahokia was  the largest centers in the United States as well as boasts has the tallest mound (Monks Mound). The agency preserves 68 of the original 120 mounds. There are guided tours in the summer, a nature trail and three self guided interpretive trails for the plaza, Monks Mound and Woodhenge. The interpretive center is one of the best I’ve been to. The staff and tour guides are very knowledgeable.


Emerald Mound

Emerald Mound, Natchez MSEmerald Mound was the center of a ceremonial center occupied from 1250 to 1600AD. Emerald Mound is one of the largest mounds in the United States covering eight acres and 35 feet high. There are two smaller mounds on top of Emerald and at one time there were several around the base but were destroyed from development. The mound is located about ten miles northeast of Natchez, Mississippi on the Natchez Trace Parkway.


Angel mounds

Angel Mounds, Evansville INAngel Mounds is located southeast of Evansville, Indiana overlooking the Ohio River. The complex was built around 1000AD and was abandoned by 1450AD. It is one of the best preserved prehistoric  Native American sites in the United States. There are seven mounds in two complexes with Central Mound as the highest in the complex. There is also an example of a stockade wall and an interpretive center.




Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

National Park Service – National Register of Historic Places

Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites