Stonehenge, in England, has long been a source of fascination for most of us. It is credited as being an archaeoastronomical site – an ancient site for astronomical observations. I recently posted articles on “Medicine Wheels” that have a similar purpose. This week, I want to write about circles built by the Hopewell culture that also suggest astronomical purposes. Nicknamed “Woodhenge” because of their similarity to Stonehenge and Woodhenge in England, these sites are east of the Mississippi River and were built by the Hopewell Indians living from around 200 A.D. to around 1,500 A. D.
There are several sites hosting these peculiar circles, but I will focus on two – Moorehead Circle, near Cincinnati, Ohio and Cahokia, near St. Louis, Missouri.
At Moorehead Circle, for example, researchers have found that an opening in the rings; a nearby, human-made enclosure; stone mounds; and a gateway in a nearby earthen wall are all aligned and on the summer solstice (longest day of the year) the sun appears to rise in the gateway as seen from the center of the circle.
The Woodhenge(s) at Cahokia were recognized as solar calendars when Dr. Warren Wittry was studying excavation maps and theorized that posts set in these pits lined up with the rising sun at certain times of the year – prompting him to call them “Woodhenge”. Further excavations unveiled five circles that were built over the period 900 A.D. – 1100 A.D. Fragments of wood remaining in some of the post pits revealed that red cedar had been used for the posts – known to be a sacred wood.
Quoting from the Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site
, “Viewing was from the center of the circle, and several circles had large “observation posts” at that location, where it is likely the sunpriest stood on a raised platform. Other posts between the solstice posts probably marked special festival dates related to the agricultural cycle. The remaining posts around the circle have no known function, other than symbolically forming a circle and forming an enclosure to hold the sacred Woodhenge ceremonies. There have been suggestions some posts had alignments with certain bright stars or the moon, or were used in predicting eclipses, and others have suggested Woodhenge was used as an engineering “aligner” to determine mound placements, but none of this has been proven convincingly.”
“The most spectacular sunrise occurs at the equinoxes, when the sun rises due east. The post marking these sunrises aligns with the front of Monks Mound, where the leader resided, and it looks as though Monks Mound gives birth to the sun. A possible offertory pit near the winter solstice post suggests a fire was burned to warm the sun and encourage it to return northward for another annual cycle and rebirth of the earth. This probably marked the start of the new year.
“The third circle (A.D. 1000) was reconstructed in 1985 at the original location. The circle is 410 feet in diameter, had 48 posts spaced 26.8 feet apart (9 are missing on the west side, removed by a highway borrow pit). The posts were 15-20 inches in diameter and stood about 20 feet high. Red ocher pigment found in some of the post pits suggests the posts may have been painted. The post pits averaged 7 feet long and just over two feet wide, sloping from the surface at one end to a depth of four feet at the other, forming a ramp to slide the posts down to facilitate their raising.”