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The Webfooted Astronomer - July 2001


Minutes: Of Stones and Stars

By Greg Donohue

JOHN H. Rudolph, a member of the Bainbridge Island Battle Point Astronomical Association (BPAA), and archeoastronomy expert, gave the address at the June SAS general meeting.

John opened his presentation with a list of his credentials as an archeoastronomy "expert." In John's own words, "There are two reasons why I'm the expert tonight. I'm from out of town, and I'm the only guy wearin' a tie! Aside from that, it's just stubborn curiosity that's led me into this realm of what the ancient people here in western states were doing to determine what time of year it was."

John's modesty is sincere, but he is far from your average amateur astronomer. Apart from his involvement in archeoastronomical research, John was a founding member (along with Ed Ritchie and Mac Gardiner) of the BPAA. An architect by trade, John also oversaw the "Construction Battalion" that turned the abandoned naval transmitter "Helix House" at Battle Point State Park into the Edwin E. Ritchie Observatory, which houses the group's 27 inch telescope (Washington State's largest amateur-run observatory).

During his presentation, John's expertise in the subject matter became clear, as he presented slides and narrative of his own work (along with others) at the Willow Creek site outside Susanville in northeastern California. The Willow Creek site is in the Modoc National Forest, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

For a long time many assumed that among ancient people only those involved in agriculture spent any time and effort keeping track of the seasons, so they would know when to plant seeds and harvest crops. But archeoastronomical sites also abound in locations where the peoples are known to have been foragers and hunter-gatherers as well.

Such nomadic peoples would spend the cold months in a winter camp, and it was crucial to their survival to know when they could safely move on. If the weather should turn unseasonably warm for a short period, it would in all likelihood prove fatal for them to break camp and start their springtime trek early. Therefore they had to know what time of year it so as not to be fooled by such temporary weather changes. So, far from being the sole purview of ancient farmers, keeping accurate track of the seasons and motions of the heavens was the concern of many other peoples for a variety of practical and probably ceremonial reasons as well.

Many early Native American tribes, including the nomadic Maidu tribe, inhabited the area around the Willow Creek site. The creek runs through the site, which has a ledge of basalt and a small cave that is really nothing more than a crack in the rock with boulders over it. One such "cave" catches light from the rising Sun, and another on the opposite side of the hill catches light from the setting Sun.

The entrance on the northeast side has a keystone over the entrance, and the cave "tunnel" goes back in about 25 feet. The faces of the rocks are replete with petroglyphs, though many are hard to see due to coverings of lichen and patina.

One of the petroglyphs, dubbed the "sign board," contains a symbol identical to that used by the Chinese to mean "the middle" (used to represent China). John wonders, though he doesn't like to speculate too vocally about it, whether the ancient Chinese actually traveled to this area; but it's possible....

Another important symbol found here, and at many other sites around the world, is a serpentine line connected to a circle with a dot inside (see Figure 1). Though some might think this simply represents a snake, John thinks that these are actually astronomical notations. If you count the number of lobes on the serpentine lines of these symbols, you come up with twelve or sometimes thirteen. This could well represent the number of lunar cycles in a year. These identical notations from northern California (circle and serpentine lines with a dozen lobes) are also found at many sites in Ireland, leaving us with an interesting puzzle of how identical symbols were used in such widely separated geographical locations. These puzzling aspects of petroglyphs are one of the things that John thinks makes archeoastronomy such a fascinating pursuit.

Another stone from New Grange, Ireland, shows what look like Moons, going from crescent to full, with 29 symbols (29 days in a lunar cycle). These Moons surround a central spiral figure representing the Sun. But the Sun in this symbol is a double spiral, possibly representing what its creators thought the Sun did during the seasons, according to a book by Mark Brennan.

At the Willow Creek site, certain natural cracks in the rocks have been embellished, and may represent the constellation of Orion. Another symbol with three circles connected by a line may be Orion's belt. If you stand at the mouth of the chamber looking at this glyph, you face due east, where the belt of Orion rises vertically. Both the Chinese and Aztecs used circles connected by lines to represent asterisms.

Yet another stone contains an interesting symbol, a circle with a vertical line down the middle and a dot in each half of the circle. While this symbol is surrounded by other astronomical symbols (like the circle/serpentine line figures), this symbol itself looks identical to a letter in an old Norse alphabet. This letter has evolved into the modern o-umlaut (circle with two dots over it). And in some of the cairns near New Grange in Ireland, we also find this same vertically divided circle with a dot in each half. Once again, the same symbol found in many different parts of the world.

Back at Willow Creek, a symbol with two asterism figures (circles with lines through them) may represent Cygnus and Andromeda, since both these constellations set in the general direction where this symbol is located. Many of the symbols, at least one of which seems to mark the summer solstice, were constructed in such a way that the sunlight entering the cave hits them tangentially. Because of this, a very slight change in the Sun's position is greatly magnified, making these symbols very precise indicators of events. The Sun will only illuminate them on the exact day; the day before or the day after, the sunlight does not strike the symbol at all. So whoever built and used this site could know and predict certain important celestial events very accurately.

Another ingenious gauge in the cave is situated so that the Sun illuminates a particular point both 59 days before and 59 days after the summer solstice. What could be the significance of the 59 days? That works out to be two 29-day lunar cycles. So, if an observer were to check the phase of the Moon on the day that the Sun illuminates this point, he could know that the Summer Solstice would be just two Moon cycles away. That is, if the observer were to wait for that same phase of the Moon to appear again, and then yet once more, that day would be the Summer Solstice.

Let me close with a personal observation. I'm the kind of amateur astronomer who relies a lot on "technological crutches" to get by. Though I can find many objects manually, I am really pretty lost without the computer in my telescope. Listening to John's presentation about these ancient sky watchers, I have to marvel at their intelligence and ingenuity. And as a "modern" man, I must admit to feeling more than a little inferior to many of our "primitive" ancestors.

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