Ohio (USA) : Earthworks created for more than farming
Earthworks created for more than farming
Bradley T. Lepper
Many of Ohio’s ancient earthworks are aligned to astronomical events, such as the apparent rising and setting of the sun or the moon on key dates in their cycles.
The main axis of the Octagon Earthworks at Newark, for example, lines up to where the moon rises at its northernmost point on the eastern horizon.
Clearly, ancient Americans were paying close attention to the sky, but why?
This question is considered in a paper by Canadian archaeologists Brian Hayden and Suzanne Villeneuve published in the current issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
One of the most commonly proposed answers is that farmers need to know when to plant and harvest their crops, and the solar calendar determines the growing season.
But ancient farmers, more attuned to nature’s rhythms than most modern folk, didn’t need gigantic astronomical observatories for that. Moreover, the 18.6-year-long cycle of the moon, encoded in Newark’s monumental earthworks, wouldn’t be of any help at all in determining the best times to sow and reap.
In search of an explanation, Hayden and Villeneuve turned to a review of how and why historically-documented hunters and gatherers kept track of the sky. Their results have important implications for our understanding of why Ohio’s ancient earthworks are aligned to celestial cycles.
Hayden and Villeneuve surveyed 79 complex hunter-gatherer societies from around the world and discovered that 63 of them “exhibited some solstice observation or monitoring, and/or calendars (most often lunar).”
This means that people were doing more than simply noticing that there seemed to be recurrent patterns in where the sun and moon rose and set. In most cases, there was “careful and accurate monitoring of solar rising/setting positions by specialists using tree, post, or rock alignments viewed from special locations.”
According to Hayden and Villeneuve, people were not doing this simply to determine the best times for picking berries. The lunar and solar calendars were used for “setting the dates of feasts together with the rituals and ceremonies that accompany them.”
Such decisions were fraught with social and political ramifications. The food had to be gathered and prepared, but there also was a delicate web of social obligations to consider. Anyone who has planned a large wedding can appreciate that.
Hayden and Villeneuve write that in order to successfully hold a large feast, the leaders would need a precise method for figuring out “how many years, how many months or lunations, and which specific day all debts would be called in so that the required provisions would be delivered on time at a given location.”
In addition, feasts could be timed to coincide with visually impressive astronomical events, such as moonrises in alignment with monumental earthwork walls, which might seem to confer a cosmological legitimacy on the authority of the leaders who organized the feast.
Seen in this light, Ohio’s Hopewell earthworks, with their precise astronomical alignments, might be the creations of groups using their hard-earned and closely guarded knowledge of celestial movements to vie with one another for political and religious dominance.
Bradley T. Lepper is curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society.