How history and mystery join at US archaeology sites
From Stonehenge to sinewy serpent, archaeology sites combine history, mystery, and more
People who ascend a high mountain ridge in Wyoming are greeted by a geometrically arranged collection of rocks. Visitors to southwestern Ohio marvel at a mammoth earthwork shaped like an undulating snake. A maze of stone walls, chambers, rocks, and other structures perched on a hill in New Hampshire lives up to its nickname of “America’s Stonehenge.”
If you’re under the impression that archaeology is a dull, mind-numbing subject of interest only to scientists, think again. Sites across the United States relate fascinating chapters of human and, specifically, Native American history. Artifacts and other remnants of people who once lived in the area provide the clues. And, an Internet search is likely to reveal one or more archaeology sites a short commute from where you live.
Bighorn Medicine Wheel, North-Central Wyoming
Take that mountain-top rock pile in the Bighorn National Forest in Lovell, Wyoming. It’s one of many places around the country where the life of Native Americans is told through objects, inscriptions, and other remnants.
The main feature of the Bighorn Medicine Wheel is a circular pattern of stones 82 feet in diameter. A pile of rocks called a cairn is in the center and 28 radial lines extend from the center. Some spokes indicate the direction of the rise of the Earth’s sun and other stars at various times. The Bighorn Medicine Wheel over centuries was used by members of many different tribes. This is true for other archaeological sites. Who originally built the wheel remains a mystery. For more information log into fs.usda.gov/bighorn.
Poverty Point World Heritage Site, Pioneer, LA
Another unanswered riddle is why an important earthen monument in northern Louisiana was abandoned around 1100 BC. So much effort went into building it. The Poverty Point World Heritage Site was created by Native Americans. They sculpted nearly two million cubic yards of soil into a 72-foot-high mound, concentric half-circles, and other shapes.
Millions of artifacts have been found here. In the vicinity are domestic tools and figures of humans. Tons of stones were transported from up to 800 miles away. This has led to speculation that the structure was part of an important ancient residential, trade, and ceremonial center.
A snake, an egg – and lots of questions, Hillsboro, Ohio
Another mystery is the Giant Serpent Mound. It is a 1,300-foot-long earthen image of a snake in Hillsboro, Ohio, but why is it depicted swallowing an egg? Theories are that the giant serpent marked a vast tomb. Or it was a place for religious ceremonies. Others speculate that it served as an oversized calendar. What’s known is that it was constructed around 1000 BC.
America's Stonehenge, New Hampshire
Religious rites of Native Americans provide the most popular theory for the construction of America's Stonehenge site in New Hampshire. It is estimated to have been constructed some 2,500 years ago. Despite its informal label, America's Stonehenge, the structure doesn’t resemble England’s Stonehenge. Rather, it consists of a number of stone chambers, walls, and many other features stretched out over 105 acres.
However, the site, like Stonehenge in England, was built by ancient people well versed in astronomy and stone construction. The site is an accurate astronomical calendar. It was, and still can be, used to determine specific solar and lunar events during the year.
Petroglyphs as the main attractions
Many of the archaeological places scattered about the country associated with Native Americans include a long list of sites where petroglyphs – carvings on rocks – are the main attraction. I first discovered petroglyphs in Utah and then in New Mexico, but these carvings are scattered across the country.
For years, members of the Cherokee tribe in North Carolina created Judaculla Rock. They used a soapstone boulder as a sort of billboard. Tribal members etched images of human figures, animal tracks, suns, and other objects. The large stone also is notched by seven grooves. These, according to Cherokee legend, were created by Judaculla, a powerful giant who could control the weather and leap from one mountaintop to another.
Scores of images transform the sandstone cliffs of Sego Canyon in Utah into a fascinating outdoor art gallery. The unanswered question is what or whom the 80-plus petroglyphs represent. Research suggests that the petroglyphs were carved and painted by Native Americans over a period of some 8,000 years by people of several distinct cultures.
A visit to Sego Canyon is an adventure the entire family can enjoy. This wonderful rock art and historic ghost town can be viewed as a short side trip from Interstate 70 near Green River Utah. Plan to spend about two hours to visit both the rock art and ghost town combined with a little exploring on your own.
Is the rock art depicting visions or visitors from outer space? The differences arise when attempting to identify the rock art. The ghostlike life-size figures have hollowed or missing eyes. Some have no arms or legs. Many wear chunky ornaments and sport a headdress that resembles antennae. Speculations about whom or what these haunting forms represent vary widely. They range from shamanistic visions produced when the artists were in a trance-like state to extra-terrestrial visitors from space.
A luminous light show about petroglyphs in South Carolina
The Hagood Creek Petroglyph Site in South Carolina provides a more down-to-earth experience that differs from those elsewhere. For one thing, the big boulder, which contains 32 images that represent various aspects of Native American life, is protected in a museum. Adding to the enjoyment is a narrated light show. It describes the carvings and tells the story of their discovery.
The museum is part of a historic complex. The site also includes an 1845 grist mill, restored log cabins, a blacksmith shop, cotton gin, and moonshine still.
Unlike the Hagood petroglyphs, most archaeological sites remain outdoors where they were created long ago. Their variety, and locations around the country, provide intriguing destinations for day trips or longer expeditions wherever you happen to live.
Photos courtesy WikimediaCommons and Archaeology websites
After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries around the world, and writing about what he sees, does, and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education, and claims he still has a lot to learn. He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won a number of writing awards.