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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, September 2016

Ohio’s Ancient Liberty Earthworks Show Stellar Alignments to the Path of Souls Death Ritual

by: Dr. Greg Little

Many of the most fascinating and mysterious ancient constructions in the world are the geometric earthworks erected by mound builders during America’s Hopewell era, which flourished circa 500 BC – AD 500 or so. (The dates depend on what archaeological text you read.) The Native American Hopewell culture centered in Ohio and may have evolved there from the earlier Adena Culture. Archaeologists know that these enigmatic sites were sacred enclosures used for rituals and periodic ceremonies. More specifically, it is accepted that many of the sites were utilized in rituals for the dead, although archaeologists have been generally unable to provide much more information. In summary, archaeological textbooks typically relate just two things about the geometric earthworks: they were sacred and used for rituals.

For decades there have been solar alignments, moon alignments, and possible alignments to stars proposed by various researchers at many mound and earthwork sites. Archaeologists have accepted that the sunrises and sunsets at both the solstices and equinoxes were sometimes targeted by alignments in earthworks. They also accept that some sites incorporated lunar alignments. A fact related to the solar alignments is that many archaeology textbooks (dated as recent as the late 1990s) often assert that the ancient Native Americans were “sun worshipers.” That simplistic assertion is false. Mainstream archaeology has long demeaned Native American cultures, and some areas within archaeology continue to do so.

Star Alignments & The Path of Souls

Until very recently one important set of star alignments at ancient mounds and earthworks has not been apparent to archaeologists, but it’s been there, hidden in plain sight. These alignments all relate to a set of rituals for the dead. The star alignments indicate the exact timing of the rituals and are in line with what is now known and accepted about the ancient mound builders’ beliefs about death.

In brief, America’s mound builders performed a complex ritual on the evening of the Winter Solstice. Sightlines between mounds, gateways through earthworks, or junctures of earthworks targeted the rising and setting points of specific stars that were important to the death ritual. The ritual began when the sunset on the Winter Solstice was viewed from atop a central mound or from a connecting point in a set of earthworks. The sun was seen to set directly above a marked spot. Then, another alignment between key points viewed the Constellation of Orion as it became visible slightly above the eastern horizon just after dark. Next, the setting point of the Constellation of Cygnus (the star Deneb) was watched as it sank below the horizon behind a mound or opening in the earthwork. Finally, in the early morning, Orion’s Nebula, which was seen as an opening (an ogee) in a hand dangling in the night sky, was viewed as it sank below the horizon to the west. The death ritual was intended to send departing souls to the west, across a body of water, toward Orion’s Nebula. From there, the soul took a journey on the Path of Souls (the Milky Way) to Cygnus and the star Deneb where the soul went through a portal.

In a series of reports the present author has shown definitive Path of Souls alignments at numerous mound sites dated to both Hopewell and Mississippian eras. These include Hopewell earthworks at Winchester (Indiana), Marietta (Ohio), and Portsmouth (Ohio) and Mississippian mound complexes in Evansville (Indiana), various sites in Mississippi and Louisiana, and at Moundville (Alabama).

The Mysterious “Liberty Earthworks”

In “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley” (1848) Squier & Davis published over 200 surveys of mound and earthwork sites. Many of these published surveys were the first time the public could see the incredible constructions of what was then thought of as a “Lost Race” of mound builders. One intriguing survey was of a site in Ross County, Ohio at what was then Liberty Township—about 8 miles southeast of Chillicothe. The original survey is shown below.

In their report, Squier & Davis described Liberty an exceedingly complex set of interconnecting earthworks with two large circles attached to a square. The largest circle was formed by outer walls of earth that were then about 4 feet in height with a width of 20-25 feet. This circular formation enclosed 40 acres and had 12 gateways. The attached square had higher and thicker earthen walls with 8 gateways, which were a uniform 30-feet wide. About a dozen mounds were found inside or immediately adjacent to the earthworks. The largest mound was located just to the right of the square at the left side of the large circular earthwork. It is known as the “Harness Mound,” named for the family that owned the land. For some years I puzzled over this survey trying to identify important alignments to the sun and stars but, in general, the results were disappointing. The reason why this was so is described in the section below. However, I knew that the site was used in the death ritual because of excavations into the Harness Mound.

Gerard Fowke (1902) related that the Harness Mound was 169 feet long, 80-90 feet wide, and 13-18 feet in height. It has been repeatedly excavated. A dozen burial chambers were found inside the mound. The Ohio Historical Society relates that the many excavations into the mound found the cremated remains of 164 individuals along with 10 intact burials found in the burial chambers. Thousands of artifacts were found in the mound. Radiocarbon dates obtained from the Harness Mound dated to AD 265-395.

Squier & Davis’ Survey Was Wrong

Fowke (1902) was highly critical of some of the surveys presented by Squier & Davis—especially the survey of the Liberty Works, known today as the “Harness Group.” Fouke found that Squier & Davis had mistakenly rotated the survey and somehow placed the eastern side to the north. However, even that assertion has proven to be somewhat incorrect.

Mills (1907) performed a survey and excavation of the Harness Group in the early 1900s. In his extensive report on excavations of the large Harness Mound inside the Liberty Works, Mills related that the north arrow on the Squier & Davis survey was actually close to pointing toward the southeast. Mills survey of the site, considered to be accurate, is shown below. The Scioto River is just to the west. The vertical “line” running through the middle of the survey was a roadway that cut directly through the earthworks. Utilizing an accurate survey permits an evaluation of the stellar alignments of the site.

Path of Souls’ Alignments at the Harness Group (Liberty Works)

To determine possible stellar alignments at the Harness group a series of calculations were made. The GPS location of the Harness Mound was determined using Google Earth in combination with location information supplied in prior archaeological reports. The site was located on a flat terrace by the Scioto River and the surrounding horizon altitudes were obtained using Google Earth. “Starry Night Pro” was used to generate the movements and azimuth positions of the stars on December 21, AD 330. That particular year (AD 330) was utilized for the stellar calculations, as it was the center point of the radiocarbon ages obtained from the site. However, it should be noted that stellar alignments would be reasonably accurate over a relatively wide range of years both prior to this date as well as after it. In addition, archaeoastronomers have related that how we currently determine the “exact” setting point of the sun or a star would not necessarily match the earthwork builders’ ideas. The “Cross Azimuth/Distance Calculator” was used to determine the exact horizon altitudes and azimuths of the stars investigated. Mills’ survey below (with the road removed) displays the results of the calculations.

Winter Solstice Sunset: The initial investigation determined the setting point of the sun on the evening of the Winter Solstice. It occurred at 5:35 pm at an azimuth of 235°. It would have been viewed either behind Harness Mound to the southwest or from the top of Harness Mound through an opening in the large earthwork circle.

Setting of Deneb: Cygnus (specifically the star Deneb) set on the northwest horizon at 11:41 pm at 322°. Viewed from atop Harness Mound, Cygnus would have set directly over the top of a mound located to the northwest about 560 feet away (see illustration above).

Rising/Setting of Orion’s Nebula: At 6:50 pm, shortly after sunset, Orion would have been seen slightly elevated in the sky at an azimuth 106°. As viewed from atop Harness Mound, Orion would have been seen directly through a gateway located to the east southeast. Orion would then have been perceived to move over the site toward the west. The slightly southwestern setting of Orion on the horizon (specifically Orion’s Nebula), took place at 4:23 am, not long before dawn, on an azimuth of 253°. From the top of the mound used to earlier align the setting of Cygnus/Deneb, the setting of Orion would be seen directly through a curving, odd-shaped connecting point or gateway on the western side of the formation. There is a ravine that runs westerly from this point toward the Scioto River.

Summary: Excavations have shown that the Harness Mound was a major mortuary center as evidenced by 174 human remains (164 cremations) found there. Thus, one would expect that star alignments to the Path of Souls death ritual would be present at the site. Alignments to the Winter Solstice sunset, the setting of Cygnus/Deneb, and the rising and setting of Orion all confirm that the site was clearly used in the death rituals. Of course, it must be acknowledged that various other alignments are likely, as the square earthwork, other mounds, and various gateways may well have been utilized for other purposes.


Fowke, Gerard (1902) Archaeological History of Ohio. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society.

Mills, William (1907) The explorations of the Edwin Harness Mound. Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, 16 (2), 113-193.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024