Archaeotrek—Alternate Perceptions Magazine, March 2017
Archaeoastonomy Alignments at the Turner Group Earthworks, Ohio
by: Dr. Greg Little
The Turner Group Earthworks was once one of the most intriguing set of Hopewell-era earth and mound complexes in existence. The site was completely demolished and is today a gravel pit located by the Little Miami River on Round Bottom Rd., about 2.25 miles ENE of Newtown, Ohio.
According to Willoughby (1922), the Turner site was first mentioned in 1839 and described as an extensive “elevated circle and graded way.” In 1887 the Peabody Museum had an accurate survey of the site made by D.S. and J. A. Hosbrook. The dominating feature of the site was a 30-foot-tall circular platform mound with 2-foot high earthworks erected on the outer rim of the platform. Two conical mounds were placed on top of this platform. On both sides of the platform were elevated ridges forming what almost look like “Wings.” From the top of the platform a 600-foot-long graded way led down to the interior of what was called the “Great Enclosure.” The sides of the descending graded way were lined with walls of earth.
The Great Enclosure was formed by walls of earth 2 feet in height and 20 feet in width. The oblong enclosure was 1500 feet long and 950 feet wide. Inside the Great Enclosure were 14 mounds and two circles formed by earthworks. Both of the small circular enclosures had openings, an inside moat, and a mound inside.
Beginning 800 feet south from the elevated circle was a parallel embankment enclosure forming rounded ends. A single opening led to the interior of this 250-foot-wide and half-mile-long enclosure. In addition, there were four mounds placed to the west of the elevated circle. The site is generally dated from 100 BC-AD 400.
Excavations by Willoughby (1922) and others have shown numerous stone chambers containing burials, cremations, and thousands of artifacts. Clearly the site was used as a mortuary and ritual center.
Prior Astronomical Speculations On the Turner Group
Ohio archaeologist William Romain (1991) speculated that the two circular enclosures were aligned to the summer solstice sunrise and several lunar movements. In his 2012 book “Star Mounds,” Ross Hamilton overlaid a schematic of Orion on the site. In 2015 Romain added that the Turner circles were also oriented to the summer solstice sunset. Romain mentioned that the Turner site, among other Hopewell sites, was a portal to the otherworld and that burials found within the mounds inside the enclosures showed the sites were “a threshold between this world and the next” (p. 257).
Path of Souls Death Ritual
Prior research by the present author has shown that numerous sites from the Hopewell and Mississippian cultures were used in death rituals intended to send the souls of the deceased to the stars. This ritual, known as the Path of Souls, took place on the Winter Solstice night, and involved the sunset, the first sighting of Orion’s Nebula, the setting of the star Deneb in the Cygnus Constellation, and the setting of Orion’s Nebula just before dawn. During the ceremony the Constellation of Scorpius could not be visible. Scorpius was the ruler of the underworld and would snatch the soul if it was seen in the sky. The final necessary component in the Path of Souls ritual was that a body of water had to be located to the west.
It should be noted that the assertion that Native American mound and earthwork sites such as these were used for the Path of Souls death ritual, does not preclude other ceremonial functions. These sites were likely ceremonial centers used in other rituals and in other seasonal periods. For example, Romain’s finding that the summer solstice shows alignments at many sites, including the Turner Group, likely shows a summer ceremonial function. However, the most frequent astronomical alignments to be found at mortuary sites should be those associated with the Path of Souls and the timeframe of their use should zero in on the Winter Solstice. This issue was addressed in a large astronomical study of Mississippian sites by Sherrod & Rolingson (1987). They noted that at that time they were not sure of precisely what stars to study and the exact timeframe to search for alignments from mounds and earthworks. The emergence of the Path of Souls’ stellar alignments at the Winter Solstice in the late 1990s changed this outlook.
The precise GRP locations of the Turner Group’s various formations and the surrounding sightline altitudes were determined on Google Earth. The computer programs “Starry Night Pro” and “Stellarium” were used to generate and cross verify the movements and azimuth positions of the stars on December 21, 1 BC. That particular year (1 BC) was utilized for the stellar calculations because it was near the center point of usage dates cited for the site. The “Cross Azimuth/Distance Calculator” was used to determine the exact horizon altitudes and azimuths of the stars investigated.
Figure 1 (below) shows the results utilizing the 1887 site survey made by the Hosbrooks for the Peabody Museum. Romain has cited that their survey map is believed to be accurate.
Winter Solstice Sunset: Analysis revealed that on 1 BC the Winter Solstice sunset occurred at 5:12 PM on an azimuth of 238 degrees. This precise alignment occurs from burial mound #1 located at the far north end opening into the Great Enclosure. The sunset sighting was made across mound #10 within the same enclosure.
Orion’s Rising: At 6:15 PM Orion’s Nebula rose at 107 degrees. This alignment occurs from mound #8 located inside the smallest circular enclosure inside the Great Enclosure through its only opening.
Cygnus’ Setting: At 10:09 PM Deneb and Cygnus set at 316 degrees. This alignment would have been viewed from the large opening of the larger circular enclosure in the Great Enclosure directly across mound #2.
Orion’s Setting: The setting of Orion’s Nebula took place at 3:59 AM at an azimuth of 258 degrees. From the top of mound #8 this would have been viewed directly up the graded way across the large mound at its apex (mound #12). The Little Miami River is located to the west of this alignment.
Scorpius: Finally, Scorpius was not visible during this timeframe and rose at 5:42 AM just before the sun rose.
From the results of this analysis, it is clear that the Turner Group Earthworks were utilized around the Winter Solstice for the conducting of the Path of Souls death ritual. From the alignments discovered in this brief analysis there may be some hints as to how the Path of Souls ceremony was conducted. At each key point in the ceremony, specific rites and rituals would have taken place. Entrance to the site on the Winter Solstice evening was probably made at the opening in the Great Enclosure on the northeast end. It would have occurred after preparations were made and occur just before sunset. From Mound #2, located at the entrance point, the ceremony began when the sun was seen to set across Mound #10. Those in the ceremony would have then moved to the small circular enclosure where mound #8 is located. Here, they would view the rising of Orion through the opening of the enclosure. Next, the participants would proceed to the larger circle with mound #2 and view Deneb’s setting at 10:09. At that time cremations and other rites would have taken place. The ceremony culminated as Orion began to set into the west. As participants walked up the graded way to the top of the large elevated circular platform they would have watched as Orion’s Nebula set below the horizon at 3:59 in the morning.
Hamilton, R. (2012) Star mounds. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Romain, W. (2015) An archaeology of the sacred. Olmstead Township, OH: The Ancient Earthworks Project.
Romain, W. (1991) Possible astronomical alignments at Hopewell sites in Ohio. Ohio Archaeologist, 41 (3), 4-16.
Sherrod, P. C., & Rolingson, M. A. (1987) Surveyors of the ancient Mississippi Valley. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.
Willoughby, C. C. (1922) The Turner Group of earthworks Hamilton County, Ohio. Cambridge: Peabody Museum.