Many mysterious structures of ancient civilizations remain to puzzle and intrigue us. While we marvel at huge earthworks and figures etched into hillsides, we can only speculate as to why our ancestors felt compelled to create them. Were they made to express a personal identity, or for magical purposes? And were the vast stone megaliths related to the ingenious first flowering of astronomy – a means of tracking the seasons and even predicting eclipses?
Three of the world’s puzzling edifice can be found in the United States:
1. Bighorn Medicine Wheel. The stone circle known as the Bighorn Medicine Wheel lies near the summit of a peak in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. It is constructed of individual stones laid out in a pattern resembling a wheel with 28 spokes. Six cairns have been built around the circumference of the wheel, which has a diameter of 80 feet (24 meters). The design laid out in stone is similar to that of the medicine lodges used by the Cheyenne, a group of native North American plains people, for the Sun Dance ceremony. The origin and purpose of the stone circle are unknown, but it may have been used as an astronomical observatory.
2. Blythe Figures. About 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of the town of Blythe in California, giant figures of men and animals have been carved into rocky bluffs rising from the Colorado River. Nothing is known of the origin of the figures or when they were made. The largest man is 167 feet (51 meters) tall; there is a ring 140 feet (43 meters) in diameter and an animal 36 feet (11 meters) long that resembles a horse. This presents an additional mystery: the native American horse became extinct 10,000 years ago and the Spanish did not introduce the horse from Europe until 1540.
3. Mystery Hill. Strange stone structures similar to those found in Europe give Mystery Hill in New Hampshire the name ‘America’s Stonehenge.’ The site, which dates back 4,000 years, may be an astronomical complex. Celtic-style inscriptions have led to speculation that it may have been built by people who came originally from Europe. It consists of drystone walls, standing stones up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) high, dolmen-like stone slab chambers, and a 4-1/2-ton slab which has been described as a ‘sacrificial table.’
Today, some investigators believe that the neolithic stone arrangements at Stonehenge in England and Carnac in France are astronomical observatories, representing the flowering of the first human science. Prehistoric astronomers could predict with great accuracy the turning of the seasons and the longer cycles associated with the Sun and Moon. Eager to ensure that spring growth would follow the long winter, farmers of many cultures developed mazes and maze dances into symbolic rituals, which eventually the Christian Church took over, and a fertility ritual became a substitute for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.