sunset sighted from the Medicine Wheel Bighorn Medicine Wheel

On top of the Bighorn Range in Wyoming, a desolate 9,642 feet high and only reachable during the warm summer months, lies an ancient Native American construction -- an 80' diameter wheel-like pattern made of stones. At the center of the circle is a doughnut-shaped pile of stones, a cairn, connected to the rim by 28 spoke-like lines of stones. Six more stone cairns are arranged around the circle, most large enough to hold a sitting human. The central cairn is about 12 feet in diameter and 2' high.

Medicine Wheel cairn

3-D Tour of Medicine Wheel

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Map and Views of the Wheel and Mountain

Satellite View

The Medicine Wheel is located in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, USA, off highway 14A. Elevation: 9,642 feet. Latitude: 44 degrees 49' 32" N.; longitude: 107 degrees 55' 15" W.

Bighorn Medicine Wheel

If you stand or sit at one cairn looking towards another, you will be pointed to certain places on the distant horizon. These points indicate where the Sun rises or sets on summer solstice and where certain important stars rise heliacally, that is, first rise at dawn after being behind the Sun. The dawn stars helped foretell when the Sun ceremonial days would be coming. The area is free of snow only for 2 months -- around the summer solstice. The wheel has 28 spokes, the same number used in the roofs of ceremonial buildings such as the Lakota Sundance lodge. These always includes an entrance to the east, facing the rising Sun, and include 28 rafters for the 28 days in the lunar cycle. The number 28 is sacred to some of the Indian tribes because of its significance as the lunar month. In Bighorn's case, could the special number 28 also refer to the helicial or dawn rising of Rigel 28 days past the Solstice, and Sirius another 28 past that? (More below.)

Medicine Wheel offerings
Prayer offerings are left at Medicine Wheel, even now.

Construction:

The wheel was constructed by Plains Indians between 300-800 years ago, and has been used and maintained by various groups since then. The central cairn is the oldest part, with excavations showing it extends below the wheel and has been buried by wind-blown dust. It may have supported a central pole. The star alignments are most accurate for around 1200 AD, since slight changes in the Earth's orbit have caused perturbations since. The solstice alignments remain accurate today.

The Bighorn wheel is part of a much larger complex of interrelated archeological sites that represent 7000 years of Native American adaptation to and use of the alpine landscape that surrounds Medicine Mountain. Numerous contemporary American Indian traditional use ceremonial staging areas, medicinal and ceremonial plant gathering areas, sweat lodge sites, altars offering locales and fasting (vision quest) enclosures, can be found nearby. Ethnohistoric, ethnographic, and archeological evidence demonstrates that the Medicine Wheel and the surrounding landscape constitute one of the most important and well preserved ancient Native American sacred site complexes in North America. Between 70 and 150 wheels have been identified in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

Astronomical Alignments:

In 1974, an archaeoastronomer named Jack Eddy visited this Medicine Wheel and studied its alignments, that is, its arrangements of rocks, cairns, and spokes. He found the arrangements point to the rising and setting places of the Sun at summer solstice, as well as the rising places of Aldebaran in Taurus, Rigel in Orion, and Sirius in Canis Major -- all bright, important stars associated with the Solstice. Later another astronomer, Jack Robinson, found a cairn pair that marked the bright star Fomalhaut's rising point with the Sun 28 days before solstice.

Sighting from cairn E through the center hub (which may have supported a pole) marks the summer solstice sunrise. Sighting from C through the center marked the equivalent solstice sunset.

Standing at cairn F, one could sight the once-yearly dawn, or heliacal, risings of the key stars Aldebaran, Rigel, and Sirius, which play symbolic roles in an ancient Cheyenne Massaum ceremony and are also important stars in the sacred Lakota circle constellation "The Animal".

The dawn or heliacal rising of a star is important because it pinpoints a date exactly. This is the day a star is first seen, just before dawn, after it has been behind the Sun for an entire season. From about 1200 AD to 1700 AD, these 4 stars would have acted as solstice markers for the Native Americans - Fomalhaut (F to D) would rise 28 days before the Summer Solstice, Aldebaran (F to A) would rise during the 2 days just before the solstice, Rigel (F to B) would rise 28 days after the solstice, and Sirius (F to C) 28 days after that, at the end of August and hence marking the end of summer and time to leave the mountain.

View the Sun rising at Medicine Wheel View heliacal (dawn) risings of these stars

For more details on the astronomical alignments, see Petroform Astronomy.


Image Credits:

  • Banner by Troy Cline, GSFC.
  • Medicine Wheel sunset photograph by Tom Melham.
  • Keyhole video developed by Professor Philip Scherrer. Keyhole2 PRO, movie maker, data importer, and high sppeed printer modules provided thanks to Jack Veenstra and Dennis Reinhardt of Keyhole-Google.
  • Medicine Wheel color photo by Richard Collier, Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office. Used with permission.
  • Cairn and prayer offerings photos by Deborah Scherrer.
  • Map and photographic views by Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
  • Satellite photo from TerraServer USA
  • From original diagram by Jack Eddy
  • Alignment diagram copyright (c) 2002 Boissevain Community Archives and Moncur Gallery. All Rights Reserved.

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