Alligators and Groundhogs

A Groundhog Day essay from guest blogger Jeff Gill:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

From Punxsutawney PA to Ohio’s own Buckeye Chuck, Feb. 2 is the day all America turns to a rodent for the winter’s forecast.

Western European cultures like most around the world marked four key dates in the “wheel of the year,” the two solstices when the sun’s rising reached the furthest north and south, summer and winter solstice, and the two times each year in the middle when the sun rose at the equinox point, vernal and autumnal, day and night being equal.

That regular rhythm of the year, and those three horizon points on four occasions, was a common part in varying ways of ceremonial calendars. The specific religious tradition might change, but those four dates were a constant. Saturnalia might become Christmas, St. John’s Day might develop out of Midsummer’s Day, but the sun’s rising and setting at certain points continued.

Along with those four points at the equinoxes and solstices, there’s a secondary four that has a fair amount of cross-cultural resonance. You hear a hint of it in “Midsummer’s Day” being June 20 or 21, which is astronomically what we call the “first” day of summer in modern America.

The midpoints of those first four, or Quarter days, are called Cross-quarter days. In Celtic and Germanic cultures, those added divisions of the year into eight equal segments carried great ceremonial weight themselves. May 1 has an assortment of modern cultural associations, but the Northern Hemisphere tends to think of summer as slowly getting started more in May than in late June, hence “Midsummer’s Night” as the older traditional tie to the summer solstice.

Feb. 1 or 2 is the Cross-quarter following the winter solstice and leading into the vernal or spring equinox coming March 20th. In purely astronomical terms, the cross-quarter would fall tomorrow, on Feb. 3.

Here in Ohio, Buckeye Chuck aside, there are many questions and ongoing discussions about archaeoastronomy and the ancient American Indian earthworks around the state.

In Granville, just to the west of the Newark Earthworks, the Alligator Mound hilltop has been partially preserved. Its dating is still a matter of debate (and interest) due to lack of any good organic sampling or other archaeological materials other than the simple outline of this complex figure itself.

Those of us who have guided tours across the Newark Earthworks and occasionally up to the Alligator effigy (for more about that peculiar name, see my previous post on the archaeoastronomy of Alligator Mound have often noted that the main body of the figure is an elongated rectangle, “shoulders” to the southwest and the spiral end of a long tail curving into the hill’s profile to the northeast. But we also have had to say it has no alignment to either the equinoxes or the solstices in terms of the sun’s rise or set.

Living nearby, I got curious about just when the some 200 foot longitudinal axis of this dramatic ancient mound did line up with sunrises and sunsets, and over a few years, what I learned intrigued me, and caused me to delve a little more deeply into this question.

I have a bit more to say on this subject, but suffice it to say that while you’re not going to see a clear horizon and sharp shadow even if you go up there today or tomorrow, which is true more often than I care to remember, last year on Feb. 3, the astronomical cross-quarter day, as the sun set, I stood on the “shoulders” of the Alligator effigy, and as my shadow stretched out, it bisected the main part of the mound perfectly.

Interesting, eh?

Posted February 2, 2015
Topics: Archaeology

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