July 22, 2014

Rock circles linked to ancient Indian site

BLUEMONT, Va. (AP) – Rock circles on a spit of mountain land along Spout Run may be the oldest above-ground Paleoindian site in North America, according to Alexandria archaeologist Jack Hranicky.

He will deliver an address about the site – which he dates to 10,000 B.C. – to the Society for American Archaeology next April in Memphis, Tenn.

The site could put Clarke County “on the Paleo map,” Hranicky said.

The set of concentric circles drew the attention of landowners Chris and Rene White as they were planning to create a medicine wheel on their 20 acres south of Va. 7 on Blue Ridge Mountain.

After talks with his spiritual elder in Utah, Chris, a descendant of the Cherokee people, and his wife, from the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, decided to open their property to spiritual leaders of Native American peoples who have business in the Washington area.

The area including the rock circles was the location that drew Chris White in.

When he was building his house, White said, he would often walk by the creek to take a break.

There, “a still, small voice said, `This land is important.' I didn't know what it meant, but I took it to heart,” he said.

As White prepared to put his medicine wheel on the site, he realized that a circle of stones was there – actually, several concentric circles.

“From my experience as a contractor, I knew that was not natural,” he said. “I realized something was already here.”

Someone suggested that White contact Hranicky, who had studied five other Paleoindian sites in Virginia.

He said he saw the pattern in the rocks as soon as he arrived at the site, noting three concentric circles at the western edge, which he believes was a ceremonial area. The inner circle could outline a bonfire space, he said, while the outer ring may have been an area for participants in the ritual to sit or stand.

To the east, touching this area, is another circle that Hranicky calls the observatory.

Here, rocks on the edge of the circle align with features on Blue Ridge Mountain to the east.

From a center rock, over a boundary rock, a line would intersect the feature called Bears Den Rocks on the mountain. Standing on that center rock, looking toward Bears Den, a viewer can see the sun rise on the day of the summer solstice, Hranicky said.

To prove that point, White and his wife took pictures of the sunrise last June 21, he said.

To the right of this rock around the circle, another lines up to Eagle Rock on the Blue Ridge, and with sunrise at the fall equinox (around Sept. 22-23), he said.

Yet a third points to a saddle on the mountain where the sun makes its appearance at the winter solstice (around Dec. 21-22).

“These are true solar positions,” he said.

A dozen feet east of the summer solstice rock is a mound of boulders, piled up, which Hranicky designates as “the altar.”

Hranicky, 69, a registered professional archaeologist who taught anthropology at Northern Virginia community College and St. Johns High School College, has been working in the field of archaeology, for 40 years.

“I had to wait 70 years to find a site like this,” he said.

Dating the site took some digging.

Hranicky was convinced that it was a Paleoindian site, based on the configuration of the concentric circles, the solstice alignment and the altar he has seen at other such sites. But he wanted an artifact.

He picked a five-foot-square area to dig, carefully numbering every rock and setting it aside, to be replaced later.

The reason for that, Hranicky said, is that in the future better methods may be available for dating sites, and he wanted to disturb as little as possible.

His test pit turned up three artifacts. One was a thin blade of quartzite. The second was a small piece of jasper, a type of quartz rock and an important find, Hranicky said.

Jasper was prized by Paleoindians for making tools. It was hard and durable, but could still be worked by Stone Age methods. They traveled miles to find sites where jasper nodules protruded from native rock, and quarried the stone to make projectile points and tools.

The third artifact was the most important. It was a tiny piece of jasper, no bigger than the end of a thumb, but this rock had been worked, Hranicky said. It was a tool, a mini-scraper.

“You don't know how thrilled I was when we found that little bitty tool,” he said.

Jasper on the site ties what Hranicky believes was a ceremonial and heavenly observation site to another proven Paleoindian site just to the south of Clarke County in Warren County – the Thunderbird site.

William Gardiner of Catholic University excavated that site for several years. Indians camped on the east bank of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and quarried jasper for tool making from bluffs on the west bank.

The Thunderbird site is dated to 10,000 B.C.

Hranicky's theory postulates that Paleoindians, searching for jasper for tool-making, followed the Shenandoah River from the Atlantic coastal areas some 12,000 years ago.

This coincides with the Younger Dryas period, when the climate turned abruptly colder and drier.

Jasper, Hranicky said, can't be “knapped” as easily in cold weather, so it would make sense for Indians traveling to find the stone to do so in the summer months.

An Indian “priest” would find it an advantage to know when summer offered the best work climate, marked by the summer solstice, and when the season was drawing to a close and cold weather was on the way (the fall equinox).

A leader who noticed how points on the mountain marked these calendar moments and could predict, with a rock “clock,” these dates, would be a “genius” to his tribe, Hranicky said.

Such times would be natural days for social celebrations of some type, he added. “They visited this place for a reason, like going to church.”

The visitors would have lived on the west bank of the river, a mile away, where it would be easier to find food, he suggested.

White noted that, to Native Americans, stones are considered “grandfathers.”

“If you see all these grandfathers, that makes it a place of wisdom.”

Water, he added, is a symbol of life. Spout Run, which ends in a sizeable waterfall at the Shenandoah River, would be both eye-catching and significant, while things that emerge from the underground, such as the springs that feed Spout Run, are a sign of rebirth.

All these characteristics could make the spot of the concentric circles significant to native people, White said.

Hranicky is applying to have the Whites' stone circles added to Virginia's list of archaeological sites.

“It will be recorded,” said state archaeologist Mike Barber.

Barber said several ceremonial observatories across North America are attributed to Paleoindians.

“Jack has recorded several of these types,” he said. “The real problem is proving what these things are. We haven't arrived at that level yet.”

Barber said he has received a preliminary report on the site from Hranicky, and is trying to schedule a time to visit it.

Is the Clarke County site an ancient solar observatory for early Americans?

Barber is cautious.

“I'm not to the point where I can say that this is one of them.”

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Information from: The Winchester Star, http://www.winchesterstar.com

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