Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of Feb 25th - Mar 3rd, 2005

On the Road Again

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      As part of a national speaking tour, I set out from Boulder for Atlanta and immediately headed due south in an effort to get out from under the hard, cold embrace of winter. Slowly turning east through Texas, I stopped and visited Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana, a state historical site reputed to be one of the oldest Native American settlements demonstrating astronomical awareness in North America. Radio carbon dating traces it's active period from 1700 until 700 BC, more than four times as long as the US has been in existence.

      The Poverty Point inhabitants (like the ancient Mayans, but preceding them by many centuries), accomplished an enormous task as they built a complex array of earthen mounds and ridges overlooking the Mississippi River flood plain. They were part of the mound building culture of the central and southern US. Poverty Point

      To modern archaeologists, this accomplishment was impressive for a pre-agricultural society. The central construction consists of six rows of concentric ridges, which at one time were five to six feet high. The aisles and six sections of ridges form half of an octagon. The diameter of the outermost ridges measures three-quarters of a mile, and if all the ridges were aligned, they would extend for over seven miles.

      Poverty Point's inhabitants were part of an extensive trade network. Projectile points and other stone tools found at the site were made from raw materials which originated in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains and in the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys. Soapstone for vessels came from the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama and Georgia. Flint originated from the Great Lakes region, approximately 1500 miles away. The extensive trade network attests to the complex and sophisticated society that built the Poverty Point earthworks as part of the mound culture.

      One adaptation of the Poverty Point people was in the area of food preparation. Other cultures at this time used heated stones for stone boiling liquids or in earth ovens as a method of cooking. Because there were no stones at Poverty Point, the people ingeniously molded earthen balls and used them for this purpose. Made by hand and hardened by firing, these balls were a perfect substitute for stones in the earth ovens. Thousands of the balls in many shapes and designs have been found at the site, and depending upon the contour of the balls, it has been demonstrated that the temperature of the cooking could be controlled. But it is its astronomical alignments which draw out chief interest at Poverty Point.

Poverty Point Outline       The site sits to the west of a Mississippi tributary on higher ground. A flat plain is surrounded on the west by a set of concentric rings with breaks, forming four aisles fanning out from the western horizon. Some astronomers speculate that the two central aisles mark sunset on the summer and winter solstice. The southern aisle may have been aligned with the sky's second brightest star, Canopus, while the northern aisle was aligned with Gamma Draconis, the second brightest star in the constellation Draco.

      This last constellation was used by many of the indigenous cultures we have been studying as a 'fix' on the North Celestial Pole, a theme we have seen repeated in civilizations in its use around the world.

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