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Facts and Finds : Circles of Stone

A medicine Wheel. Click to enlarge.

Southern Alberta has more medicine wheels, and more kinds of medicine wheels, than any other place on earth. Yet these massive and mysterious stone creations got the name by which we know them not here, but in Wyoming. The term was coined in 1903 in reference to a spoke-and-circle configuration with a central cairn found atop Medicine Different wheel Types. Click to enlarge Mountain near Sheridan, Wyoming. It was dubbed the Bighorn Medicine Wheel and the name soon came to typify many other stone structures found to the north and northeast.

Clearly, in 1903 the Bighorn structure as named for the mountain. But was the mountain, in some earlier period, named for the structure? The answer might give us a glimpse into the thinking of the people who designed and built these remarkable monuments.

The Oxbow people, generally credited with inventing the medicine wheel, appear to have come west from Saskatchewan about 5,200 years ago. Theirs was an industrious, imaginative society that introduced one new idea after another to the western plains. Archaeologists believe they were first to use bone boiling pits to render marrow, and since they also used mauls and hammerstone to pound dried seeds and berries, it seems likely they invented pemmican, a plains staple for millennia. In some areas of the plains, they buried their dead.

Barry Medicine Wheel. Click to enlarge.With such imaginative approaches to daily living and dying, it's not hard to conceive that they might also have had a complex ceremonial life. Nearly 1,000 years before Stonehenge, the Oxbow culture apparently began to build large circles of stone, often with central cairns. Only a few medicine wheels have been excavated , but the central cairns of the largest are layered with artifacts - trade goods, projectile points and obsidian - the earliest belonging to the Oxbow people.

Over the millennia, other cultures added to their size and importance, Medicine Wheels in Alberta. Click to Enlarge. adding dart points, stone ornaments and other treasures under each new layer of stone. But not every culture used the stone circles. In at least one case - the Majorville medicine wheel - it seems the monument sat unused for 1,200 years, until about 1,800 years ago. Then there seems to have been a renewal of interest (and additions to the cairn), lasting until Europeans arrived. When the south half of the enormous cairn, (nine metres or 30 feet in diameter and 1.6 metres or just over five feet tall) was excavated, 17,000 artifacts were recovered.

The pattern of use raises questions. Did the cultures who visited Majorville, and other medicine wheels, during the late revivalist period have the same rituals as the creators of the monuments? Or did they develop their own rites and ceremonies?

As at Stonehenge, the rocks hold the secret.

Reprinted from Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway's In Search of Ancient Alberta with kind permission from Heartland Associates, Inc.

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