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Site Profile: Sundial Hill Medicine Wheel

Medicine wheel site

The view from the summit of Sundial Hill is exceptional. Here, in the midst of Alberta's apparently featureless southern plains, one can almost see forever. In all directions the sculpted prairie rolls off to the horizon, intersected by deep coulees carved by long-vanished rivers. It is a magnificent site for contemplation or meditation, a perfect place for a medicine wheel.

Sundial HillNo one really knows how old the massive stone structure on Sundial Hill is, or what it might have meant to the people who laboured to create it, but labour they did. The huge central cairn is composed of hundreds of large rocks. All had to be carried to the site, along with hundreds more smaller stones to form two huge circles enclosing the cairn.

Drawing of the Sundial Hill medicine wheel, click for a closer view!This double ring, and the two parallel lines of stone that mark a south-facing pathway from the inner sanctum, set the structure at Sundial Hill apart from most of Alberta's many medicine wheels. Archaeologist John Brumley classifies this creation as one of six known Subgroup 2 medicine wheels; four are found in southern Alberta. The other two are in south-central Saskatchewan and north-central Montana.

The 8 types of medicine wheels in AlbertaAlberta has the lion's share of almost every classification of these mysterious circles; a number have been excavated and found to range in age from perhaps 250 to as much as 5,000 years. The edifice at Sundial Hill has been mapped and studied, but never excavated. However the brightly-coloured lichen on the exposed surface of many of the rocks in the central cairn is one indication of considerable age. Is it this antiquity, or perhaps the mystery that surrounds these structures that makes a visit to Sundial Hill such a mystical experience? Sundial Hill Medicine Wheel central rock cairn Like Britain's standing stones, their essence is an enigma. And if we listen hard, it almost seems we can hear whispers of a mysterious secret.

That's how it was for one first-time visitor to Sundial Hill. He found the place captivating but disconcerting. On several occasions as the autumn afternoon turned to evening, he heard snatches of conversation, voices on the wind. But he was completely alone. The only other person in sight was a farmer, harvesting, perhaps five kilometres (three miles) away. It was, he says, an experience he will never forget.

the archaeological calendar

GETTING THERE: From Highway 2 at Claresholm, turn east on Highway 520 and follow it to Highway 23. Go north for 16 kilometres (10 miles) to Carmangay and continue through the town which is just east of the highway, to find a road that exits from the northeast corner of the town. This road connects with a good gravel road heading east. Follow this road for about 23 kilometres (14 miles), or until you can see the valley of the Little Bow River and a power transmission line crossing the road. Approximately one kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) from (west of) the power line is a sign on the south side of the road reading "Northstar Energy". Turn south onto this road (which eventually ends at Northstar's gas plants) and follow it until you come to a left immediately after the cattle guard, but a sign indicates that Sundial Hill is straight ahead. Proceed south on a rough, but well-used prairie trail that skirts a low, wet area and continues for about three kilometers to the site. (Ordinary vehicles may have trouble negotiating this road and since it crosses leased grazing land, use caution and watch for range cattle.) This hill has been fenced off and an interpretive panel can be found in the northeast corner. Park and walk up the hill. As always when visiting Alberta's ancient places, visitors are asked to refrain from disturbing the site in any way.

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

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