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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is a Medicine Wheel?

Scattered across the plains of Alberta are tens of thousands of stone structures. Most of these are simple circles of cobble stones which once held down the edges of the famous tipi of the Plains Indians; these are known as "tipi rings." Others, however, were of a more esoteric nature. Extremely large stone circles—some greater than 12 metres across—may be the remains of special ceremonial dance structures. A few cobble arrangements form the outlines of human figures, most of them obviously male. Perhaps the most intriguing cobble constructions, however, are the ones known as medicine wheels.

The term "medicine wheel" was first applied to the Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, the most southern one known. That site consists of a central cairn or rock pile surrounded by a circle of stone; lines of cobbles link the central cairn and the surrounding circle. The whole structure looks rather like a wagon wheel lain-out on the ground with the central cairn forming the hub, the radiating cobble lines the spokes, and the surrounding circle the rim. The "medicine" part of the name implies that it was of religious significance to Native peoples.

John Brumley, an archaeologist from Medicine Hat, has provided a very exacting definition of what constitutes a medicine wheel. He notes that a medicine wheel consists of at least two of the following three traits: (1) a central stone cairn, (2) one or more concentric stone circles, and/or (3) two or more stone lines radiating outward from a central point. Using this definition, there are a total of 46 medicine wheels in Alberta. This constitutes about 66% of all medicine wheels known. Alberta, it seems, is the core area for medicine wheels.

Virtually each medicine wheel has a unique form. However, we can group them into eight categories or "Types" based of their general shape. The most common form consists of a central cairn surrounded by a stone circle; 18 of these Type 1 medicine wheels are known in Alberta. A variant, known as a Type 2 medicine wheel, contains a passageway leading out from the stone circle; four are known. Type 3 structures consist of a central cairn with radiating cobble lines or "spokes;" again, four are known. Type 4 medicine wheels consist of a stone circle from which spokes radiate outward. These are the second most common form and 14 have been recorded in Alberta. Type 5 structures contain a circle with spokes radiating inward, while the Type 6 is similar but has a central cairn; only one of each occurs in the province. Type 7 medicine wheels have a central cairn surrounded by a stone circle with spokes radiating outward; three are known. Type 8 structures are similar, but the spokes radiate from the central cairn and cross the circle. Three of the former and one of the latter have been discovered in the province.

The type groupings are, of course, only a convenience for analysis. As was noted earlier, each medicine wheel is unique. Here is a sample of maps of Alberta medicine wheels reduced to more-or-less a common scale. The reader may find some amusement trying to decide which type each is.

At least one of the categories, Type 4, appears to be a correct classification. This type consists of a central circle from which spokes radiate outward. The central circle appears to be a common domestic tipi ring. The radiating spokes appear to have no consistent pattern in terms of orientation or length. Amazingly, some Type 4 medicine wheels have been built in this century by the Blood Indians of southern Alberta; one, Many Spotted Horses Medicine Wheel, is illustrated here. These modern Blood Indian structures were built to commemorate the death place of, or the last tipi occupied by, a famous warrior. The spokes are said to have no specific meaning other than to indicate that a famous warrior had died. Of course, the community is well aware of who deserves such a memorial. It appears almost certain that the prehistoric examples served the same purpose.

The purpose of all of the other types of medicine wheel are not known by archaeologists. One, Majorville Medicine Wheel, was partly excavated in 1971. This wheel contains an enormous central cairn 9 metres in diameter, surrounded by a stone circle 27 metre across; about 28 spokes link the circle and central cairn. The excavation yielded artifacts which archaeologists can "date" by style; the style of spear points and arrowheads changed in a regular manner over time and archaeologists have figured out the sequence of these changes. It seems that the central cairn at the Majorville wheel was initially constructed some 4,500 years ago! Radiocarbon dating of bone from the bottom of the cairn confirmed this date. It seems that successive groups of people added new layers of rock, and some of their arrowheads, from that time until the coming of Europeans to Alberta. Curiously, the site does not seem to have been used between about 3,000 and 2,000 years ago; the distinctive barbed spear points of that time are not present in the cairn. Archaeologists do not know when the spokes and surrounding circle were constructed, or even if they were constructed at the same time.

The long period of use and construction of the central cairn at the Majorville Medicine Wheel suggests that such sites may have served different functions over the years. That is, the rituals and ceremonies conducted at the site may have changed over time. It is not unusual for human beings to regard particular places as sacred, even when religions change. For example, many modern Catholic churches in Mexico occupy locales which formerly contained Aztec Indian temples. Thus, while we can reasonably surmise that the Majorville wheel served as a ceremonial centre for several thousand years, it is unlikely that archaeologists will ever know the details of the ceremonies or the religious philosophy which motivated the construction of the site. One suspects that hunting magic or buffalo fertility might have played a part in the rituals, but the deeper meaning of the site is lost in time.

Perhaps one of the most interesting theories to be advanced is that there are significant stellar alignments present at the medicine wheels. This theory was proposed by astronomer John Eddy. He suggested that a line drawn between the central cairn and an outlying cairn at the Bighorn Medicine Wheel pointed to within 1/3 of a degree of the rising point of the sun at the summer solstice. Other alignments, both to the summer solstice sunrise and to certain bright stars such as Aldebaran, Rigel or Sirius, have been proposed for a number of Alberta medicine wheels. The wheels would thus have functioned as a calender to mark the longest day of the year. Presumably, such a calendar would be used for the timing of important rituals.

It is very difficult to confirm the astronomical hypothesis, and it is no longer as popular as it was a decade ago. A number of astronomers such as Steven Haak in Nebraska and David Vogt in Vancouver have critically evaluated the idea and have expressed severe reservations about the hypothesis. They note that simple familiarity with the night sky would likely produce an adequate estimate for timing ceremonies. Further, if great accuracy had been desired, it could have been attained better by using narrow poles as foresight and backsight than by using wider rock cairns.

Alberta's medicine wheels thus remain an enigma. Research has suggested a number of functions for the wheels, and has indicated their use over a very long period of time. Medicine wheels seem to be primarily an Alberta phenomenon; we have many more here than do the adjacent provinces and states. Investigation and preservation of these unique features has been an on-going concern of the Archaeological Survey, Royal Alberta Museum, and the Planning and Resource Management Branch, Historic Sites and Archives Service.

What is Rock Art and where can I see it?

Alberta's aboriginal inhabitants have left behind a rich cultural history. We need only preserve and decipher it. They had no written language, so in one sense a part of their past has been lost. If we stretch our imaginations, however, and take writing to include paintings and carvings, there is an exciting heritage to discover in the rock art sites of the province.

Archaeologists use the term rock art to describe pictographs—paintings done on rock walls with a combination of red ochre, water, and animal grease—and petroglyphs—carvings that may be etched or pecked into the rock surface. Pictographs were executed with fingers or a crude brush, while petroglyphs were incised with stone or bone tools. The rock art scenes may consist of anything from a simple human or animal figure to a full battle story that includes dozens of warriors and their camps.

The human figures vary stylistically. Some are in static poses like simple stick figures and people covered by shields with only the head and feet protruding from the edges of the shield. Other figures seem full of movement—a person with a full headdress and seated on a horse could easily be in the midst of a hunt. The animal figures depicted in scenes include bison, bear, sheep, elk, deer, dogs, snakes, and birds, in a variety of shapes and sizes. There is also a great range of geometric and abstract shapes painted and incised that cannot be interpreted. These may have been representations of the spirits who were thought to inhabit the rocks. The variety in rock art style may be explained by the changes in the art form over time; the shield-bearing man, for example, becoming a square-shouldered man of a later period. On the other hand, differences in style might be accounted for by the different groups practising their art. Plains Indians visited some sites, and other rock art was created by Indians from the plateau region of British Columbia, who occasionally travelled east into Alberta's Rockies.

These paintings and carvings are probably not just idle doodling. So little is known of native prehistory that we can't always be sure what rock art means, but it seems that it was done with a specific purpose in mind and the places where it was done were regarded as sacred. Native elders have provided much information regarding the meaning of rock art, and many rock art sites are still visited and revered by Aboriginal people. Stories from Native people indicate that some of the sites may have been used for vision quest ceremonies when individuals sought to communicate with the spirit world.

Of the approximately two dozen rock art sites in the province, most are located in the southwestern portion of Alberta. Some rock art can be seen in caves or shelters, while other etchings have been discovered on high exposed rock faces that are almost inaccessible. Paintings have been done on stone erratics (large boulders deposited by glaciers) on the prairies, and other large boulders have had a rib pattern pecked on them; these latter carvings are so distinctive that they have been given a specific name, buffalo rib stones.

Most rock art cannot be accurately dated. Only when European trade goods such as horses and guns appear in the drawings and etchings do we know that these scenes date to later than A.D. 1720. There is evidence to suggest that some of the art was done as early as three thousand years ago, but older paintings or etchings may have been eroded away long before modern time. Unfortunately, several rock art sites have also been severely damaged by senseless vandalism.

Where can I see it?

The most extensive petroglyphs and pictographs in the province are found at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park. Located in extreme south-central Alberta along the Milk River, Writing-On-Stone contains hundreds of scenes etched into the soft sandstone cliffs. The park is open to the public and, in the summer months, experienced staff guide tours through the cliffs and the tall towers of sandstone (hoodoos) carved through time by wind and water.

So fragile is rock art that preservation attempts so far have proven unsuccessful. Natural erosion and vandals destroy scenes every year, and in a few hundred years it may be lost completely. Please help preserve this unique and valuable record of Alberta's early inhabitants by respecting the rock art sites. If you find a site, don't disturb it. Instead report your discovery to us.

content author: Curator, Archaeology
last updated: June 4, 2013
technical contact: Web Coordinator

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