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Another Solstice Site on Fountain Bluff, Jackson County, Illinois

Related articles in our Archive, Ancient Astronomy   |   Fountain Bluff Site

On December 27, 2003 Ruby (the sweet, soft-spoken web-mistress of this site) and my own stubborn, opinionated and bilious self found ourselves with nothing to do on a beautiful, warm, sunny, post-Christmas day. Not being perfect fools (after all, nobody's perfect) we bestirred our tired bones into motion and set off into the wilds of Jackson County on a Quest.

Our goal was a collection of little known and seldom visited petroglyphs called the Trestle Hollow site located on Fountain Bluff. Here we (well me, anyway, since Ruby just hoped to make it back home alive) hoped to determine the reason for the existence of this particular collection of aboriginal rock art.

Pictograph above solstice site
Photo by Jim Jung. All rights reserved

We made it in record time. We were rewarded with the sight of a large, faded, and very indistinct pictograph (aboriginal rock painting) on a small cliff facing the river. While the pictograph was faded beyond recognition traces of the extremely durable red ocher paint remain.

The aboriginal inhabitants of the Mississippi valley were apparently in the habit of painting large images of their local spirit-creatures on rocks visible from the river. The early accounts of the French explorers mention seeing them in several locations the most famous of which was the Piasa "bird" of Alton. In fact they were so common that most were never named and were mentioned only in passing. These large, very public, paintings visible from the river were obviously meant to be seen and were probably done for a variety of reasons - as territorial markers - as acts to influence the spirit world - but were primarily to convey navigational information. (Ed. Note - I've noticed that most of the paintings visible from the river – and therefore worthy of comment by passing travelers – were just upstream from dangerous rapids or other hazards to navigation).

Petroglyphs in early afternoon near the winter solstice
Photo by Jim Jung. All rights reserved

Just around the corner from the remnant pictograph was a narrow, rock-walled defile and here we were met with an irregular row of what are called "pit and groove" petroglyphs - but which looked to me more like a row of toy balloons on strings or musical notes marching across the (relatively) smooth rock face. Pit-and-groove carvings were used by many aboriginal cultures and date from late Archaic times (3000-1000 BC) to at least the late Mississippian era (1200 AD) and later. I believe that these particular carvings are Mississippian in origin because, among other reasons, these same types of carvings appear in the Whetstone Shelter site on this same bluff.

Petroglyphs showing pecked technique
Photo by Jim Jung. All rights reserved

Unlike many of the petroglyphs in the area, these showed their method of manufacture - pecking. Apparently the aborigines responsible for these particular carvings took some sharp, pointed tool and repeatedly hit the rock face until they achieved the desired form. The results of this method are still visible in the surviving petroglyphs.

Snake petroglyph
Photo by Jim Jung. All rights reserved

Once at the actual site (which turned out to be a small rock shelter) Ruby, exhausted from her exertions, found a rock upon which to rest and immediately spotted what appeared to be a small petroglyph of a snake in the far corner of the shelter where the pit and groove petroglyphs are located – a petroglyph unnoted (at least in the archaeological literature) by any other visitor. (I should state here that while her stamina leaves something to be desired her eyes don't miss much – which is why she's always invited on morel and snake hunts).

Circles on boulder
Photo by Jim Jung. All rights reserved

After testing the acoustics of the little rock shelter and finding them marginal at best we examined the remains of the faded pictograph and then proceeded downhill to some boulders Ruby had spotted on the way up.

The boulders she had found were covered with circular markings - not pits of pit-and-groove fame - but perfect circles - anywhere from three quarters to two inches in diameter and they were all over the boulders - but only on these two boulders - since we searched other nearby boulders for similar marks without success. I opted for a geological explanation for the markings but Ruby was less sure. However, if they were petroglyphs they were the oddest, shallowest and most finely cut carvings I had ever seen. Since we had reached our stated goal, secured loads of photographs, and since Ruby's feet were beginning to hurt we returned home. Afternoon was about to intersect with evening and since it was a clear, sunny day with every seeming intention of staying that way until sunset I decided to avail myself of the opportunity and revisit the site for a rendevous with the sunset. Ruby, feeling that she had performed over and above the call of duty, opted out of this second expedition.

Sunset viewed from the site near the winter solstice
Photo by Jim Jung. All rights reserved

Arriving at the site about half an hour before sunset I seated myself on the little ledge at the back of the site and was rewarded with a panoramic view of the Mississippi and the distant Missouri bluffs far back from the river. As the sun sank toward the horizon the petroglyphs, formerly indistinct and uniformly gray began to cast shadows from the oblique rays of the setting sun making them stand out sharply. The little snake petroglyph Ruby had discovered earlier that day was also clearly revealed.

Petroglyphs viewed near sunset
Photo by Jim Jung. All rights reserved

This rock shelter is the result of a large fragment of sandstone that broke off the main mass of the bluff and in settling had formed a narrow, rock-walled defile. The two walls of this defile pointed in a southwesterly direction and framed a narrow section (about ten degrees) of the western horizon. As the sun neared the horizon it approached nearer and nearer to the center of this gap.

Sunset oberved from the site near the winter solstice
Photo © Jim Jung. All rights reserved

I wish I could say that I watched enthralled as the sun gently sank exactly in the center of the gap - but I can't. This was primarily due to a large oak tree which had taken root and grown a sizable branch in the precise location of the gap's center as seen from the center of the ledge at the back of the site. What I can say is that the sunset, as near as I could tell, was pretty close to the center of the gap defined by the two rock walls information which I hope will help date the site.

Since this year I was preoccupied with photographing the Whetstone Shelter site while showing it to another investigator at the time of the actual solstice, concrete proof of where the sun sets - and firm conclusions about use-dates and methods of observation will have to wait until next year. But enough was learned from this visit to enter another petroglyph-marked solstice observatory in the record book. Stay tuned for more information...

Important Note Concerning Sites!

Take Nothing But Photographs; Leave Nothing But Footprints!

You may have noticed that we give only the vaguest locational information for all petroglyph sites mentioned on this site. This is no accident, so please don't ask us for directions because I personally guarantee they will not be given. If you are serious about seeing any site mentioned here (and more features concerning other sites are planned) you can find any directional information you need in the scholarly literature on the subject. If this is too much trouble or work then you'll just have to settle for the pictures - we can assure everyone that the sites pictured here look just like their photographs.

Aboriginal rock art sites are extremely limited in number and extremely vulnerable to vandalism. Many sites have been lost or have suffered irreparable damage due to the acts of supremely selfish, willfully stupid "collectors", to ignorant and stupid acts of the undereducated or vicious, and a few have even been inadvertently (and irretrievably) damaged by those attempting to "save" them - and this includes the archaeological establishment!

If you visit such a site do not touch, mark, or "enhance" the petroglyphs, paintings or the site in any way. When visiting such a site remember the cardinal rule of caving (which applies equally well to rock art): "Take nothing but photographs; leave nothing but footprints."

If you know of an aboriginal rock art site anywhere, contact your local department of conservation for information on how to report it to the archaeological community or, contact us at this website and we will either help you to report it or see that the proper authorities are notified so the site can be properly registered, recorded and studied.

  • The New England Antiquities Research Association maintains an excellent site with information on other New World stone relics, on archeoastronomy, and more of related interest. Visit them at NEARA.org
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