Archaeologist Claims 12,000-Year-Old Solstice Site in Clarke County

Bear’s Den Rock has captured the attention of travelers in the northern Shenandoah Valley since colonial times and for thousands of years before by the indigenous people who hunted and fished in the region. Now, a local archaeologist believes that the prominent outcrop just south of Virginia’s Route 7 in Clarke County is a part of a larger 12,000 year old celestial calendar used by Native Americans to mark the changing of the seasons.

Archaeologist Jack Hranicky believes that a 12,000-year-old solstice site has been discovered in Clarke County, Virginia

“Although archaeological sites have been discovered across the United States, there’s nothing like this above ground or this old in North America,” says Dr. Jack Hranicky about the site located just off Ebenezer Road. Hranicky, also known as “Dr. Jack” to friends and associates, is a Virginia Registered Professional Archaeologist (RPA) who has authored 32 books on North America’s prehistory and discovered at least half-a-dozen other Native American solstice sites.

“This preserved site has numerous properties that prove its use 12,000 years ago by Paleo-Indians and classifies it as a major ceremonial and calendar site on the Shenandoah River,” said Dr. Jack “I classify it as an ‘Horizon Observation Station’ which produced a Paleo-calendar for early Americans.”

Chris and Rene' White with jasper found on their property - photo Edward Leonard

The story behind the presumed celestial calendar’s recent discovery is, in many ways, as intriguing as its ancient origins.

According to Dr. Jack, 12,000 years ago Paleo-Indians traveled throughout the area known today as the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont Plateau. Although the Piedmont area provided the early Americans with a nearly unlimited food supply, the first Americans still ventured north and west along the Shenandoah River into areas that include modern-day Clarke County.

“As the Paelo-Indians moved north along the river, Bear’s Den Rocks would have been a very prominent landmark for them,” says Dr. Jack. “They also would have been able to clearly see the site where we are standing right now.”

Dr. Jack is standing in the middle of several large, concentric stone rings – each ring inside a larger ring. The rings were discovered by Clarke County resident Chris White on property he purchased in 2000 located about two miles southwest of Bear’s Den on a lower bench of the Blue Ridge.

Not long after purchasing the property White began building a house on a beautiful rise overlooking his 20-acre parcel.

“When I would come to work on the house, often I would sit by the creek,” White recalled. “A quiet voice inside of me told me ‘This land is important.’”

Despite White’s good feelings about his property, he really had no idea that the land was anything more than just a beautiful spot in a bucolic setting. White’s understanding of just how special his property actually was began changing about two years ago.

Not long after White finished building his house he shifted his attention to longer term thoughts about whether his land could play a role as a Native American Church.  For years, White said, he had dreamed of creating a retreat center where all types of people could come to meet and discuss issues that concern Native Americans. To complement his Oklevueha Native American Church of Virginia, White decided to establish the Sanctuary on the Trail, a faith-based neighborhood and community outreach-initiative where spiritual leaders across denominations could meet to create possibilities for communities, churches, and tribes on challenges and issues facing them in a modern world.

So, in 2010 White decided that a good first step toward implementing his Sanctuary on the Trail vision would be to construct on his property what, in Native American parlance, is known as a “medicine wheel.” White even had the perfect location picked for his medicine wheel; the beautiful glen just below his house next to Spout Run.

Winter solstice sun rising over solstice rock - photo courtesy Jack Hranicky

Medicine wheels, or sacred hoops, are constructed by laying stones in a particular pattern on the ground, often following the basic pattern of a stone center surrounded by an outer ring of stones with “spokes,”or lines of rocks radiating from the center. Originally, and still today, medicine wheels are constructed by certain indigenous peoples of North America for various reasons including astronomical, ritual, healing, and teaching purposes.

Diagram of major solstice site components - Courtesy Dr. Jack Hranicky

As White began clearing fallen trees and brush from his hoped-for medicine wheel site, something extraordinary began to unfold. As White removed debris, pre-existing circles of concentric rocks began to be revealed.  As White continued to work, he soon noticed another circular rock pattern next to the first circle.

At first White didn’t know what to think. Could it be that the stone rings were nothing more than a natural anomaly created by some long forgotten rock slide or other random event? Yet certain features of the stone rings piqued White’s curiosity. For instance, why did it appear that larger stones were positioned at cardinal points within the ring? And why were there two rings positioned adjacent to each other?

White, who himself is of Native American heritage stemming from the Cherokee Nation, decided that a professional archaeologist might be able to give him a better idea of whether the rings had been formed  naturally or were man-made.

White got in touch with Dr. Jack.

Like any scientist, Hranicky was skeptical at first, but was none-the-less intrigued by White’s find. After some preliminary investigation Dr. Jack decided that the site deserved additional archaeological investigation. With the assistance of Chris and Rene’ White, Hranicky conducted the first scientific excavation uncovering a small five by five foot area at the Spout Run Site that so far has produced jasper tools and other supporting artifacts dating back approximately 12,000 years before present.

“Finding jasper tools here is very important,” Hranicky said. “Jasper does not occur naturally in this area so its presence on this site is very important in establishing that Paleo-indians were once here.”

While the small pieces of jasper may be important from a science detective’s point of view, the more extraordinary feature from a layman’s perspective is that the ancient solstice calendar appears to still accurately mark the changing of the seasons today just as it must have done more than twelve millenia ago.

Chris White excavates solstice site - Photo courtesy Rene' White

According to White and Hranicky, a person standing in the center of the stone rings is able to focus their line-of-sight with one of several large stone markers placed at precise positions in the ring’s outer-most perimeter.  The stone perimeter points can then be aligned with prominent landmarks further from the circle – for example Bear’s Den Rocks nearly two miles away.

Based on the stone alignments, Hranicky says, a viewer standing in the middle of the circle will observe the Sun rise directly over Bear’s Den Rocks on the Summer Solstice – the Sun’s furthest apparent northern position.

Solstice sites allowed Native Americans to mark the changing of the seasons, an important aspect of survival - Courtesy Dr. Jack Hranicky

Harnicky claims that a similar Winter Solstice alignment coincides between a stone pillar in the circle and another prominent geologic feature high above on the ridge. Not far from the stone ring is a pile of stones that Hranicky believes may have once served as an altar based on its alignment with other features of the site.

Although on a recent Autumn day Bear’s Den rocks are obscured by the thick leaves and trees, Dr. Jack says that when the stone ring and altar were built some 12,000 years ago there were no trees on the mountain thus giving the Paleo-indians a clear line of sight from the center of the circle to the stone altar and continuing further up the mountain to Bear’s Den Rocks.

According to Dr. Jack, the stone calendar site was probably built not only as a place to hold ceremonies and observe solar positions, but also as a location for jasper tool-making. However, the primary value to the ancient tribes surely would have been in its importance to their survival in predicting the changing seasons.

“The site investigation included mapping and exploring resources around the site and confirms that Paleo-indian priests carried out ceremonies here using the angle of the sun, concentric rings and a stone altar that stands about five-feet tall,” Hranicky said. Hranicky is in the process of registering the site as a state-recognized prehistoric site with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and as a National Historic Landmark with the U.S. Department of Interior.

Hranicky and the Whites have coined the name “Spout Run” for the prehistoric site after Spout Run stream that winds through the property before making its way further down the mountain and into the Shenandoah River.

Hranicky who believes that Clarke County’s Spout Run Site is the oldest above-ground Paleo-indian ceremonial site in North America, will be presenting his research on October 22 during the Annual Meeting of the West Virginia Archaeological Society in Charleston, West Virginia.

“This prehistoric site located in Northern Virginia is of unique national significance and offers a glimpse into a highly developed culture living in Virginia over 12,000 years ago,” Hranicky said. “The site has above-ground concentric rings, jasper tools, Summer/Fall focus and calendar using the summer solstice as a start for the year.

“Jasper is a cryptocrystalline stone in geology known to be a preferred mineral to fashion tools by Paleo-indians during the Younger Dryers period, which occurred after the Earth returned very quickly into near glacial cold, dry and windy conditions. Dating also corresponds to the length of time that the Paleo-indians mined for jasper at the Thunderbird (Flint Run) Paleo-indian Complex in Warren County” Hranicky remarked.

Thunderbird is a jasper quarry excavated in 1974 by Catholic University’s late William Gardner. Gardner was among the first to uncover evidence that Paleo-indians used the Shenandoah River to reach jasper quarries there.

“Our goal is to seek donations and funds to help preserve the site for future generations,” said Spout Run owner Chris White. “Anyone interested in helping preserve this sacred site can contact White at the Native American Church of Virginia at ONACofVA@gmail.com”.

Solstice site rings - Photo courtesy Dr. Jack Hranicky

Solstice site rings - Photo courtesy Dr. Jack Hranicky

Comments

  1. Laurie Allen says:

    I also am of Native descent – Seneca of the Iroqouis. Will there be any prayer ceremonies held here in the future? drum circles, sweat lodges etc. If so please keep my name and contact info. I miss holding circle.
    thank you
    Laurie

  2. Sharon Strickland says:

    Wonderful article and so informative. I am anxious to learn more.

  3. June Krupsaw says:

    How fortunate we all are for this discovery I am happy for you and know you will create many possibilities for yourself and others on this property. June

  4. Talk about fate! That someone who was looking to establish a native church bought that property and discovered those circles is amazing. Good luck with everything

  5. I love the Shenandoah Valley! We need to embrace the land around us and its history to the fullest extent. This should be taught in our school system. The more the youth know about the history of this area the better off the preservation of the land will be.

  6. Bville-Bud says:

    I couldn’t agree with you all more. WOW – I agree, this would be a nice thing to highlight in school. The more kids know about Clarke, the more they will care about it, and the more likely we will get them to return after college etc. These young people are our greatest resource! Congrats to the Whites on their find, and thanks to Dr. Hranicky for his work.

  7. Ann St. C. Lesman says:

    Great story. I would like to see some follow-up. Ann

  8. The earth does nothing but teach says:

    The children will keep growing up with what they know, through what we teach and what they see. TIME SPENT IN NATURE SHOULD BE A PRIORITY, for it was here long before us and will be here long after we are gone. The earth does nothing but teach.

  9. Bea Brayboy says:

    How awesome is this!!!? I hope National Geographic gets involved and helps in restoration/preservation of this important site. This is a national treasure especially on the east coast. We must see the development of this…for us now and for future generations.

  10. Isabelle Jaynes says:

    Wow this is so neat! I really enjoyed reading about this.

  11. Dave Larsen says:

    I believe it’s no coincidence that the White’s spiritual nature led them to this special place. That the archeological site came to light at Mr White’s chosen location for his medicine wheel speaks volumes of the power of that specific area. How cool is that? I’d give a lot for a time machine to take me back 12,000 years to watch and perhaps take part in the work and worship that occurred there… I hope that the Whites will pursue their dream of building a communal center there, continuing the legacy of that unique spot on the landscape of Shenandoah Valley. Great article, thanks.

  12. Great article. One thing remains unclear though – how did he arrive at the date 12,000 BP? Jasper has been used throughout prehistory and history, and its presence near the stone structures doesn’t necessarily date the structures. Was carbon dating done on material found immediately under the stones, for instance?

    • I totally agree with Dave, More evidence needs to be presented in dating material evidence found at the site, why the 12,000 BP date ? Are there any other nearby sites that would fit into this time parameter ?

  13. FANTASTIC! says:

    Not only is this important stuff and mesermizing as a read ; it is one of the most well written articles I have EVER read!

    A Pulitzer nod for Mr. Leonard:)

    • The Native American spirits live on. How great it must have been to live off of the land. Yes, we may respect our land in these times. However, few of us know the level of respect achieved when you depend 100% on it. Must have been great.

  14. Great… I am of Cherokee and Shawnee descent as well as European. I look forward to hearing more about the spiritual center that will come from this land… obviously the couple had some spirit guidance as well to lead them to that location….. Blessings to you creating this place for community and worship!

  15. Excellent story! At Western Washington University in Bellingham, I enjoyed taking a native American anthropology course. Bears Den is by the Appalachian Trail which meanders for over 2,000 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin, the highest point in Maine. The International Appalachian Trail contines from Baxter State Park in Maine to New Brunswick, Canada, the Gaspe Pennisula in Quebec to Parce Rock at the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The wild scenery is spectacular by Mount Jacques Cartier in the Chi Choc Mountains of Quebec’s Gaspe Pennisula. The Blue Ridge Mountains have a lot of old metamorphic rock and a tremendous diversity of deciduous trees. The colorful autumn foliage is beautiful now. Some say Shenandoah means daughter of the stars. I heard that native American Indians hunted bison in the Shenandoah Valley. George Washington did a lot of land surveying in this area from age 16-20 for Lord Fairfax and I wonder if he wrote about Bears Den rock formation. During the Civil War, John Mosby would travel through Snickers Gap, Ashby Gap, and Manassas Gap to harass invading Union soldiers and supply trains. This area of the Blue Ridge Mountain by Bears Den was the western edge of Mosby’s Confederacy. We need to appreciate and learn more about native American cultures and their history. Thanks Ed Leonard for this wonderful article.

  16. Peter Waksman says:

    The idea that finding jasper underneath a stone pile proves they are from same time period is absurd. In my hometown, when they paved over a famous prehistoric Indian midden, the parking lot did not suddenly become ancient.

  17. Thanks everyone for your comments, questions and encouragement. Thanks Ed with the Clarke Daily News for unearthing our story. We’re humble residents and are inspired by all of you. We are indeed blessed with many extraordinary possibilities here. Finding this sacred site is helping redefine the very nature of what is possible for us, those lives we touch and the world in which we live. Meanwhile, we’re still in the discovery stage with Dr. Jack and working towards preserving the site. We’re actively researching and developing a strategy to achieve practical objectives. We’re considering appropriate facilities, ceremonies, audiences, reach, timing and desired results. We created a Facebook page for you, so you can follow our progress, just click on, “Sanctuary-on-the-Trail-off-the-Appalachian-Trail-in-Northern-Virginia.” Thanks again everyone.

  18. I am excited to hear about this. I hope the Whites and Dr. Hranicky will share reports of their finds with the Clarke Co. Hist. Assoc. So much of what is found goes into a state-level vault and the locals are left with a truncated story; we need not to have to go thru 13 levels of bureaucracy to keep ourselves updated. The more we have, the more we can help.

  19. Chrisitna Bennett says:

    Hello,
    I grew up hiking in these areas. the land there between Bears den and Crescent Rock have always felt sacred to me. To hear of this find makes sense, and is a beautiful rediscovery which ties in our beliefs of ceremony and ritual. This is very special. Also, wonderful to know spiritual people will be the caretakers of this Calendar and ancient site.
    I also would like to participate if something opens up in future. Especially Inipi. that would mean a lot to me.
    also, I am NOT able to find your site on Facebook….anyway to figure out why?
    thank you very much,
    Pilamaya
    Christina Bennett

  20. Nancy Halgren says:

    I actually dug with William Gardner on the Thunderbird site (which now seems at least 10,000 years ago : )
    To read about this new find is so very exciting! I’m wondring why it is thought that the “summer solstice was used as the start of the year”? I know from our digging on Thunderbird that in 1974, archeological inquiry on the east coast was so new that knowing what questions to ask was still a puzzle. I’m sure it has come a long way now, and to hear about this discovery, along with all the connections involved, and the Whites and their dreams, gives back to the land and it’s ancestors some of the respect and reverence that have been robbed from them both over the years. I’m still pretty good with a shovel when needed, or a rapidograph pen at other times, so count me in! The Winter solstice is my favorite ‘holiday’ with Candlemas and the Summer Solstice not far behind, so I look forward to celebrating them one day soon!
    Blessings to you both for sharing this wonderful find, and thanks to E. Leonard for a great article, well written!

  21. SACRED SITE OWNERS says:

    To follow progress of the site on FaceBook, copy and paste either of these two titles online. Thanks again everyone for your support:
    – Sanctuary on the Trail, off the Appalachian Trail in Northern Virginia
    – Oklevueha NativeAmerican Church-Virginia

  22. I’m very skeptical. I’m sure there are native american archeological sites throughout the Blue Ridge, but does anyone else find it odd that this property owner found this site? Sounds like a sham. And can someone confirm the qualifications of the archeologist? Does he have a PhD?

    • Jack Hranicky is a real archaeologist, although not necessarily a noted one. Whether he has a PhD is probably less important than the types of field work and publications he has completed. Most of his publications are focused on stone tool typology.
      His work seems quite sincere and the non-native stone tools debris (I am assuming the dating comes from the type of stone tools and tool debris found in the excavation unit) would be indicative of this being a site where tools were made or used. However, I am very skeptical of this type of small scale, multicomponent structure being claimed as an intentional calendar site. The “rings” are certainly not particularly obvious by the photographs, and they are of a size that would certainly have allowed for a much more obvious pattern to have been laid out. A second concern would appear to be that despite the great age claimed for the structure, it appears to have been found directly on the surface of the ground, and only obscured by relatively new plant growth.
      American Indian site use? – very probable. Intentional “sacred solstice circle” dating back 12000 years? – unlikely passed on the information present here.

      • Thanks for the archeological information, that helps. I don’t know much about archeology, but there were other things in this story that made me suspicious. Like that someone who wanted to build a sacrad site just happened to find a sacrad site in the exact same spot. That seems too coincidental to me. Also – I learned a bunch by googling ‘Native American Church’, and ‘Registered Professional Archeologist’.