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Fountain Bluff, located in westernmost Jackson County, Illinois is one of the unsung treasures of the midwest. Harboring rare plants, Archaic Indian burial mounds, a Mississippian Indian solar observatory [see story below] and rock carvings, spectacular views of the Mississippi valley, numerous springs and waterfalls and a rich store of early Illinois history Fountain Bluff has been pivotal to the development – both prehistoric and historic, natural and human – of the Mississippi valley. The following story appeared in the 2001 edition of the Waterman & Hill-Traveller's Companion.


Fountain Bluff at Sunset
Photo by Jim Jung

Ancient Astronomy

Related articles in our Archives, Another Solstice Site. . .   |   Fountain Bluff Site

Fountain Bluff in westernmost Jackson County rises four hundred feet in splendid isolation from the surrounding Mississippi floodplain, its western flank rising abruptly from the nearby river. Marking the northernmost limit of the Rattlesnake Ferry Fault in Illinois this four mile long and mile wide chunk of Pennsylvanian sandstone has been a focus for human activity since our species first arrived here. It entered written history in the 1680's as Le Bluf Fontaine , named by the early French explorers for its numerous springs, and has remained an important river landmark ever since.

View across Mississippi River to the North
View from the Throne, across Mississipi River.

What the aboriginal inhabitants called it will never be known, but we do know that there was continuous occupation of this particular piece of real estate by every significant culture in every chronological period occurring in our neck of the woods from the Ice Age Paleohunters to historic tribes. And of all the aboriginal inhabitants, the one we call the Mississippians were the most numerous – ancient farmers who left prolific evidence of their tenure here in the form of tools, village sites, vegetational alterations, and rock carvings.

There are four distinct groups of rock carvings scattered over the bluff that still survive. And of these four the largest and best preserved - but also the most enigmatic group - is the one called the Whetstone Shelter Site. Located halfway up the western flank of the bluff, it commands a breathtaking view of the river.

Its centerpiece is a naturally occurring hemispherical depression in the bedrock located in the middle of the site.

The Throne
The Throne
Whetstone grooves
The Whetstone Grooves
The solstice fissure
The Solstice Fissure

This depression or "throne" is surrounded on all sides by numerous petroglyphs: crosses enclosed by circles, hands, weeping eyes, depictions of atlatls (apparently an important ritual weapon in Mississippian ceremonies), other carvings, and numerous grooves in the sandstone that resemble those left in a whetstone (hence the name).

When you're seated on the throne you're facing northwest. About eight feet to your immediate right is a seven foot high cleft in the wall of the shelter that extends about twelve feet back into the bedrock of the bluff. A foot wide at its entrance, it pinches down to a mere six inches or so when it finally dead ends. It is in this area, around and between the throne and the cleft, that most of the petroglyphs are concentrated.

The enigma of this site was its location. Even in Mississippian times it wouldn't have been easy to reach. In many ways this is fortunate. It's preserved the rock art from vandalism, for one thing, but why on earth would the Mississippians have chosen this particular spot out of dozens of similar spots along the bluff to laboriously carve symbols into solid rock?

One theory involved the acoustical properties of the shelter. Anyone sitting on the "throne" is sitting at the acoustical focus of the shelter. Words spoken in a normal tone of voice nearly a mile away and across the river are distinct and easily heard. Water lapping on the far shore, the cries of animals and birds, the drumming of fish in the river, even the rustling of distant leaves are all clearly audible.

According to this theory naive and superstitious Mississippians sitting at this spot were supposed to have been awed by this common phenomenon. It was speculated that they believed they heard the voice of the "Great Spirit" at this spot and so carved all these symbols into the rock to commemorate it. This was a somewhat plausible theory, its only failing was that there are dozens of similar shelters on the bluff with identical acoustical properties which are far easier to reach but completely lack any petroglyphs. In addition, it required one to believe that the Mississippians weren't all that bright

Since this was the same culture that had built the most massive structure in North America - Monk's Mound in Cahokia in addition to hundreds of other massive earthen structures all through the southeastern US - and had trade links that stretched from the Gulf Coast to Yellowstone to New England, this theory wasn't all that convincing.
Petroglyphs at the Throne at Fountain Bluff
Photo © 2003 Megan James.
More petroglyphs at the Throne at Fountain Bluff
Petroglyphs at the Throne

The Mississippian Culture is classified as being one member of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, currently represented by the Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee tribes. Cultural groups in this complex share similar mythologies, life styles, customs, and symbols. All of the identifiable symbolism in this shelter corresponded to symbols still in use by surviving tribes of the complex: sun symbols. The Mississippians apparently linked this site to the sun for some reason... assuming, of course, that the meaning of the symbols hadn't changed in the thousand years or so since they were carved.

A compass reading taken at the mouth of the cleft showed that it pointed in a southwesterly direction. The direction of the cleft coupled with the sun symbolism of the carvings around it pointed to a more concrete and realistic explanation for the site.

So just before sunset on a cold mid-December day in 1994 three fearless and intrepid explorers set off into the wilds of Jackson County to test an alternate theory. Making the long hike and arduous climb up the bluff in record time they arrived just as the sun's disk was balanced on the horizon. Topping the final rise to the site they were met with a dramatic and striking sight: the setting sun lit the cleft for it's full length, making it glow a warm, pastel red. The reason for all the labor lavished on carving petroglyphs here was explained: it was a solar observatory!

The Mississippians had discovered a natural feature in the bluff that was fully illuminated only near the time of the Winter Solstice, an astronomically determined date. To commemorate this discovery these sun symbols had been laboriously carved into the rock around it. These same explorers also discovered that an observer sitting on the throne had only to turn their head ninety degrees to the right to have an unobstructed view of the cleft. Due to an optical illusion owing to the angles of the rock faces, it would appear to the observer that even though they appeared to be seated between the setting sun and the cleft they cast no shadow. Truly an awesome and profoundly magical place!

Discoveries elsewhere have shown that the Mississippians (and many other aboriginal cultures as well) noted the Solstices and many other astronomically significant events and aligned earthworks, dwellings and other structures to mark them in some significant way. Being farmers, the Mississippians required some form of calendar to plan the annual cycle of planting, hunting and reaping. This observatory would have been of great help to them in marking out the solar cycle.

The majority of pre-Columbian astronomical sites discovered so far have been constructed by humans; lining up two or more mounds, setting up posts or rings of posts, or aligning avenues and streets with astronomically significant directions. A naturally occurring site such as this, seemingly placed there by the Creator-of-All-Things Himself, would have naturally seemed extremely significant and no doubt lent an air of sanctity to the Bluff as a holy place; a fact illustrated by the large number of burials, structures, and village sites clustering about its flanks.

  • 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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Copyright © 2004 Jim Jung