How To Build A Vernal/Autumnal Equinox Clock

or The Remarkable Alignment Of Sunrise Barrow, March 21, 2013

By HHA Member Tom Helmer

The photograph of the sunrise at “Sunrise Barrow” in Tomaquag Valley taken on March 21, one day after the official Vernal Equinox date of 3/20, produced a remarkable moment. The sunrise was in perfect alignment with the previously discovered and reflector marked “Front Sight Rock”, located about ¼ mile to the East of the barrow. The harmony between the sun’s disk & the “Front Sight Rock” Reflector Bearing (106.5° Mag, 92° True) was so precise it was impossible to see the reflector, although the reflector mounting arm is clearly visible, and the reflector itself is obvious in the 3/20 photo.

To understand why I believe this alignment represents the deliberately chosen date for the Vernal Equinox Alignment at Sunrise Barrow, a consideration of “How” the Native Americans were able to create such a time piece is in order. The truth of the matter is neither I, nor anyone else, has any written instructions from an ancient Shaman explaining how he built a precise Equinox Astronomical Clock.

However, this is how I deduce such a clock was built, hampered by the following restrictions:

  1. I have no magnetic compass
  2. I have no knowledge of any European, Middle East or Asian astronomical theories
  3. I have no written language
  4. I have no sophisticated mathematical systems.

How I would build Sunrise Barrow under the restrictions above.

My solution to making a solar clock that indicates the date of the Vernal & Autumnal Equinoxes begins with a simpler task, building an astronomical clock that will indicate the Winter and Summer Solstice. It sounds like double talk, as the Equinox and the Solstice seem similar.

They are both regular events as the tilting earth, which I know nothing about, makes the position of the daily sunrise vary as the Earth orbits around the sun, which I also know nothing about.

The only thing I do know is that in Winter, the sun rises towards my right hand and it gets colder the further right it goes. In Summer, it rises towards my left hand, and it gets warmer the further left it goes. At the extremes, the sun seems to stand still. It was always a matter of concern for the ancient peoples all over the globe to know for certain that the sun was going to come back, not decide to get colder or hotter. Remember, I know nothing about orbits and astrophysics!

Universally back in those days, the sun’s motion was determined by an old time god. There was no way to know if their god was angry, and decided to give them more cold or hot to make them suffer for their disrespect. An all powerful god just might do that if angry enough!

At either solstice, the sun’s position on the horizon appears to stand still for about seven days. It is easy to get the bearing on the sun rise at this time. So if I build a clock that tells me if / when the sun has turned around, and I then tell the people the good news, everyone will be happy, show me great respect for my wisdom, and give me gifts in appreciation. I would like that.

So now I have a clock, AKA an “Astronomical Observatory”, that tells me when the hot part of the year starts and the cold part of the year starts.

How can I now sub-divide the year into quarters? This is tricky, because I do not know how many days there are in a year, although most of you readers know there are 365 days in the year. But being more accurate, some of you know that is actually incorrect, there are really 365 ¼ days. Some of you are more accurate than that, with 365.2564 days in the year. (Gad Zooks!)

So my first task is to find out how many days there are in a year. (Try and prove there are 365.2564 days with just your fingers and toes!) How do I count without numbers! (What? And you thought this was going to be easy?)

I may not have numbers, but I do have pebbles and bowls. So every day, beginning with the Cold Stopped Sun, I put a pebble in the bowl until the Hot Stopped Sun. I dump out the bowl and keep those pebbles in a separate bag. I do this for twenty years. I explain to the boy who is helping me out what I am doing, and why. The young man is smart, and when I die, he takes over counting days with pebbles in a bowl.

My first replacement has a sense that the time where the sun stops has a middle, and makes the intuitive leap that if he strings out each half year’s bag of pebbles side by side, he might get an idea about what is happening in that middle period when the sun is stopped. After about forty years of pebble bags, he has figured out that when it first stops, he should put in one more pebble, then start a new pot. He explains what he is doing to the boy who is helping him out. Young man #3 is also smart, so when Shaman #2 dies, the new Shaman #3 has a record of how many pebbles / days it usually takes to go from a “Stopped Sun” to the next “Stopped Sun”. It sometimes is 182 pebbles, but it usually is 183 pebbles. (This is the beginning of the difference between a whole number pebble system and a modern decimal system.)

Shaman #3 takes a recent bag of pebbles, and puts one in a left hand pile, one in a right hand pile, repeating this until, without knowing how to divide numbers, (which he doesn’t have!), he has none the less divided the half year pebbles into two piles, each containing a quarter year’s worth of pebbles. Remember, I /Shaman #3, have no knowledge of what a fraction is, but I do know how many pebbles it will take to go halfway between “Cold Stop” and “Hot Stop”.

But no matter how accurate the Shamans count, the actual solar year of 365.25 days will never divide by 4 into an even number of pebbles. You should prove this with your calculator. He has to deal with whole pebbles, not partial pebbles. He has two choices: 91 sunrises from Stopped Solstice, or 92 sunrises from Stopped Solstice. The shaman who made Sunrise Barrow chose 92, which results in it always marking the Equinox perfectly on March 21, one whole day (rounded up) more than our decimal exact modern Equinox in a year that is exactly 365.2564 days long.

In time Shaman #3 is Geezered Up. He has explained to the boy that is helping him how to set up two widely separated rocks to indicate the bearing of this “Half Pebble Bag” sunrise. It is wonderful! When #3 counts from Cold to Hot, or from Hot to Cold, quite a few times the two stones are aligned with the sunrise! And if they aren’t, next day they ARE perfect! Every Year!

And that is some serious solar magic!

The people are awe struck, and grant Shaman #3 more respect and more gifts. He likes it also.

Shaman #4 refines the “Half Pebble Pile” alignment, choosing the one that comes up a match on his 92 pebble count, and that is what they build into the big Barrow. This is my explanation why there is an exact alignment match that does not agree with modern telescopic Science, yet is an accurate clock century after century! If no one counts out pebbles, who can know the difference, as no one has a calendar to check. Neither does anyone in the Tribe know what a Calendar is!

Shaman #4 explains the plan to the boy that is helping him. The task assigned to the new lad is running back and forth on the “Half Pebble Pile” alignment days, setting up 2 stones the Shaman wants in alignment with that big rock on the horizon, all during the brief sunrise on “Half Pebble Pile Day”.

When Shaman #4 dies, Shaman #5 finally gets the 3 stones to line up on “Half Pebble Pile Day”. He checks it out for a few years, and he learns to anticipate THE Alignment Day, because amazingly, the sun moves at a faster, but predictable rate in the middle pebbles. (Who knew that!)

He can tell this, because he has seen it since he was a little boy. He changes the name to something more impressive than “Half Pebble Pile Day!”, like “Hooray! It’s Spring Now!” (This could be the birth of Marketing!) Then he invites the Chief & The People to watch the sun do it’s thing. This has a Major League “Wow” factor, even on March 21, 2013. (I was there, and I know all about this!)

Shaman #5, after only one century, has built a four alignment Astronomical Observatory/Clock. It divides a year into 4 Seasons which are vital to any agricultural, Seasoned based People. And he / they never went beyond the technology that was available to them, using only simple observations and “Pebbles In A Bowl” mathematics.

Why is this explanation important?
Yesterday, I saw a photo ostensibly from a satellite showing the alignment of the sun precisely over the equator, with the equinox timed to a fractional second. That is from our world. What we have down in the barrow is a phenomenal accomplishment, one that few of us could duplicate even with our fancy educations. That it is understandably off by one day, coming to us from a world where calendars did not exist, in no way diminishes the accomplishment of “The People Before…”