Worth the wake-up

Fort Ancient’s annual Winter Solstice celebration

By Tara Pettit

Photo: Participants gather at the Fort Ancient Fall Solstice program in 2011; photo: Kristy Kreel

There is a single moment that occurs each year when Earth’s maximum axial tilt to the sun is at 23 degrees and 23 feet, creating the shortest day and longest night of the year and encapsulating what we know annually as Winter Solstice or the beginning of winter. For many, the beginning of winter symbolizes the beginning of a long season of bleak, frigid, dark, and even depressing, days. However, throughout history, the beginning of winter has played a significant role in spiritual practices as a reflective time of cosmic change, renewal, rebirth and connection with the natural order of the world.

A return to the ancient celebrations of the Winter Solstice has been integrated into many modern events hosted worldwide on various archeological sites, including one occurring right on Dayton’s own ancient territory. At Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve, greeting the winter season on the morning its first sun rises is becoming a Southwest Ohio tradition reminiscent of the cultural practices of its ancient people, the Hopewell natives. This year’s celebration at Fort Ancient will, once again, shed morning light on the significance of some of the long-ago traditions that surrounded the transition into winter.

On Sunday, Dec. 21, the sun will rise between 8 and 8:10 a.m., which is when participants of the Winter Solstice celebration at Fort Ancient will align themselves with one of the four stone-covered mounds, allowing two openings south of State Route 350, in order to see the “first glean,” according to Jack Blosser, Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve coordinator.

“That is an indicator of the shortest day of the year,” Blosser explained.

Gleaning, by definition, means “to extract” or “to gather,” a term used to represent the time of the year when ancient natives, like the Hopewell people (which made up several tribes) in Southwest Ohio, would prepare for winter by gathering and storing food to last the season. The celebration of a successful harvest of crops or gathering of meat was one reason ancient tribes recognized the Winter Solstice; however, because the Hopewell society was not agricultural, Fort Ancient’s site was predominately utilized as a gathering place for ceremonies and social events, marking pivotal occasions in the lives of the people.

“Two thousand years ago, there were many different tribes of people coming together for one common unity at Fort Ancient, and that was their religious and spiritual practices,” Blosser said. “The kicker is, if they come here for annual religious and social events, how do they know when to do it? It turns out, they were accomplished mathematicians.”

The math of the Hopewell people was actually the early development of our modern calendar system. Although today we do not fully understand this ancient society’s strategy for developing the calendar system, we do know they relied extensively on the earth and natural resources that surrounded them to erect constructions, statues and mounds to guide their sense of direction and time.

In the case of Fort Ancient’s construction, Blosser explains, four stone-covered mounds stand, each 512 feet apart. The mounds form a nearly perfect square, which, when one aligns with a specific opening within the earth walls that point north and east, reflects the exact direction of the rising sun or rising moon. This determined the cycle of days.

Blosser further noted the Hopewell people used the moon as a decade marker, or to note the passing of approximately 9.3 years. At Fort Ancient’s site, the moon’s rising will appear in one of the openings between the mounds, and after 9.3 years pass, the moon will then rise two openings to the north of State Route 350. The passing of another 9.3 years will show the moon rising where it originally rose, completing the 18.6-year lunar calendar.

At Fort Ancient’s Winter Solstice celebration, participants will learn about the ancient natives’ manipulation of the natural world by way of earthen constructions and the observance of the sun and moon, which helped them to formulate a scientific basis for tracking time and events.

“People will gather and we will walk out to where we align with the opening,” Blosser explained. “We will share the history of the ancient ones, as well as the significance behind using the sun and moon as a calendar system.”

In addition to public participation in the event, the celebration has, in recent, years, seen growing involvement from the area’s Native Americans, which is “a neat thing, as Fort Ancient continues to be utilized by these communities in the Ohio area,” Blosser said.

After the official program ends, many of the attending Native Americans stick around for a private ceremony, keeping alive age-old celebration traditions that surround the Winter Solstice as a way to reconnect with the natural world. In this way, the sense of passing time remains a natural experience for them, coordinated with the elemental forces rather than the ticking of a clock.

“The event is the same year after year,” said Blosser. “However, this is important to the program because we witness the exact same thing that was witnessed 2,000 years ago – the sun coming up over the horizon in the same opening.”

As one of the largest gathering places in Southwest Ohio, Fort Ancient was and is still a mecca of spiritual and cultural tradition – once bringing many tribes together and today drawing people from all walks of life for common purposes and the celebration of humanity.

“Now people get the chance to recreate, not a ceremony, but an event that was witnessed so many years ago,” Blosser said. “To me it’s inspiring having people sharing in this.”

The Winter Solstice program will be held on Sunday, Dec. 21 at 7:45 a.m. at Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve, 6123 St Rt. 350 in Oregonia, Ohio. The gates will open at 7:30 a.m. For more information, please contact Jack Blosser, event coordinator, at jblosser@fortancient.org or visit fortancient.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Tara Pettit at TaraPettit@DaytonCityPaper.com

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Tara Pettit is a regional journalist and communications specialist with a focus on the arts, social/environmental justice issues, and community activism. She is passionate about cultivating intentional community and engaging in collaborative creative projects that make healthy community possible. Reach her at TaraPettit@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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