412. Shadows

Sunday, as I waited for the shadow to creep across the grass, I had plenty of time to think.  How long had it been since someone did this here?  Obviously, someone had, but how long ago?

I was watching a gnomon, a vertical pole used to cast a shadow and a time-honored way to determine the position of the sun.  By marking the sun’s shadow in the morning and drawing an arc on the ground that distance from the gnomon, when the sun reaches your line in the dirt in the afternoon the two points are exactly east and west from each other.  Carefully paint a line between them and you have a handy visual reference.  My son William and I have been mapping Native American earthworks with a drone, and by having a visible line showing east and west, it’s easier to determine the alignment of the mounds.

But it takes a LONG time.  I couldn’t help but think about lots of things while waiting, including a comment by a woman who once remarked that while men and women are “so different, we’re also so much the same.”

The people who built these mounds were very different from us.  For one thing, the roles of men and women were different, but again, probably quite a bit the same.

Women were equal – or even superior – to men in many Native societies.  Descent was figured through the mother.  So important was the mother’s line that a woman’s brothers took on most of the responsibility for raising her sons, just as her husband’s primary child rearing duties were to his sisters’ sons.  The domed earthen lodges these people lived in symbolized a woman’s womb, with the long covered entryway the birth canal.  Every morning these people, in their minds, were literally reborn.

So yes, they were different from us.  Yet the women ended up doing most of the work.  So I’m sure the female half of our population would say that things were also very much the same.

But why build mounds?  It must have taken a lot of work, and the more my family and I study these mounds the more we realize they aren’t just haphazard piles of dirt – they have varied and sometimes complex shapes.  There seems to have been standard units of measure, both on the mounds and in the larger spaces between them.  They were carefully planned, and enough people believed in their value to construct them one basket full of dirt at a time.

As the gnomon’s shadow drew close to the arc on the ground, the trees to the west started casting their own shadows over both the gnomon and the ground around it.  Ooops – I hadn’t thought about that.  Could we catch the gnomon’s shadow before the shadows of the trees caught us?  Fortunately, there were enough gaps in the leaves that we were able to mark our spot.  But the shadows were too long for us to take good drone photos – we’ll have to try that another day.

Trying to decipher the meaning of these mounds is much like chasing shadows, the elusive shades of those who lived here long ago.  These people cast a long shadow, visible still in the silent mounds they left behind.  But I have to wonder if I’ll ever understand why they built them.  They were as human as we are; they laughed and loved and wondered about the world just as we do.  Yet they were so different, and like the gulf between men and women, I wonder if I’ll ever bridge it very well.


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