10 Archaeological Mysteries of the United States

November 20, 2016

A centuries-old stone wall, stretching for miles; enormous pictures scratched into the ground of a desert; rocks arranged in a circle. You know what these landmarks are, right?

Guess again. Instead of the Great Wall of China or Stonehenge, these are all ancient American ruins and landmarks. The United States is a relative newcomer to the world stage, but there have been people long living on this continent, and they’ve left traces of their presence just as mysterious as those found in other countries.

1. Mystery Hill: America’s Stonehenge


Although locals sometimes call this “America’s Stonehenge,” Mystery Hill bears little resemblance to the English megalith. Instead, it’s a complex of stone structures and artificial caves, most likely only as old as the 17th century. However, exact dating may never be possible, as the ruins suffered from tampering at the hands of a 1930s landowner who was convinced the structures were the remains of a 7th-century Irish monastic colony. So convinced, in fact, that if parts of the site didn’t match his theory, he’d “fix” them.

The site’s “mysterious” reputation has made it a popular tourist attraction for decades, and it’s even earned some pop culture fame—H.P. Lovecraft reportedly visited the site for inspiration, and The X-Files set one episode nearby.

2. Casa Grande Ruins


Archaeologists understand some things about Casa Grande in Arizona. They know that it was probably constructed in the early 13th century, that the builders used adobe, and that the full complex included several other adobe structures and a ball court, and was once surrounded by a wall.

What they don’t know is what the four-story central building was for: a guard tower, a grain silo, a house of worship, or something else. The site was abandoned nearly half a century before Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, long after the nearby Hopi had moved away, and was too ruined for early Spanish explorers to do their own investigating into what it was.

Today the main building is under a protective roof built by Civil Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s, and the full ruins are a federally protected national park—the first such park in the United States.

3. The Blythe Intaglios


Several landmarks compete for the title of  “America’s Stonehenge,” but it’s clear that the Blythe Intaglios are “America’s Nazca Lines.” Much like their Peruvian cousins, the Blythe Intaglios are a set of geoglyphs depicting giant human figures etched into the California desert sometime between 450 and 2,000 years ago. The figures are so big—the largest is over 170 feet long—that they escaped the notice of California settlers, and remained undisturbed until the 1930s when a pilot bound for Nevada spotted them from the air.

Researchers believe the local Mojave people were the likely creators of the site. However, as with the Nazca Lines, they can’t explain how the Mojave would have seen them from their intended aerial view, or what purpose they served.

4. Judaculla Rock


For years, the Cherokee people who lived near the soapstone boulder now known as Judaculla Rock used it as a sort of billboard, etching so many petroglyph designs into the North Carolina stone that even today it’s difficult to tell exactly how many there are. The boulder also sports seven grooves, the mythical footprints of a legendary giant, which contemporary archaeologists attribute to ancient masons mining the soapstone to make bowls.

Research has been slow; soapstone is naturally fragile, and the Cherokee also still see the rock as a sacred artifact. But the Cherokee are working with visitors and researchers to give them access while still preserving the stone.

5. Bighorn Medicine Wheel


There are several “medicine wheel” monuments scattered around North America, with stones arranged in a wheel shape—a structure sacred to several tribes across the northern Great Plains. But at 75 feet in diameter, Wyoming’s Bighorn Medicine Wheel is the biggest. Surprisingly, it also pre-dates the time when the neighboring Crow people first lived in the area.

In the 1970s, Astronomer John Eddy also noticed that some of the wheel’s spokes pinpoint the direction of the sunrise on different solstices, and other spokes mark the rising point of other stars, suggesting the site may have once been an observatory. It’s still a mystery, though, who first built the wheel.

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