Over thirty years ago, the remains of a star chart were found in north-central Oklahoma. It was once used by people there, likely ancestors of the Wichita, between 1350 and 1400 A.D. Until recently, though, the artifact’s true purpose remained nebulous. KGOU’s Richard Bassett spoke with Dr. Susan Vehik, an archaeologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Oklahoma. He started by asking her to describe Uncas, the archaeological site where the chart was found.
Susan Vehik: The site was a small hamlet. Probably four or five houses. They all burnt down. And so they didn't have much notice to get out of there and so pretty much everything they were using was left in the houses and then they burned. And in House One was the remains of what ultimately proved to be the star chart.
Richard Bassett: Could you describe what it physically looks like?
Vehik: When I got it reassembled it basically looks like clay had been plastered over a series of small vertical poles stuck into the ground, to very smooth on one face and it retains the impressions of the poles on the other face. And then within that are these individual little finger impressions.
Bassett: The finger impressions likely represent different stars or constellations?
Vehik: They represent different stars.
Bassett: When was it found?
Vehik: It was found in 1979 when the first house was excavated. But people really did not know what it was and they were in hurry to write a report so they didn't mess with it. And they assembled a few of the pieces but then just let it go. So it sat around in my lab for close to 30 years. And I I worked on the site off and on and I had some of my graduate students working on various parts of it but not that particular collection daub with the impressions in it. Just, it always looked like it would require a lot of time and I did not know what it was. Initially I thought it was wall decoration. And so I had some friends who are also amateur astronomers come look at it. And initially they said I don't know what this is. And then finally one of them said 'oh it looks like the Pleiades.' And I thought well at least that's a place to start.
Bassett: What purpose do you think this star chart may have played in their society?
Vehik: I think they used it to time all sorts of things. When they appeared at first in the night sky on August 10th. It was probably time to stop the summer bison hunt, come back to their village, harvest their crops, engage in some ceremonies. And then when they reached about the point that equal day and equal amounts of night were present, that was when they stopped their ceremonies. Winter had come, animals were hibernating, birds were flying south, it was time for them to stop their ceremonial season. They watched it until February 3rd or so when it went away. Then it was time for spring to come. It was time to begin preparations for planting and time to start their ceremonial season again. As long as the Pleiades were gone they did those things.
Bassett: So from an archaeological perspective what's the significance of the artifact? Can you tell us anything about the people or reveal anything new?
Vehik: What it tells us, I think first, is that interest in stars goes back much further than written documents do at least 500 years. And probably there are more of these star charts that people have just not paid any attention to because they didn't know what they were. I have a friend who thinks he has the remains of one and he had written it off as wall decoration. So there's more wall decoration out there that is actually remains of star charts. So we know that it takes us least back to 1350 A.D. which we did not know. So we're getting a better idea of that. It also lets us know how much attention people were paying to the stars how much they were engaged in what's actually real astronomy. And that's far more than I think most people have given credit to the original occupants of Oklahoma.
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