Denver Chapter, Colorado Archaeological Society.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1999.
The medicine wheels, especially important to the northern Arapahos and to a lesser extent the Shoshones, reflected the reverence that all people of the plains maintained for the circle, a shape that suggested spiritual and political unity and connected people with one another and with the natural world.
Vermillion Canyon is found in Brown’s Park in far northeastern Colordo. It runs south from the Vermillion Basin carrying Vermillion Creek through the eastern end of the Cold Spring Mountains to join with the Green River at the south end of Brown’s Park. The northern half of Vermillion Canyon is a narrow slot cut through the rock of the ridge, and the southern half opens up into an enclosed bowl. This bowl is well watered by Vermillion Creek, a permanent stream, and shows signs of prehistoric habitation in addition to the rock art and medicine wheel discussed here. There is considerable rock art produced by the Fremont culture, dating from between AD 600 and AD 1000, in Browns Park and Vermillion Canyon. Most rock art in the Brown’s Park area is attributed to the Uinta Fremont culture and all rock art in Vermillion Canyon is Uinta Fremont. Some of the petroglyphs in Vermillion Canyon are of the Classic Vernal Style as defined by Polly Schaafsma.
In northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado the Fremont culture seems to have been followed by the Shoshone. About 1000 years ago speakers of the family of languages known to linguists as Numic, which includes Shoshone, began a movement that originated in the southwestern Great Basin and expanded northeastward. Groups of people who spoke the Shoshone language spread up through central Nevada and across northern Utah into southern Idaho and adjacent Wyoming. The Shoshone probably succeeded the Fremont Culture in northwestern Colorado around AD 1300.
In 1994 a medicine wheel was discovered in the lower reaches of Vermillion Canyon by John Tarnesse, an Eastern Shoshone spiritual leader, and Joseph Triscari, a Denver photographer. They had been told by elders on the Wind River Reservation (some 275 miles to the North) in Wyoming of rumors that there was a medicine wheel in that area and had been searching for it, as well as visiting the rock art in Vermillion Canyon.
The Vermillion Canyon Medicine Wheel is located in the bottom of the lower portion of Vermillion Canyon, near the foot of the slope of the western wall of the canyon. This position at the bottom of the canyon prevents the long sight lines to a distant horizon to be expected in a site with archaeoastronomical significance. I therefore conclude that the significance of the Vermillion Canyon medicine wheel had nothing to do with archaeoastronomy. Measuring approximately 27.5 feet in diameter (8.4 meters), the wheel is laid out as two concentric circles, linked by four spokes, and surrounding a single upright center stone. The four spokes consist of seven stones each for a total of twenty-eight stones. The number 28 is often quoted as the length in days of the lunar cycle (or synodic cycle) although the real number is 29.53 days. For instance there are 28 spokes in the Bighorn Medicine Wheel located in north central Wyoming.
The four spokes in the Brown’s Park Medicine Wheel are roughly aligned to the cardinal directions. The four winds or four directions of the compass represented both natural and metaphysical powers. In effect, because the great creator force (or Holy One Above) created everything in fours, the Plains Indians believed they should do as much as possible in fours”.
The age of the medicine wheel is unknown. Given the absence of an absolute date at this time, any guess as to its age must be made on the basis of relative factors. As earlier peoples are not known to have made medicine wheels, and since Shoshone occupation of the region began in about 1300 AD, it should date from that time or later.
The medicine wheel is located near three Fremont rock art sites on boulders that, as suggested above, may have provided part of the motivation for the location selected for the wheel.
A feature like the Vermillion Canyon Medicine Wheel in a location like Vermillion Canyon compels us to attempt to explain its purpose. As we have seen, medicine wheels were of spiritual significance to the Shoshone culture, and we must assume that no matter who originally created the Vermillion Canyon Medicine Wheel, the Shoshone people appropriated it later for their own cultural purposes.
However, it is likely that the Vermillion Canyon Medicine Wheel was created by the early Shoshone inhabitants of the area, the ancestors of the Eastern Shoshone tribe of the Wind River Reservation in Western Wyoming. They had a considerable time depth in occupation of the area. The proximity of the wheel to the rock art is known to be of considerable importance to the Shoshone. This suggests that Vermillion Canyon in northwestern Colorado is a location that was of rich spiritual significance to the Shoshones.
Considering its relatively recent discovery and nearly pristine condition there were early attempts to keep its location secret. However, during our first visit there in the company of a BLM archaeologist to whom we had sworn secrecy, we found a car from California parked nearby. It has apparently already made it to the New Agers circuit. Let’s hope that they don’t feel the need to bury offerings there to mess up the archaeological record.