Observations of the 2002 Winter Solstice at Luther Elkins Petroglyph (46 Wm 3)

© 2003 Roger B. Wise

Outline of a paper in preparation for the West Virginia Archeologist

View of the petroglyph panel from the approach path
View of the petroglyph panel from the approach path

"At the time of sunrise a ray grazes the notch on the left side on Christmas Day. A Feast-day of the Church, the first season of the (Christian) year. The season of the Blessed Advent of the Savior, Lord Christ (Salvatoris Domini Christi). Behold, he is born of Mary, a woman."
-- Barry Fell translation of part of the Luther Elkins petroglyph (Fell 1983: 17)

Gallagher's image from1982
Gallagher's image from 1982, "First glimmer of sunlight strikes left side of petroglyph at sunrise"
Ida Jane Gallagher wrote that an observed alignment at the Luther Elkins petroglyph during the 1982 winter solstice sunrise supports Barry Fell's identification of the markings as ogham inscriptions, and his translation of it as an Old Irish text (Gallagher 1983:9). She published a photograph of the petroglyph taken sometime after sunrise (Ibid.), but it was not a particularly convincing illustration of a solstice alignment. Consequently, I visited the Luther Elkins petroglyphs on the morning of the winter solstice of 2002 to observe the effect for myself and photograph the panel at sunrise.

First, Lets Set Some Standards

What would make a convincing calendrical display? Solstice alignments need two fixed features, a marker and a target. Often the marker casts a shadow on the target. Some work the opposite way, using the natural play of light to illuminate a target. Structures such as Stonehenge create a sight line unique to the solstice. Any of these could occur by chance, so there should be other characteristics to help determine that suspected alignments are not just coincidental.

Fajada Butte Sun Dagger
Sun Dagger at Fajada Butte, summer solstice
Photo by Paul Charbonneau
© High Altitude Observatory, National Center for Atmospheric Research
Used with permission

Three slabs that form the daggers
Sunlight shining through the gaps in these three stone slabs form the daggers.
Photo by Paul Charbonneau
Used with permission

Primarily, there should be a reasonably precise indication of the event. The strength of the evidence depends on how precise or how ambiguous the alignment is. At the Three Slab Site on Fajada Butte (Chaco Canyon, New Mexico), the famous "sun dagger", a play of sunlight passing through a crevasse cleanly bisects its spiral petroglyph target at the summer solstice, and two daggers bracket the spiral during the winter solstice (Sofaer 1979). [Two web pages concerning this and other Southwestern archaeoastronomical sites are linked at the end of this page, after the References Cited section.]

Another indication of legitimacy is whether the features of the alignment fit a regional pattern. An alignment would be more convincing if the markers and symbols are the same as others in the area, or if the same type of alignment were used again and again. For example, circular and spiral designs are preferred targets in the Southwest, but alignments in Woodland earthworks are suspects in the East (Fountain 1996; Turner 2001).

Location map with path of sunlight at the solstice
Map showing 100' contours, stream, and path of sunlight at the solstice
Site Description

The Luther Elkins petroglyph is on a vertical panel of crossbedded sandstone sheltered by a shallow rock overhang near Lillyhaven in Wyoming County. The panel overlooks Clear Fork, which created a relatively wide valley for the rugged topography of this part of the state. The panel faces east-southeast (approximately S60°E), and it is recessed in two ways, by the overhanging ledge and by a well-defined, nearly perpendicular wall at the southwest (left) end of the shelter.

The morning sun casts a shadow upon the panel from both the overhang and the edge of the southwest wall. The entire panel is shaded later in the day. Compared to the winter solstice, the panel is more directly lit every other morning of the year.

The most striking feature of the Luther Elkins petroglyph is an inscribed "sunburst" at the southwest end of the rock panel. One reason it stands out is that almost every other figure is repeated on the panel. A convincing alignment would create an interplay of this unique design and the shadow of the overhang, or the southwest wall of the shelter, or both.

What the Ogham Proponents Claim

We need to recall Gallagher's description of the solstice sunrise her group observed in 1982. I emphasize four points in particular for comment:

"Look! Look! It's (the sun's rays) hitting the panel," he [Tony Shields]called. A glimmer of pale sunlight struck the sun symbol on the left side of the petroglyph, and the rising sun soon bathed the entire panel in warm sunlight. Shields immediately noticed that the sunlight was funneling through a three-sided notch formed by the rock overhang, the upper left-hand wall of the shelter and a rock shelf that jutted out above the small petroglyph on the lower left wall. A shadow cast by the left wall of the shelter fell to the left of the sun symbol and its adjacent markings. As the group watched, the shadow inched from left to right. Before their eyes, light dawned on West Virginia history.

"That proves it," Shields said pointing to the wall notch. He was the first to realize that Dr. Fell's decipherment never mentioned the horizon. It specified only that a ray of sun would graze the notch on the left side. The ancient scribe was referring to the shelter wall notch!

This most remarkable turn of events served as a reminder that things do not always happen as expected. The group continued to watch as the solar phenomenon demonstrated physical proof of Fell's decipherment.

[...] When Fell heard the news of the winter solstice sunrise, he was greatly encouraged. (Gallagher 1983:9)

Her narrative leads one to expect:
1. The sun will fall first on the sunburst glyph.
2. Then the sun will illuminate the panel.
3. The shadow of the southwest wall will move across the panel.
4. Something involving a ray of sun grazing the notch on the left side, just what is unclear, especially since the rays of the sun make the notch.


Sunrise at the site is dramatic. The early morning sky is well lit because of the height of the mountain to the east. By the time the sun strikes the panel, dawn has been breaking for two hours. The direct light from the sun as it peeks from behind the mountain is similar to the eerie penumbra of a solar eclipse. As the sun emerges, the overall effect is a striking and perceptible "warming" of the light striking the panel until it is fully illuminated by direct sunlight.

However, there is no alignment of the shadows from the rock overhang or the southwestern wall with any element of the petroglyph. The "notch" does not involve the sunburst or other elements in any way that would suggest deliberate placement to mark the solstice. The entire set of markings is immediately bathed in light and remains lit for some time. The shadow of the southwestern wall hardly moves at all.

View and download a photo animation in a new browser window (1.2 MB)
Photo Gallery

The images described below were taken over the span of an hour and clearly show the path of the overhang's shadow and the "notch" or corner formed by the overhang and southwest wall.

9:08 - I made this image before the sun had fully emerged from behind the mountain, but could cast enough light to produce a shadow. The rock overhang cast the horizontal shadow, and a tree cast the vertical shadow. Since the tree was about 40 feet away, the edge of its shadow is blurred. Image 1

9:13 - Five minutes after sunrise, the tree shadow had moved enough to allow the southwest wall to cast its shadow. Note the position of Gallagher's "notch." Image 2

9:15 - The shadow from the southwest wall and the overhanging ledge is clear. None of this involves an interaction with the glyphs. Image 3

9:28 - Twenty minutes after sun first struck the petroglyph, it was obvious that there would be no alignment. Image 4

9:39 - The upper shadow was closing on the sunburst. The southwest wall of the shelter was still in shadow, but the glyphs on it are visible. Fell identified these as a Berber (Libyan) text written in an ancient Norse alphabet called Tifinag (Fell 1983:16; Gallagher 1983:8).

Unfortunately, he never published a translation.
Image 5

9:46 - After 38 minutes the overhang's shadow finally touched the top of the sunburst.

The tip of the overhang's shadow is touching a patch of lichen, not a glyph.
Image 6

9:54 - As the shadow from the overhang continued its descent, another tree obscured the vertical shadow thrown by the shelter's southwestern wall. Image 7

10:04 - After nearly an hour, the "notch" was clearly not going to intersect with the sunburst, so I abandoned the watch. Image 8


There is no reason to believe the Luther Elkins petroglyph is a solar alignment. Even considering this a coincidental alignment would be a gross exaggeration. By extension, the observations do not lend credibility to Barry Fell's ogham identification and translation.

First, there is no marker (except the ubiquitous direct sunlight), and the only plausible candidate for a target is the entire 3-meter wide panel. This scene plays out every day of the year.

The purported alignment shows no precision. There is nothing to be precise about.

Finally, there is no reported regional pattern with which it fits. The limited work in archaeoastronomy in our region has examined alignments of earthworks and structures within them. I am not aware of any petroglyphs that have been shown to be solar markers. The only other sunburst petroglyph in West Virginia that I am familiar with is one I observed in a cavern in Greenbrier county, deep in the entryway and not exposed to the sun at any time of the year.

Just as poor description and uncritical scholarship opened the episode, careless recountings of the original articles help to perpetuate the case for these being Irish ogham inscriptions. Nearly 20 years after these were published, a proponent writes that "Gallagher and several others watched as the sun rose and, amazingly, struck the petroglyph on the left side and then crept across the entire panel, thus proving the translation [emphasis added]" (Mulligan 2002).

I think it unlikely that the ogham proponents will abandon their quest for legitimacy of their own accord. All the archaeological community can do is to offer accurate observations and hope that the greater public will apply critical thinking skills, rely only on unambiguous evidence, and insist on reproducible results.

References Cited

Fell, Barry
1983      Christian messages in Old Irish script deciphered from rock carvings in W. Va.
Wonderful West Virginia 47(1):12-19 (March 1983).

Gallagher, Ida Jane
1983      Light dawns on West Virginia History.
Wonderful West Virginia 47(1):7-11 (March 1983).

Fountain, J.W.
1996      A database of rock art solar markers.
Abstract of a paper given at the Fifth Oxford Conference on Archaeoastronomy, Santa Fe, August 3-9, 1996.
http://www.lpl.arizona.edu/oca/abstract.htm. Accessed 1/6/03

Mulligan, Larry
2002      Petroglyphs and a human burial in West Virginia: A field report.
http://www.neara.org/mulligan/wvpetroglyphs.htm. Accessed Jan 6, 2003

Pyle, Robert L.
1983      A message from the past.
Wonderful West Virginia 47(1):3-6 (March 1983).

Sofaer, Anna, Volker Zinser, and Rolf M. Sinclair
1979      A unique solar marking construct.
Science 206 (4416): 283-291 (19 October 1979).
Reprinted at http://www.solsticeproject.org/science.htm. Accessed on January 10 2003

Turner, Christopher S.
2001      Prehistoric Native American calendrical-monumental architecture in Ohio: Chronology, form, and motive.
Poster session presented at the Fifth Biennial History of Astronomy Conference, Notre Dame University, July 5-8, 2001.
http://www.nd.edu/~histast4/exhibits/papers/turner.html. Accessed January 10, 2003

Links to Southwestern Astronomical Petroglyphs

Solar Astronomy in the Prehistoric Southwest
An exquisite web site showing several different types of archeoastronomical sites. Assembled by three scientists at the High Altitude Observatory in Colorado, it targets the general public.

The Solstice Project
A more academic site, the Solstice Project reproduces several technical papers on Southwestern sites.

CWVA Home Page
Controversies Page
"Ogham" Introduction Page

Contact the Council

© 2003 CWVA

West Virginia Archeologist: Hunter Lesser on cult archaeology
West Virginia Archeologist: Oppenheimer and Wirtz look at Fell's methodology
Wonderful West Virginia:      Robert L. Pyle on pre-Columbian contacts
West Virginia Archeologist: Hunter Lesser looks for pseudoscience, and finds it
Wonderful West Virginia:      Ida Jane Gallagher finds a "solstice alignment"
West Virginia Archeologist: Roger Wise looks for that "solstice alignment" again
Wonderful West Virginia:      Barry Fell deciphers Christian messages
A second opinion:                  A very different translation of Horse Creek
West Virginia Archeologist: Janet Brashler looks for all possible explanations, and tests them