Winter Solstice, Poles Hill, Gloucester, Massachusetts

Before Atlantis describes the discovery and possible implications of the alignment of over fifty sites throughout the world to what could have been several previous locations of the North Pole over the past 100,000 years. This was for me no less exciting than the discovery of numerous celestial alignments atop a rocky plateau called Poles Hill in Gloucester Massachusetts a few years before. 

Poles Hill is located in a tidal estuary along the Annisquam River.

During the last Ice Age, from 12,000 to perhaps as far back as 50,000 years ago, Gloucester was buried under a vast ice sheet. Over this time as the glacier was advancing, rocks called erratics were carried hundreds of miles by the ice. As a local saying goes, “This being the last place created, all the rocks not needed in the rest of the earth were dumped here.” Poles Hill is one such place.

I learned about Poles Hill from a local anthropologist who believed it was once a Native American ceremonial site that might contain stone circles, standing stones, petroglyphs, and other lithic formations. On my first visit to Poles Hill, also called Sunset Hill, I looked for an arrangement of altered stones lined up in a westerly direction, possibly in the direction of a solstice sunset. What I found instead was a chaotic landscape – a rocky plateau of fractured bedrock dotted with erratics, not unlike other parts of Cape Ann. 

Summer solstice sunset at Poles Hill as seen from the central sighting stone (foreground).

Although I had found several rocks that could have served as sunset markers, only after returning a second time was I able to identify the sunset rock – a large erratic located on the western edge of the plateau on a section of exposed bedrock, and the place one would have to stand to see the sun setting behind it on the first day of summer. That place, near the middle of Poles Hill, was next to a very unusual stone seemingly placed on a knuckle of bedrock about 130 meters away. Saving the geo-coordinates on my GPS, I located the rocks in Google Earth imagery, drew a line between them and verified that the line of sight was in the direction of the summer solstice sunset.

Figure 3 Central sighting stone for observing solstice sunrise and sunset events.

Having located the sunset rock, I wondered if perhaps there was a sunrise rock too. Using Google Earth to search for boulders in the direction of the summer solstice sunrise, I found a candidate that was roughly the same size as the sunset rock about 165 meters to the northeast of the sighting stone. A few days later I ventured out on an unseasonably cold March afternoon and found a very distinctive looking boulder composed of pink granite that would be visible from the sighting stone provided there was a clear line of sight. This was later confirmed after trees and brush were cleared out along the sightline. 

Pink granite boulder marks the direction of summer solstice sunrise from the central sighting stone.

According to a local geologist, all three of these stones were erratics whose shapes had probably been altered by a process known as spalling. Otherwise, by repositioning as few as two of these three erratics, someone could have constructed a basic solar calendar using very little effort.

I later found two stacked slabs of granite perched on a ridge to the southeast in the direction of the winter solstice sunrise (see the featured photo at the top of this article). By analyzing the differences between the alignment angles of these markers and the direction of the sunrise and sunset directions I determined that the winter marker was probably established within the past few hundred years. The summer alignments were older, perhaps 2000 to 4000 years old. (Click here to read our paper published by the Massachusetts Archaeological Society.)

Since the terrain on Poles Hill slopes down southwest towards the Annisquam River, there would seem to be no winter solstice sunset alignment. But, as it turns out there is a way to experience the winter solstice sunset at Poles Hill. The sun sets on the first day of winter opposite to the direction where it rises on the first day of summer, and sets of the first day of summer opposite to the direction it rises on the first day of winter. At Poles Hill, around the winter solstice at sunset, the light of the setting sun to the southwest illuminates the pink granite summer solstice sunrise rock to the northeast. In my opinion, the effect is even more dramatic than the sun rising over the marker on the first day of summer. Standing at the sighting stone, as the sun dips below the horizon your shadow stretches all the way to the summer sunrise rock as shown in the photo below.

View from the sighting stone (foreground) looking northeast toward the summer solstice sunrise marker illuminated at the winter solstice sunset.

There is much more to Poles Hill than solar alignments. In the spring we will discuss equinox alignments at Poles Hill including an interesting pattern of stones that appear to be correlated to bright stars in several circumpolar constellations, including Draco.

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