Layout of a medicine wheel
Medicine wheels were built by laying out stones in a circular pattern that often looked like a wagon wheel lying on its side. The wheels could be large, reaching diameters of 75 feet (23 metres) or more.
Medicine wheels were constructed by laying stones in a particular pattern on the ground. Most medicine wheels follow the basic pattern of having a center cairn of stones, and surrounding that would be an outer ring of stones, then there would be “spokes,” or lines of rocks, coming out the cairn. However, there are many variations in how a medicine wheel may be laid out.
Definition of a medicine wheel
John Brumley, an archaeologist from Medicine Hat, has provided a very exacting definition of what constitutes a medicine wheel. He notes that a medicine wheel consists of at least two of the following three traits:
(1) a central stone cairn
(2) one or more concentric stone circles, and/or
(3) two or more stone lines radiating outward from a central point.
Almost all medicine wheels would have at least two of the three elements mentioned above (the center cairn, the outer ring, and the spokes), but beyond that there were many variations on this basic design, and every wheel found has been unique and has had its own style and eccentricities.
The most common deviation between different medicine wheels are the number of spokes.
There is no set number of spokes for a medicine wheel to have. The spokes within each wheel are rarely evenly spaced out, or even all the same length. Some medicine wheels will have one particular spoke that’s significantly longer than the rest, suggesting something important about the direction it points.
Another variation is whether the spokes start from the center cairn and go out only to the outer ring, or whether they go past the outer ring, or whether they start at the outer ring and go out from there.
An odd variation sometimes found in medicine wheels is the presence of a passageway, or a doorway, in the circles. The outer ring of stones will be broken, and there will be a stone path leading up to the center of the wheel.
Also many medicine wheels have various other circles around the outside of the wheel, sometimes attached to spokes or the outer ring, and sometimes just seemingly floating free of the main structure.
They are made by placing rocks down into a circle shape, and four lines or more of rocks are put down across the circle, or near the circle.
Medicine wheels are very similar to circular turtle shaped petroforms with the legs, head, and tail pointing out the directions and sometimes aligned with astronomical events. Usually, the top of the medicine wheel is pointing towards the rising sun.
Representations of a medicine wheel are often sold today as a popular native american crafts item. Medicine wheels for sale usually contain four spokes, representing the four cardinal directions and the sacred number four.