Archaeo-Astronomy: The Season of Dreams

Archaeo-Astronomy is a relatively new word for an extremely old idea. It is science’s attempt to catalog and validate specific ancient sites as they might relate to astronomy. Some of the ‘experts’ have found enough evidence that in their opinion validates the field; others dismiss it outright. Science can’t bring itself to believe that ancient old men and women dressed in skins and plumes could be considered the finest observational astronomers to have ever lived.

For countless millennia and throughout the entire world mankind has watched the cosmos, tied it to its existence, and erected wooden posts, megaliths, and even simple stones to mark celestial events it found significant. Such events could be celestial phenomenon such as observed supernovae. Others indicate strictly cultural significance, both ritual and practical such as ceremonial dates, solstices, equinoxes, moon cycles, the heliacal rise of certain stars, even when it was time to plant, time to harvest, or time to hunt. I have never thought of archaeo-astronomical sites as the ancient equivalent of the Hubbell telescope. The sites were always meant to be local in their significance, deeply cultural, and a society’s attempt to both understand the influence of the cosmos on its existence, and grasp the great mystery inherent in the universe.

My personal favorite archaeo-astronomical site is Chaco Canyon.  It is located in the northwest corner of New Mexico, part of the San Juan Basin, and built by the Anasazi or Chacoan people between AD 900 and 1150 (Anasazi is a Ute word that means Ancient Enemy). The Chacoan occupied a rather vast region called the Colorado Plateau that expands over the conjoining corners of Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Although this is high dry country made up of deep canyons and flat top mesas, the San Juan Basin is surrounded by numerous mountain ranges that are covered by dense forests where grows oak, pinon’, juniper, ponderosa pine, and many other resources. The San Juan Basin is bisected by the Chaco Wash, a place where exists no surface water whatsoever beyond the runoff from a few occasional storms that bring less than 10 inches of rain annually to the region. Even so, the Chacoan built one of the most extraordinary archaeo-astronomical sites on Earth in Chaco Canyon over an area of a staggering 34,000 acres, stretching nine miles along the canyon floor. Outlier sites, thirty discovered to date, extend the Chaco phenomenon over 65,000 square miles connected by a complex straight system of roads.  Needless to say, Chaco took centuries to build.

Some of the main features constructed are called Great Houses where the average building has 200 rooms with several that have over 700. Each Great House, fourteen in all, include kivas, circular, subterranean ritual chambers, at a ratio of approximately one kiva for every 29 rooms.  All of these buildings were constructed of what is called core-and-veneer walls, thin, flat sandstone blocks held together with clay mortar. The roofs required more than 200,000 coniferous timbers hauled on foot from mountains as far as 70 miles away. The Chacoan had neither horses nor the wheel. It is estimated that Chetro Ketl, one of the Great Houses, required 29,135 man hours to erect and was made of 50 million blocks of stone and 5000 trees.

But way beyond the inconceivable scope of Chaco Canyon’s magnificent buildings is the fact that all of the buildings are aligned to either cardinal points (equinoxes and solstices) or the minimum and maximum moonrise and moonset of the moon’s 18.6 year cycle. To grasp this feat one must come to terms with the fact that the Chacoan had no surveying equipment as we know of surveying today. The buildings are many miles apart and not visible to each other and yet they are perfectly aligned to each other where the light of the solstice sun or the full moon travel precisely along the walls of buildings, or through perfectly aligned doorways, shining on an interior wall.

The ‘Sun Dagger’, hidden on top of Fajada Butte is simply it for me. Hidden behind three strategically placed or randomly settled slabs there are two carved spirals. On equinox a shaft of light splits the left spiral in two. The right spiral is struck in the center by the ‘sun dagger’ on midday of summer solstice and bracketed on each side by shafts of light on winter solstice. But what I find even more jaw-dropping amazing is that each turn of this spiral marks the annual midwinter moonrise for 18.6 years by a slab cast lunar shadow. “As the full ‘minimum moon’ closest to winter solstice rises, the shadow precisely strikes the center of the larger spiral; it steps outward year by year, ring by ring, until it strikes the outermost edge of it during the full ‘maximum moon’, again in midwinter.” [Ann Sofaer, re-discoverer of the Sun Dagger] I suspect that there are countless other astronomical markers throughout this extraordinary 65,000 square mile site that will likely never be discovered and if they are, never be understood.

For all of its extravagant wonder even more inexplicable is the fact that there is absolutely no evidence that Chaco Canyon was ever inhabited. It appears to be a site built exclusively to cosmic mystery and ritual. It was a pilgrimage destination for the people who lived in hundreds if not thousands of villages scattered across the vast Colorado Plateau. Some believe that Chaco fell into disuse because of severe climate change, a fifty year drought that began in 1130. Others attribute the unraveling to poor land management, deforestation, warfare, and numerous other typically human short comings. But one Native elder once told me that the site was eventually abandoned because the people forgot to put out the corn. It meant that the people became complacent about their spiritual practices and the spirit world withdrew its support. Every local tribe has a Chaco story in its mythology. Whatever the reason the people didn’t return to Chaco Canyon even though their descendants went on to form the Rio Grande tribes known today as well as other villages abandoned over the course of nearly a thousand years.

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Responses to “Archaeo-Astronomy: The Season of Dreams”

  1. Beautiful