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Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

Today is the summer solstice, on which I typically make posts about archaeoastronomy, so I’m going to take a break from my very gradual series of posts on tracing the connections between ancient and modern Pueblos to speculate a bit about the role of astronomy at Chaco. Briefly, what I’m proposing is that the rise of Chaco as a regional center could have been due to it being the first place in the Southwest to develop detailed, precise knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies (especially the sun and moon), which allowed Chacoan religious leaders to develop an elaborate ceremonial calendar with rituals that proved attractive enough to other groups in the region to give the canyon immense religious prestige. This would have drawn many people from the surrounding area to Chaco, either on short-term pilgrimages or permanently, which in turn would have given Chacoan political elites (who may or may not have been the same people as the religious leaders) the economic base to project political and/or military power throughout a large area, and cultural influence even further.

I don’t have any specific research papers to discuss on this topic because as far as I know no one has really looked at it quite this way. It’s similar in some respects to the theories of the Solstice Project, although I don’t buy that astronomical alignments were quite as important in the Chacoan system as they propose. There is also some overlap with the theories of various archaeologists, but none of them have put the pieces together in quite this way. This may be because it’s demonstrably wrong, but if it is I haven’t seen the evidence that disproves it yet (but would be very interesting in doing so).

This theory first occurred to me when I was reading about Tiwanaku in Bolivia, which was a prehistoric society that, like Chaco, left very impressive physical remains in a very isolated location with few obvious economic advantages. As I noted in my post on Tiwanaku, the similarities actually go well beyond that, extending also to the shifting interpretations by archaeologists and the evidence for astronomical alignments. Most relevant in this context is the theory of John Janusek at Vanderbilt, whose theory of Tiwanaku is the model for the theory I’m suggesting here for Chaco. As he wrote in one paper, which I also quoted in the earlier post:

Tiwanaku’s long rise to power in the Andean altiplano was predicated on the integration of diverse local ritual cults and various symbolic dimensions of the natural environment into a reasonably coherent, supremely elegant and powerfully predictive religion. The shifting physicality of Tiwanaku’s religious monuments attests the construction and ongoing transformation of an urban landscape that not only visually expressed the altiplano’s ‘natural’ forces and cycles, but, via recurring construction and ritual, simultaneously shaped new social practices and Tiwanaku’s ever-increasing political influence and productive coordination, intensification and expansion. Tiwanaku was an imperfect and potentially volatile integration of religious cults, productive enterprises and societies. The material objectification of a seductive religious ideology that infused the monumental centre with numinous natural forces and simultaneously projected those forces across distant Andean realms helped drive Tiwanaku’s very worldly imperial mission.

Tiwanaku was apparently the first society in the altiplano to develop the level of astronomical skill which allowed it to develop such a “powerfully predictive” religion, and my application of a similar theory to Chaco relies on it also being the first place that developed a comparable knowledge of astronomy in the Southwest. I hadn’t really thought about this before reading Janusek’s work, but as far as I can tell it does in fact seem to be the case. Ray Williamson’s somewhat dated but still very useful book on Native North American astronomy (which I reviewed here) doesn’t mention any evidence of Southwestern astronomical knowledge predating Chaco, and I haven’t seen any other publications that do either. Granted, some of the evidence for astronomical evidence comes from rock art which is difficult or impossible to date, but at least when it comes to building alignments, which are more securely datable, the Chacoan great houses seem to be the earliest manifestation of detailed astronomical knowledge. Some earlier sites do show general alignments to cardinal directions and so forth, but the precise alignments to solstices and lunar standstills that are characteristic of Chacoan buildings do really seem to be innovative. I’m not totally certain that there aren’t counterexamples out there, though, so if anyone knows of any I’m very interested in hearing about them.

If this is in fact the case, it opens up several additional lines of inquiry. First, if Chaco was in fact the first place in the (northern?) Southwest to attain detailed astronomical knowledge, where did that knowledge come from? Many discussions of Chacoan astronomy have assumed, implicitly or explicitly, that the answer is “Mexico,” but I’m not so sure. There is definitely extensive evidence of contact with Mesoamerica at Chaco, but it’s all fairly indirect and there are lots of important aspects of Mesoamerican culture that are noticeably lacking. Mesoamerican astronomical knowledge was certainly impressive, and certainly predates the rise of Chaco, but given the general context I think it’s still an open question whether the Chacoans got their knowledge from contacts to the south (either directly or via the Hohokam and/or Mogollon) or developed it independently. This is an area that would definitely benefit from further study.

Secondly, why Chaco rather than somewhere else in the region? This is sort of the key question hanging over everything about Chaco, and so far no one has come up with a broadly convincing answer. I don’t have one either; the astronomy theory I’m proposing here answers the “how” of Chaco but not the “why.” It could be that, as some archaeologists have proposed, the physical setting of the canyon had unique attributes within the region that contributed to its ritual importance from an early period, which from my perspective would have provided the impetus for the development and/or integration of new astronomical knowledge into existing belief systems. Alternatively, as other archaeologists have argued, there could have been economic advantages to the location, which are not obvious to modern eyes but were sufficient to give Chaco an important role in the region, which may have made it a promising place for new ideas to develop or be introduced. And finally, maybe it’s all just a matter of historical contingency: this was where people happened to figure this stuff out, and that’s what made it attractive to others for both religious and economic reasons.

Another question is when this would have happened. Chaco was occupied for hundreds of years, but its florescence as a regional center was relatively brief, lasting roughly a century from AD 1030 to 1130 or so. One natural conclusion would be that the development of new astronomical knowledge happened at the start of this period, but I suspect it actually began earlier, probably during the period (roughly the late ninth and tenth centuries, or the late Pueblo I period) when Chaco was just one of several “proto-great-house” communities in the San Juan Basin that were more or less equal in size and influence. Over time, the advantages of the Chacoan rituals over the others would have become apparent, perhaps through fortuitous stretches of good weather and/or military successes by Chacoan warriors. This would have set the stage for Chacoan influence to expand on a vast scale during the eleventh century.

As the reference to military success in the previous paragraph suggests, I don’t see the expansion of Chacoan religious influence fueled by astronomical knowledge as having necessarily been entirely peaceful. Here again, the parallel to Tiwanaku is instructive. Note Janusek’s reference to Tiwanaku’s “very worldly imperial mission” in the quote above. I suspect what we would today see as “religious” and “secular” impulses were much more intertwined at Chaco, as indeed they have been shown to be in many societies.

All that said, I’m not totally convinced by this theory myself, and there are many strands of the Chacoan record that it doesn’t really seem to account for in an obvious way. I figured this was a good opportunity to toss it out there, though, to see whether it’s worth pursuing further.
ResearchBlogging.org
Janusek, J. (2006). The changing ‘nature’ of Tiwanaku religion and the rise of an Andean state World Archaeology, 38 (3), 469-492 DOI: 10.1080/00438240600813541

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Rio Grande from Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Rio Grande from Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Today is the winter solstice, which also makes it the fifth anniversary of this blog. I tend to like to post about archaeoastronomy on these occasions, and as I mentioned in the previous post I’m currently in Albuquerque and have been reading up on the archaeology of the Rio Grande Valley. Luckily, a recent article I read has a very interesting archaeoastronomical proposal specific to this region, which makes everything come together nicely. Getting to that point requires some explanation of the context first, however.

Today the northern Rio Grande Valley is one of the main centers of Pueblo population, and this was also true at the time the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. It’s been clear to archaeologists since the late nineteenth century that the modern eastern or Rio Grande Pueblos belong to the same overall cultural tradition as both the modern western Pueblos (Laguna, Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi) and the prehistoric Pueblo sites found all over the northern Southwest. Within this overall cultural tradition, however, there are noticeable differences in certain aspects of culture between the Rio Grande Pueblos and those further west, as well as between both groups and the prehistoric sites. The long and complicated history of interaction between the Rio Grande Pueblos and the Spanish has both led to cultural changes in this region and made the modern Pueblo residents very reluctant to reveal information about their cultures to anthropologists. Both of these phenomena make understanding the background of Pueblo diversity exceptionally difficult.

As a result, archaeological research in the northern Rio Grande area has proceeded along a somewhat different course from research further west. While extensive early research at well-preserved abandoned sites at places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde led to the formulation of a robust and well-supported relative chronological scheme by the late 1920s that was soon anchored by the absolute dates provided by tree-ring dating, fitting the Rio Grande sites into this sequence proved to be a challenge. Alfred Vincent Kidder’s extensive excavations at Pecos provided clear evidence of continuity between prehistoric and historic Pueblo culture, which allowed the historic Pueblos to be easily placed at the end of the sequence, aligning earlier developments in the east and west proved to be a challenge. Pecos itself was founded quite late in prehistory, and very few other prehistoric sites had been excavated in the Rio Grande area. The so-called “Pecos System” of chronology and culture history was actually based primarily on western sites, and over time it became clear that it didn’t fit the emerging picture of Rio Grande prehistory pretty well. That picture, based primarily on survey and excavation work done by the Laboratory of Anthropology at the Museum of New Mexico starting in the 1930s, by the 1950s resulted in a new framework for eastern Pueblo prehistory.

The main architect of the new system was Fred Wendorf, an archaeologist at the Museum of New Mexico who had done a lot of the work of documenting sites in the region. He published a paper in American Anthropologist in 1954 describing his proposed system, which consisted of five periods:

  • Preceramic: Before AD 600
  • Developmental: AD 600 to 1200
  • Coalition: AD 1200 to 1325
  • Classic: AD 1325 to 1600
  • Historic: AD 1600 to present

Contrast this to the Pecos System, as presented by Joe Ben Wheat in a paper published in the same journal in the same year:

  • Basketmaker II: Before AD 400
  • Basketmaker III: AD 400 to 700
  • Pueblo I: AD 700 to 900
  • Pueblo II: AD 900 to 1100
  • Pueblo III: AD 1100 to 1300
  • Pueblo IV: AD 1300 to 1600

The most obvious difference between the two systems is that the Pecos System contains more periods. A more subtle difference is that in the Pecos System all of the periods are associated with agriculture, which appeared quite early in the Four Corners area. Exactly how early was not quite clear in 1954; Wheat says it was “about the time of Christ.” In the Rio Grande, on the other hand, the Developmental was the earliest agricultural period in Wendorf’s scheme as well as the first ceramic one, preceded by a Preceramic period that was totally undated at the time but that Wendorf suggested may have lasted quite late, even after the beginning of the Developmental.

This pattern of delayed appearance of typical “Anasazi” cultural phenomena in the Rio Grande persisted throughout Wendorf’s scheme. He defined the beginning of the Coalition period by the switch from mineral to organic pigment in pottery decoration, a trend which had been gradually diffusing east from Arizona over the past few hundred years. Similarly, the beginning of the Classic was defined by the appearance of glaze-decorated ceramics, which had appeared a few decades earlier in the Zuni area. The Historic period began with the onset of Spanish colonization. In general Wendorf’s period definitions depended heavily on trends in pottery decoration, in contrast to the Pecos periods which were defined by a broad suite of material culture changes, with architecture especially important. One reason for this was that architecture and other cultural traits were bewilderingly diverse within each of these periods, especially the Developmental, and this diversity was apparent even with the very small number of excavated sites at that time.

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Wendorf’s scheme was in conflict on various points with a different scheme for Pueblo culture history as a whole developed by Erik Reed of the National Park Service. After Wendorf’s paper was published, discussions between the two led to an updated version of it published under both their names the next year in El Palacio. This paper has been extremely influential and the framework it established has been used by most archaeologists in the Rio Grande area since. The basic outlines of the framework are the same as those in Wendorf’s 1954 paper, with the changes involving the correction of the numerous typos in that paper, the addition of data from more recent excavations, and a somewhat different discussion of attempts to correlate archaeological phenomena with the complex distribution of modern linguistic groups. The latter was a particular interest of Reed, whose theories on it had been criticized by Wendorf in the earlier paper. I find it interesting as well, but I won’t get into it here.

Instead my focus here is on Wendorf and Reed’s Developmental period. Wendorf originally defined this period based on extremely limited information as a time of low population, diverse architectural styles and settlement patterns, and evidence of cultural influence from the San Juan Anasazi to the west. Population was extremely limited until about AD 900, when many more sites appear to have been inhabited and sites began to appear in the northern part of the region for the first time. This is the time of the rise of Chaco, and local Rio Grande ceramics show clear similarities to Chacoan types. Some archaeologists, including Reed, had argued that this rise in population came from an actual immigration of people from the Chaco area, but Wendorf doubted this, pointing out that other cultural traits showed considerable differences from Chacoan patterns. He suggested that while there could well have been some immigration from the west at this time, it was more likely from somewhere like the Mt. Taylor area that was part of the general Chacoan sphere of influence but closer to the Rio Grande, and that the number of people was likely small.

Architecture during the Developmental period was varied, with site sizes ranging from ten to 100 rooms and one to four kivas. The kivas were round and lacked most of the typical Chaco/San Juan features such as benches, pilasters, and wall recesses. They also usually faced east, in strong contrast to Chaco kivas, which usually faced south or southeast, even when they were associated with east-facing surface roomblocks (a common pattern for small houses at Chaco).

While the Wendorf and Reed system has remained in general use among Rio Grande archaeologists, the Developmental period in particular has seen much more data emerge from subsequent research, much of it associated with cultural resource management salvage projects. Cherie Scheick argued in a 2007 article that the period was much more diverse and complex than Wendorf and Reed had portrayed it as, illustrated by two nearby and contemporaneous sites in what is now Santa Fe that nevertheless had quite different ceramic assemblages which would place on in the Developmental period and the other in the Coalition period based on the Wendorf and Reed system. (This sort of thing is a major flaw with chronologies based mainly on ceramic styles, since time is by no means the only factor affecting differences in pottery.) Basically there seems to have been a long transitional period between the Developmental and Coalition in which communities with a variety of ceramic styles existed in close proximity. In particular, the introduction of carbon pigments seems to have been more variable than Wendorf and Reed realized, and they coexisted with mineral pigments for a substantial period. Scheick also points out that, contrary to what some earlier researchers had thought, there are no particular patterns over time in the architecture, such as larger villages developing later in the Developmental period.

Lurking in the background of all this research is the question of the abandonment of the Mesa Verde region and whether any of the apparent increases in population in the Rio Grande correspond to an influx of people from that area. Wendorf and Reed placed this migration in the middle of their Coalition period, with the appearance of a ceramic type, Galisteo Black-on-white, that is very similar to late Mesa Verde Black-on-white, and various other changes in material culture in the region that accompanied a population increase. However, recent research in the Mesa Verde region itself has suggested that the depopulation was a longer-term process beginning much earlier than previously thought, so some of the changes in the early Coalition period, could also be due to immigration. The basic problem is that while there are plenty of individual examples of similarity between San Juan/Mesa Verde culture and Rio Grande culture over a long period of time, there are no sites showing a complete package of San Juan cultural traits. There seems to be an emerging consensus that this is because the migration was primarily not of entire communities moving as units but of smaller units (families or lineages) that joined existing communities in the target region, perhaps ones that they had had earlier contact with through trade or other activities.

Round Kiva at Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument

Round Kiva at Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

An additional piece of evidence for this idea comes from the paper I mentioned at the beginning of this post, published by Steven Lakatos in 2007. Lakatos did an analysis of features in Rio Grande pit structures (kivas) during the Developmental period. He looked at size, orientation, and presence or absence of a hearth, an ash pit, a deflector, and a ventilator in a total of 131 excavated pit structures in the Rio Grande Valley dating to AD 600 to 1200. He looked at specific types of each of these features and came up with a wide variety of statistical comparisons. The sample sizes for most of the subsamples he looked at are so small, however, that I doubt many of these comparisons are meaningful. His overall conclusions, however, are probably reliable.

Lakatos found that there is a consistent pattern of features in pit structures throughout the Developmental period: hearth, ash pit, deflector, and ventilator, sometimes accompanied by sipapu and/or ash grinding stone, in a row aligned to the east-southeast (average azimuth from true north of 118 degrees for the Early Developmental period and 123 degrees for the late developmental). This is in strong contrast to the San Juan (Chaco/Mesa Verde) kiva pattern, where ash pits are rare, other features like benches and pilasters are common, and orientation is usually to the south or south-southeast. Lakatos notes that this Rio Grande kiva pattern continues into the Coalition period and later, as kivas become more formalized community-scale integrative structures, and while all the features in the complex potentially had originally mundane uses, the formalization of the pattern and its persistence over time suggest that at some point it acquired ritual significance. He notes the ritual importance of ash to modern Rio Grande Pueblos as a way of explaining the ash pit and ash-grinding stone as ritual features. The persistence of the pattern into the Coalition period and beyond suggests to Lakatos that immigrants to the Rio Grande from Mesa Verde and elsewhere not only joined existing communities, but largely assimilated to existing religious and cultural practices in an area that had developed a distinctive identity already. Thus, the reason it is so hard to pinpoint continuity between San Juan and Rio Grande archaeological sites is that the San Juan immigrants changed their culture to conform to Rio Grande practices.

I’m not sure I buy that there was quite as much continuity in the Rio Grande as Lakatos and other Rio Grande archaeologists tend to think. Looking at it from the outside, the ceramic evidence certainly seems to imply at least some continuity with Mesa Verde culture, and a close examination of what little ethnographic information is available on the Rio Grande Pueblos may reveal other traits of western or northern origin. Still, Lakatos’s evidence for continuity in kiva form looks convincing to me, and the patterns he identifies are certainly quite different from those of Chaco and Mesa Verde. The fact that his interpretation meshes well with other research suggesting migration by small groups into established communities is also encouraging.

So what does all this have to do with the winter solstice? Well, Lakatos also calculated the azimuth of winter solstice sunrise for the Albuquerque area in AD 1000, and it was 119 degrees east of north. This is strikingly similar to the average azimuths of the kiva alignments he analyzed, which have small standard deviations indicating strong clustering around the average values. The variation that does exist could easily correspond to local horizon variation in this rugged, mountainous region. Lakatos expresses surprise at this finding, but it makes perfect sense to me. The winter solstice is an enormously important event for the modern Pueblos, as Lakatos discusses, and pointing their kivas toward it would be a natural response to that importance. And with that in mind, I wish all my readers a happy solstice.

ResearchBlogging.org
Lakatos, SA (2007). Cultural Continuity and the Development of Integrative Architecture in the Northern Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, A.D. 600-1200 Kiva, 73 (1), 31-66

Wendorf, F (1954). A Reconstruction of Northern Rio Grande Prehistory American Anthropologist, 56 (2), 200-227 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1954.56.2.02a00050

Wendorf, F, & Reed, EK (1955). An Alternative Reconstruction of Northern Rio Grande Prehistory El Palacio, 62 (5-6), 131-173

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"Supernova" Pictograph

“Supernova” Pictograph

I recently finished reading Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian by Ray Williamson. This is a classic work on the archaeoastronomy of North America, and it’s the best introduction to the subject I’ve found. (Granted, there aren’t many out there.) Although it was written in the 1980s, the research it discusses is still quite relevant, and Williamson does a good job of giving a pretty comprehensive overview of research in most parts of the US. The 1970s and 1980s were kind of the heyday of archaeoastronomy in the US, and while there has been continuing research since then, it’s striking how few major discoveries have been made since Williamson’s book was published. Virtually all of the major discoveries I knew about before reading the book are included, plus many others I didn’t know about.

Williamson did quite a bit of research himself on astronomical phenomena at Chaco, which gets lots of coverage in the book. There is some discussion of the Sun Dagger on Fajada Butte, as well as of alignments at Pueblo Bonito and Casa Rinconada and the alleged “supernova petroglyph” near Peñasco Blanco. Williamson gives the latter a lot more credence than others, and actually has a whole chapter on alleged representations of the 1054 supernova in rock art, including several other sites I had not heard about. I’m pretty skeptical about the supernova stuff, but it’s interesting to hear about these other sites.

Reconstructed "Woodhenge" at Cahokia

Reconstructed “Woodhenge” at Cahokia

While the Chaco stuff is interesting, I already knew most of it and Williamson’s account doesn’t add a whole lot to anyone who is reasonably well-versed in it. Where this book really stands out for me is in its discussion of archaeoastronomy in other areas that get less attention, especially the Plains and California, which have a lot of archaeoastronomical phenomena despite their lack of impressive well-preserved architectural sites like those in the Southwest. The chapter on the East is also interesting, with discussion of the famous “Woodhenge” at Cahokia and the “SunWatch” site in Dayton, Ohio as well as other lesser-known sites. Even within the Southwest, Williamson devotes space to research at more obscure places like Hovenweep (which turns out to have a lot of interesting potential alignments) as well as major centers like Chaco.

Williamson also does a good job of connecting the archaeological data to ethnographic reports about astronomical practices among modern groups. There has historically been a tendency for archaeoastronomers, many of whom are astronomers or surveyors by training, to focus on identifying alignments without giving much consideration to the cultural context in which they may have existed. Williamson avoids this pitfall by giving extensive attention to ethnographic practices and their potential connections to the evidence from ancestral sites. He does a particularly good job with respect to the Pueblos, for which both the ethnographic and archaeological data are extensive, but he also includes extensive discussion of the Navajo, Pawnee, and Chumash, and some attention to various other groups. His interpretations of the ethnography at times show a tendency toward oversimplification, and some of his general comments about Native American societies are, well, overly general and imply more widespread commonalities among very different societies than is really reasonable, but he’s not an anthropologist and as such I think these flaws are quite forgivable given all the interesting data he presents in accessible form.

Hovenweep Castle, Utah

Hovenweep Castle, Utah

I also read a 2003 review article on archaeoastronomy in the Americas, written by prominent archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni, to get a sense of research since the 1980s, but it didn’t add much. For one thing, as mentioned above, the pace of archaeoastronomy seems to have leveled off a lot since then, and it’s striking how many of the references in Aveni’s article are to publications from the 1970s and 1980s. Also, while the article does cover North America as one of its three main sections, it spends much more space on the other two sections, Mesoamerica and South America. This is unsurprising, since the major civilizations in these areas have written records (mostly from the contact period but in the case of the Maya precontact as well) to which archaeological data can be compared. In addition, they have just received more attention in general from archaeoastronomers than cultures further north. Aveni himself studies Mesoamerica, so he has a lot to say about research there.

That said, however, Aveni’s account of North American archaeoastronomy is also surprisingly sloppy and riddled with obvious errors. He refers to Cahokia as “part of the Adena-Hopewell culture,” which is just laughably wrong; Cahokia is the preeminent site of the Mississippian culture, which arose centuries after the decline of Hopewell. He also attributes the Poverty Point site in Louisiana to the Adena, whereas it is actually significantly earlier. His discussion of the Southwest doesn’t contain any obvious errors of that magnitude, but it is very brief and superficial, as is the whole North American section of the paper.

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Overall, then, I guess I would say that Williamson’s book is a much better introduction to North American archaeoastronomy than Aveni’s article, but that is kind of a trivial conclusion since it’s also much easier to find for the general reader. Even academics who have access to the Aveni paper, though, probably won’t get much out of it on this topic.
ResearchBlogging.org
Aveni AF (2003). Archaeoastronomy in the Ancient Americas Journal of Archaeological Research, 11 (2), 149-191 DOI: 10.1023/A:1022971730558

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University of New Mexico Observatory, Albuquerque, New Mexico

University of New Mexico Observatory, Albuquerque, New Mexico

I’m currently in Albuquerque visiting my mom and helping her out with some things. I usually try to mark the solstices on this blog, but in this case I’ve been too busy to put together a real post. (The solstice was technically yesterday in this time zone anyway.) I know the blog has been pretty quiet lately; I’ve been busy with various things, but I have been getting back into reading stuff about the Southwest and will have some substantive posts soon. Anyway, happy solstice and so forth.

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Sign with Summer Solstice Sunrise and Sunset Times, Anchorage, Alaska

Today is the summer solstice, and here in the “land of the midnight sun” the longest day of the year is very long indeed. In Anchorage, we don’t quite get to 24 hours of daylight, but it is nevertheless well after 11:00 pm as I write this and the sun is still up. North of the Arctic Circle they do have periods where the sun doesn’t set at all, for varying lengths of time depending on latitude. The northernmost community is Barrow, which gets several weeks of non-stop daylight in the summer (with a corresponding period of darkness in the winter, of course).

Given that the solstice falls right in the middle of this period of extreme daylight, it might be expected that Arctic peoples would mark it in some way, as many other societies around the world do (including the indigenous cultures of the US Southwest, as extensively documented in prior posts here). And this does indeed appear to be the case, though with a typically Alaskan twist.

Whalebone Arch with Umiak Frames, Barrow, Alaska

The Inupiaq Eskimos of the North Slope of Alaska, which lies entirely above the Arctic Circle, have traditionally had a whaling-based subsistence system, and to a considerable degree still do. They hunt whales in the spring (and in some villages also in the fall) using a type of traditional skin boat known as an umiak. These are large, open boats made of a wooden frame covered with the hides of walruses or seals, made according to a rigorous traditional protocol. They are used in other areas further south along the Bering Sea coast as well, but their close association with whaling is most pronounced on the North Slope. A recent article by Susan Fair discussed them in the context of their architectural uses as temporary shelters in various settings and their cultural importance in both whaling and the demarcation of ceremonial and other culturally important spaces at certain times.

One of those times is the Whale Feast, often known as Nalukataq (although that name technically refers only to the blanket toss that is one of the most famous elements of it). This ceremony is held only in years when at least one whale has been taken, and while its exact date varies it is scheduled for sometime around the summer solstice. As the name “Whale Feast” implies, the main focus of this event is on sharing the meat from harvested whales with the community, and it is an opportunity for the whaling captains (known as umialiit) who own the umiaks to demonstrate their generosity and show off their prowess.

Umiak on Sea Ice, Barrow, Alaska

Fair focuses in her article on the role the umiaks play in both the ceremony and the social system behind it, in which the small number of umialiit in a village form an elite within it and the umiak serves as a symbol of their power and prestige, but I was more interested in the timing of the feast. The spring whaling season at least in Barrow generally ends in late May or early June (it had recently ended when I was up there at the end of May and there were umiaks with flags raised indicating whaling success all over the place), so having the feast in late June makes a certain amount of just practical sense given the preparations necessary, but I do wonder if there is a deeper significance to the association with the solstice, perhaps as a vestige of a large role for indigenous astronomy in the pre-Contact era. I have not been able to find much information on archaeoastronomy or ethnoastronomy in Alaska, but given the high latitude and spectacular celestial phenomena that abound here I’m sure Native people have long been attuned to the sky. Recent changes, especially aggressive Christian missionization that sought to stamp out Native religion, has obscured a lot of the earlier cultural practices, but I wonder if things like the timing of the Whale Feast preserve bits and pieces of aspects of traditional knowledge that are otherwise forgotten. Certainly a topic that could use more attention, I think.

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Delaney Park at Noon on the Winter Solstice, Anchorage, Alaska

Today is the winter solstice, which means two things: the anniversary of the beginning of this blog (three years now), and the shortest day of the year.  Up here in Alaska, the second is particularly noteworthy.  We had about five and a half hours of daylight today; officially, the sun rose around 10:15 and set around 3:45.  In Anchorage, however, which has mountains to the east, the sun didn’t actually appear until about 11:00.  The state likes to emphasize the converse of this phenomenon in summer in their promotional material, of course, hence the idea that Alaska is the “Land of the Midnight Sun,” but in the winter the “Twilight Noon” is equally appropriate.  Indeed, for the parts of the state that are below the Arctic Circle (most of it), it never gets completely dark or completely light for 24 hours straight, so the Midnight Sun never strictly appears even on the summer solstice.  Noon on the winter solstice definitely does start to look pretty similar to twilight, though.

I’ve talked a lot about archaeoastronomy in the Southwest on this blog, which is why marking events like the solstices has been such an important part of it, but as far as I can tell there is no evidence that the native people up here paid much attention to astronomical phenomena.  (It’s quite possible that they did and I just haven’t found the documentation of it, of course.)  This could be because of the lack of an indigenous agricultural tradition, since calendar-making has generally been linked to agriculture, although of course seasonal events like salmon runs are often very important to non-agricultural people and it would presumably be helpful to have a means of marking them.  I believe navigation by the stars was pretty well developed among some of the more maritime-oriented societies of the North, which makes sense given the general lack of landmarks along the Arctic Ocean coastline, but use of the sky to tell time doesn’t seem to have been as important.  Presumably people just paid more attention to other time markers.  This is a topic I should definitely look into.  Anyway, happy solstice, and thanks for reading.

Captain Cook Statue at Noon on the Winter Solstice, Anchorage, Alaska

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"Supernova" Pictograph

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.  The Fourth is actually a pretty important date for the study of Chaco, but in a roundabout (and somewhat controversial) way.  It all has to do with a very famous pictograph panel below Peñasco Blanco at the west end of the canyon.  While the interpretation of this panel is a matter of considerable debate, one way it’s been seen is as a record of an astronomical event that is known to have occurred during the height of Chaco’s power and influence: the supernova of 1054, which formed the Crab Nebula.

We know from several Chinese reports that the “guest star” resulting from the supernova first appeared on July 4, 1054 and continued to be visible day and night for almost two years.  There are a few Japanese records of the supernova as well, along with one report from the Arab world.  No clear-cut and unambiguous accounts are known from Europe or elsewhere in the world, although a few rock art panels in the Southwest have been proposed as representing the event.  The most famous of these is the one at Chaco, which is often referred to as the “Supernova Pictograph” (even by the park itself in a sign at the site).  It consists of three symbols painted onto the rock face in red: a hand, a crescent, and a starburst-like shape.  It’s the starburst that has been interpreted as representing the supernova itself, of course, and the crescent has been seen as representing the crescent moon.  On the morning of July 5, the moon, which was a crescent at the time, would have appeared in roughly the same relationship to the supernova, as seen from the pictograph site, as the relationship between the two symbols on the panel.  Furthermore, the handprint points in the direction one would have looked to see this at at the time.  The combination of the three symbols together, plus the fact that this would have happened at a time of considerable activity in the canyon, has led some to suggest that this pictograph panel was created to commemorate this historic event.  The specific location may have been an established sun-watching position, from which the new star was seen unexpectedly and recorded.

Sign at the "Supernova Pictograph"

It all sounds fairly plausible as it goes, but there are some problems with this theory.  Probably the biggest problem is that the specific set of symbols on the panel is known from ethnographic evidence to have been used by the Zunis to mark generic sunwatching sites, with the crescent representing the moon, the starburst representing the sun, and the hand marking the location as sacred.  Now, it’s certainly possible that these symbols came to be associated with this activity as a result of the observation of the supernova at this site, but as far as I know there’s no reference to the supernova in ethnographic descriptions of astronomical observation at Zuni or any of the other modern Pueblos, so this is a pretty tenuous claim.

Furthermore, while the 1054 supernova would certainly have been noticeable at Chaco, there was an earlier supernova in 1006 (also recorded by the Chinese, and possibly by the Hohokam in southern Arizona) that was much brighter, and it’s not clear why the Chacoans wouldn’t have recorded that one too.  It took place before the Chaco system really got going on a regional scale, but there was plenty of activity in the canyon during the 900s, so people there would presumably have seen it.  It’s possible that it was recorded too, at some other site that hasn’t been found or that has disappeared in the thousand years that have elapsed since the event (note that the existing Supernova Pictograph has only survived because it was under a protective overhang), but again, there’s not any evidence for this.  The Chacoans are definitely known to have kept careful track of regular patterns in the skies, such as the solstices and the lunar standstills, so they surely would have seen unusual events such as supernovae, but it’s not clear how they would have reacted to them or how inclined they would have been to record them.

View Looking East from "Supernova Petroglyph"

So it’s not really clear how to interpret the Chaco pictograph.  I think the balance of evidence at this point leans slightly against it being a representation of the supernova, but I could be talked out of that position if some additional evidence for the supernova theory can be found.

Others, however, have proposed even more extreme theories based on the 1054 supernova.  Among the more noteworthy of these is a proposal by Timothy Pauketat and Thomas Emerson, in a 2008 article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, that the rather sudden florescence of the Cahokia site in Illinois around AD 1050 may have had something to do with the supernova.  The theory they present is interesting, but hard to effectively support.  For one thing, dating methods in the Midwest are much less precise than in the Southwest, so pinning down any event to the year is usually not possible.  There is certainly a suggestive correspondence between the sudden rise of Cahokia and the supernova, however, and this is supported by the apparent use of stellar imagery and symbolism at Cahokia and the importance of the stars to later cultures in the area, so there may well be something to this.

Opening at Casa Rinconada That Channels Sunbeam at Sunrise on Summer Solstice

I’m a bit troubled, however, by the reliance of Pauketat and Emerson on evidence from Chaco and the way they interpret it.  For one thing, they say that the Supernova Pictograph is “above” Peñasco Blanco, when it’s actually below it, and not visible from the great house itself.  More importantly, they say of the effect of the supernova:

Some believe that this particular cosmic event, which left behind the Crab Nebula, was commemorated in architecture and iconography at the time or in subsequent years. The most compelling evidence for this comes not from the Cahokia region but from the American Southwest, where a tree-cutting date places the construction of the largest and most isolated ceremonial building in Chaco Canyon, Casa Rinconada (noted for its many astronomical alignments) to AD
1054.

Now, it’s true that there is a single tree-ring cutting date from Casa Rinconada that dates to 1054.  This is, however, the only tree-ring date for the site, so while it’s plausible that it dates the construction of the site this definitely cannot be stated as definitively as Pauketat and Emerson state it here.  There is no specific provenience information available for this beam, so there’s no way to tell how it was used and whether it can plausibly be said to date to the initial construction of the site.  The general architecture of Casa Rinconada is consistent with a construction date in the 1050s, but without more specific information tying it to a specific year on the basis of one unprovenienced beam is unwarranted.

Looking through Solstice-Aligned Opening at Casa Rinconada toward Aligned Niche

Furthermore, even if Rinconada was built in 1054, that doesn’t establish that it was built because of the supernova.  There was extensive construction in the canyon throughout the mid-1000s, associated with Chaco’s apparent rise to regional dominance, and this began well before 1054.  The major expansion of Pueblo Bonito began by the 1040s at the latest, and various other construction projects at other sites in the canyon dates to this general period.  Rinconada could easily have been part of this general process without any specific relationship to the supernova.  Indeed, there’s nothing about Rinconada that seems to refer to the supernova, despite the various astronomical alignments (some of them controversial as well, it should be noted) identified there.

None of this means that the supernova didn’t have an important role at Cahokia, of course, and it doesn’t even rule out an important role at Chaco itself.  It does mean, however, that developments at Chaco shouldn’t really be used as evidence for developments at Cahokia, even though the two sites are contemporaneous and Chaco can be dated much more precisely.  Cahokia may well have risen as a result of the 1054 supernova, but neither the Supernova Petroglyph at Chaco nor the one tree-ring date at Casa Rinconada provides evidence that it did.
ResearchBlogging.org
Pauketat, T., & Emerson, T. (2008). Star Performances and Cosmic Clutter Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 18 (1), 78-85 DOI: 10.1017/S0959774308000085

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Fajada Butte from Pueblo Alto

Happy solstice, everyone.  To mark the occasion I figured I’d say a bit about archaeoastronomy, which is an important topic at Chaco that I don’t discuss very often.  The various alignments identified at the great houses in the canyon have become quite famous through the work of the Solstice Project to document them, and while I don’t think all of their proposed alignments are necessarily real, there is enough evidence by now to suggest that at least some of them are.  Cardinal direction alignments are the most obvious, and the least likely to be coincidental (in my view), and these are found at a few of the sites at Chaco, particularly Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Alto, and Tsin Kletzin.  Interestingly, these three are all in the center of the canyon (“Downtown Chaco”), and the line running due north-south from Pueblo Alto to Tsin Kletzin runs between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl through the “Chaco Amphitheater.”  This all suggests some pretty extensive planning, but it’s interesting that the other parts of the canyon don’t seem to have been part of it.  I find the Solstice Project’s proposed alignments at many of the other sites in the canyon a lot more dubious, especially since so many of them are allegedly to the minor lunar standstill.  It seems more plausible that there would be solstice alignments in the canyon, and there do indeed seem to be some “viewing points” from which solstice sunrises are marked by prominent features on the horizon, but the only solstice-aligned building proposed by the Solstice Project is Aztec West, which isn’t even at Chaco, although it’s clearly Chacoan in style.

Steve Lekson has proposed that one possible reason for the variety of alignments in Chacoan great houses is conflict between factions within Chacoan society.  The way he sees it, solstice alignments were the regional tradition, and cardinal alignments were a new idea at Chaco, perhaps threatening to the old order in the way that many new developments at Chaco were.  Indeed, alignment to the southeast was a common architectural practice in pre-Chaco communities, and this may well have had something to do with the solstices, although as far as I know none of these buildings have been demonstrated to have precise solstitial alignments.  I’m not so sure that cardinal direction alignments were not present in the region before Chaco, however, and I’m also unsure of whether differences in building orientation really represent ideology the way Lekson proposes.  I’m more inclined to wonder if they may instead reflect different ethnic or regional origins for different groups.  In either case, though, the factionalism idea is interesting, and quite compatible with what we know of later Pueblo societies.  In Lekson’s version, the solstice alignment of Aztec reflects the founding of that center by the solstitial faction at Chaco, while the cardinal faction went elsewhere, maybe to Paquimé, which has a strong cardinal alignment.  I’m not sure how much of that I buy, but it’s worth thinking about.

Pueblo Alto and New Alto from Tsin Kletzin

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Two Years

Beginning of Lunar Eclipse on Winter Solstice 2010 from Highland Park, New Jersey

Today is the winter solstice, which means it’s now been two years since I started this blog.  In the past year my readership has increased quite a bit, which has been quite gratifying.  This has always been something of a niche blog, so I don’t expect it to ever get huge numbers of readers, but it’s been quite nice to see how it’s developed.  When I started it one of my main purposes was to find a place to permanently put versions of my well-rehearsed answers to the questions I would frequently get as a tour guide at Chaco, and I’ve mostly accomplished that goal at this point and moved on to other things.  Right now, since I’m in school and have access to a major university library system and a lot of scholarly databases, one of my main purposes is to present and explain important and interesting pieces of scholarship that the general public does not generally have easy access to.  That may change in the future as my personal circumstances and intellectual interests change, but I don’t see this blog going away any time soon.  Thanks to all my readers for making this a fantastic two years so far.

Oh, and the eclipse last night was quite impressive.  Here in New Jersey the sky was clear and we could see it very well.  I hear it was overcast in much of the Southwest so a lot of people couldn’t see it, which is unfortunate.  I took some pictures.

Total Lunar Eclipse on Winter Solstice 2010 from Highland Park, New Jersey

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Solstice Eclipse

Winter Solstice Sunset

Astronomical events are closely associated with Chaco Canyon, and the summer and winter solstices seem to have been particularly important to the ancient inhabitants.  The winter solstice is coming up tomorrow, and there also happens to be a total lunar eclipse that will coincide with it.  It’s very rare for an eclipse to occur right on the solstice, so I figured I’d put out the word for any of my readers who haven’t heard and might be interested in watching it tonight.  It’ll be visible throughout North America, provided the sky is clear, starting at about 1:30 am Eastern Time.  At particularly dark locations like Chaco the eclipse will be more spectacular, of course, but the thing about eclipses is that they’re visible even in more developed areas with more light pollution, so a lot of people should be able to see this one.

Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

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