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rinconadasolsticewindow

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

Today is the summer solstice, so I thought I’d pop back in to do a post about archaeoastronomy, as is my wont. This time it isn’t about the archaeoastronomy of Chaco Canyon per se, but the larger context in which it would have developed, namely that of the civilizations of Mesoamerica to the south.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a tentative theory that part of the impetus for the rise of Chaco as a regional center may have been that its leaders were the first in the Southwest, or at least the northern Southwest, to develop a ritual system based on astronomical observation and alignments, which would have enhanced their ritual authority and consequently their economic and political authority as well. It can be very difficult to date archaeoastronomical phenomena, but it does appear based on my research so far that Chaco does indeed have the earliest datable evidence for astronomical alignments in the northern Southwest, and possibly in the Southwest as a whole. (There is some possible evidence for earlier alignments among the Hohokam of southern Arizona, but it’s somewhat questionable.) This provides some tentative support for the theory.

I don’t think it’s likely that the Chacoan leaders developed their astronomy on their own, though. There is plenty of evidence for contact and communication between them and Mesoamerica, though it isn’t always clear how direct this may have been (as opposed to indirect and mediated through groups in between such as the Hohokam). The much more complex societies of Mesoamerica also had much more elaborate astronomical and calendrical systems than anyone in the Southwest, so they are an obvious source for this as well.

They also presumably developed their knowledge earlier, so as I was thinking about my Chaco theory it occurred to me that it would be good to look into when exactly astronomical alignments and other evidence of this knowledge appear in Mesoamerica and how they spread and changed over time. Basically, the question is whether what is known about the origin and spread of astronomical knowledge in Mesoamerica is consistent with what appears to be true of the origin and spread of similar knowledge further north. Also, it would be helpful to know just how similar the alignments and other phenomena known from Mesoamerica are to those in the Southwest, again to judge the plausibility of a connection.

Luckily for me, an article published last year addressed this exact issue. Written by the Slovenian scholar Ivan Šprajc, it was published in the Journal of Archaeological Research and discusses the temporal and spatial distribution of different building alignments in Mesoamerica. It’s actually a bit odd that this article was published in this journal, which mostly publishes review articles giving a broad overview of recent research on a certain topic in archaeology. Šprajc’s article is in the form of such a review, more or less, but it actually primarily discusses a specific research project done by him and several collaborators, in which they collected very precise and complete data on the alignments of major buildings at many archaeological sites throughout most of the Mesoamerican culture area and analyzed them statistically to come up with general patterns of alignment and see what patterns emerged.

The results were very interesting, especially from an outside perspective. You might expect alignments to the summer and winter solstice sunrises and sunsets to be common, and they were to some extent, but they were by no means the most common. (Alignments to cardinal directions were also present but were even less common.) Much more common, especially in the Maya region, were alignments to certain points on the horizon that do appear to reflect particular sunrises and sunsets, but on different days than the solstices. The specific days cluster in February and October for sunrises and April and August for sunsets. Based on comparisons to ethnohistoric and modern ethnographic accounts of agricultural cycles, Šprajc proposes that these dates marked significant points in the cycle of planting and harvesting cycle, especially for maize, and that marking them would have been part of a very practical system of timekeeping that would also presumably have had ritual importance.

Furthermore, the numbers of days separating many of these dates that pattern together at particular sites tend to reflect multiples of 13 and 20, which are key numbers in the Mesoamerican calendar system, particularly in the 260-day ritual calendar. (Note that 260 is 13 times 20.) Based on the practices of some modern Maya communities that still measure their agricultural cycles this way, it appears that the alignments to mark the key dates would have allowed people to count from those points to figure out the rest of the cycle using these intervals. Since the same dates recur at these intervals in the ritual calendar, which is not calibrated to the solar year, people could have easily used them to keep track of the times for specific activities without worrying about a general calibration.

As a simplified example, if the alignment of a building in a community marked the beginning of the planting season based on the position of the sun, and the community knew that the harvest would come 260 days later, they could take note of the ritual calendar date (number and day-sign) of the beginning day marked by the alignment, the correspondence of which to the solar calendar would vary from year to year, and know that when that date came up again it would be time for harvest. This seems to me like a clever way to deal with the eternal problem of calibrating a solar calendar to seasonal cycles.

Be that as it may, it seems reasonably clear that nothing nearly this elaborate in either calendrical development or architectural alignment was present in the ancient Southwest (though it would be interesting to check some building alignments to see if any of these particular ones show up, which as far as I know no one has done). More interesting to me from my Southwestern perspective is Šprajc’s regional and temporal analysis, which does seem to tentatively provide some support for my Chaco theory.

Šprajc finds, perhaps unsurprisingly, that solstice alignments are the earliest, and that they are particularly characteristic of Preclassic sites in several regions, including Central Mexico, the Olmec region on the Gulf Coast, and the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. What he calls “quarter-day” orientations, which are not strictly to the equinoxes but to the calculated points in between the solstice alignments, are also common in early sites and often associated with solstice alignments. (He is dubious that actual equinox alignments really existed because they are difficult to observe.) In contrast, these alignments are fairly rare in early Maya sites.

The more complex calendrical alignments also appear fairly early, especially in Oaxaca but also in some Olmec sites as well as some in Central Mexico. It appears to be at Teotihuacan in the Early Classic period where two of the widespread calendrical alignments appear together for the first time, accounting for this major city’s well-known layout featuring two slightly different street grids. The subsequent spread of these alignments may be due in part to influence from Teotihuacan throughout Mesoamerica during the Classic period.

Among the areas of apparent Teotihuacan influence in alignment were northern and western Mesoamerica, which are the areas through which influence would presumably have flowed on its way to the Southwest. Šprajc notes, however, that the pattern of alignments shows a lot more diversity in these areas than elsewhere, with solstice and even cardinal alignments retaining substantial influence, and the northern site of Alta Vista may even have a true equinox alignment. From following the references to the more detailed report, it appears that the northern and western sites in the sample are all relatively late, with none earlier than the Early Classic. This is consistent with a spread of at least solstice alignment concepts, and possibly some other ideas, spreading gradually in this direction from the Mesoamerican heartland, eventually reaching Chaco by its rise in the Early Postclassic.

Finally, a word on the moon. Lunar standstill alignments have been identified at some Chacoan sites, especially Chimney Rock, but are controversial due to their general rarity worldwide. I found it intriguing, therefore, that Šprajc does identify some of these in Mesoamerica, but clustered primarily into specific subregions, especially the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and the Usumacinta drainage at the western edge of the Maya Lowlands. These alignments seem to be to the major lunar standstill and are associated with solstice alignments, implying that perhaps it was the full moons near the solstices that were primarily observed. They also seem to be associated with worship of a particular moon goddess, which helps to distinguish them from alignments to Venus, which are similar and were present in other subareas. This is way on the other end of Mesoamerica from the part most likely to have influenced the Southwest, so direct influence seems unlikely, but it’s interesting to note.

Overall, this article provides very interesting context for understanding Chaco and the role astronomy may have played in its florescence. Happy solstice!

 

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Chaco Is Open!

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Welcome Sign at North Entrance

Just a quick follow-up to the previous post: With the shutdown over and the government open again, at least for a little while, Chaco Canyon is open to visitors again. Per a post on the park’s Facebook page, normal operations resumed yesterday, January 27. The current deal only lasts three weeks, though, so if you want to definitely get a trip in do it fast.

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Entrance to Pueblo Bonito

Chaco Is Closed

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“Area Closed” Sign at Fajada Butte View

This is just a quick post to share some information likely to be of interest to my readers. There has been a lot of confusion about exactly how the National Park Service is responding to the government shutdown, which park units are accessible and not, and so forth. I’ve been pretty confused myself, and unfortunately this led me to give incorrect advice to a reader who asked if Chaco Canyon is accessible during the shutdown. I said my understanding, based on media reports, was that the parks are open but no visitor services are being provided. Since Chaco is mostly a self-guided experience, I took that to mean that the park would be accessible but the visitor center would be closed and no tours would be provided.

Well, the reader took my advice and headed out to Chaco, only to find that the gate was closed and the park was definitely neither open nor accessible. He let me know, and was nice about it, but I felt bad about leading him astray so I figured I would pass that information on here. Chaco is closed for the shutdown. Anyone planning to visit in the next few weeks should keep that in mind and monitor the news for information on when the government and the park will reopen.

If you do end up having to redirect a trip to Chaco as a result of the shutdown, Salmon Ruins in Bloomfield, New Mexico is one of the largest and most accessible Chacoan outlier sites, and since it’s managed by San Juan County rather than the federal government it is unaffected by the shutdown. Another option a little further afield is Edge of the Cedars in Blanding, Utah, which is a Utah state park and similarly unaffected. Most other Chacoan outlier sites that are open to the public are managed by federal agencies and will likely be inaccessible.

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Edge of the Cedars Great House, Utah

In previous shutdowns parks have been closed entirely, which is the simplest and, from a resource-protection standpoint, most reasonable approach. This time it seems the NPS is taking a different and more complicated approach for reasons that are unclear. To try to get a better understanding of what exactly the NPS is doing with parks in this shutdown, particularly as it relates to Chaco, I took a look at the official NPS contingency plan. Two sections seem to explain what’s going on there:

As a general rule, if a facility or area is locked or secured during non-business hours (buildings, gated parking lots, etc.) it should be locked or secured for the duration of the shutdown.

This seems to explain what’s going on on the ground at Chaco, as reported by my reader who went there. The park loop road is ordinarily gated at night, so it appears that they’ve closed the gate for the duration of the shutdown. There are a few things to see on the way in to the park before the gate, but the vast majority of the sites and trails are beyond it.

At the superintendent’s discretion, parks may close grounds/areas with sensitive natural, cultural, historic, or archaeological resources vulnerable to destruction, looting, or other damage that cannot be adequately protected by the excepted law enforcement staff that remain on duty to conduct essential activities.

It’s possible that this section is also relevant, though it’s less clear. Certainly it would be best for resource protection to close all the major sites and trails; it’s hard enough for the law enforcement rangers to monitor visitor activity when the park is operating under normal circumstances. The test for this would be whether the attractions on the way into the park, particularly the Gallo Cliff Dwelling and the trail to Wijiji, are closed, which is not clear to me from the information I have. The park website currently says it’s closed entirely but without explanation of what that entails, so it may well be the case that this section has been invoked.

Hopefully the shutdown will be resolved soon and things will go back to normal, but for now it’s best to steer clear of Chaco. If I hear of any changes or get more information I’ll do another post.

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Central Roomblock at Salmon Ruin

Changes

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Winter Solstice Sunset, Chaco Canyon

Today is the winter solstice, which means it’s the tenth anniversary of this blog.

Ten years is a long time for this sort of thing, and the online landscape has changed a lot in the time I’ve been doing this. When I started, blogging was still a relatively hip new thing, and there were blogs starting up all over the place on all sorts of topics. Social media as we know it today was in its infancy, and while most of the major platforms did exist they didn’t have nearly the reach or the cultural position that they do now.

Over those ten years, blogging has waned as a medium, and a lot of the discursive energy that made it so interesting migrated to various social media platforms. It never totally went away, as it’s a very good medium for the sort of long-form, infrequent content that does not fit easily into social media, and my own blogging has increasingly moved into that mode as well. I get few comments and fewer active discussions in comment threads these days, although that is partly due to the fact that I rarely engage in the comment threads myself anymore. Blogging has just become a different beast than it once was.

I also haven’t had as much time for it in recent years as I used to. My posting frequency has declined over time, and in recent years it’s generally been once a month. I’ve made a point of never missing a calendar month, although it’s been a close call a few times. Some of the posts I’ve done to meet those deadlines have been pretty insubstantial, though, and I’m not very proud of them. I’ve continued to do occasional longer, more in-depth posts, but I just don’t have as much time in my life for blogging as I used to.

I’m not quitting, though. I’ve considered it, and even considered using this anniversary post to announce it, but I still have more to say. Tim Burke had a post recently about the decline of blogging, and a lot of it resonated deeply with me although not all of it is relevant to the type of blogging I do here. Particularly resonant was his conclusion:

And yet, I remain hopeful about blogging. I am not sure why. I am not sure when. This remains open for business, nevertheless.

Likewise, this site remains open for business, but with some changes. I still have plenty to say about the ancient Southwest as well as other topics, but I’ll be restricting my writing here to the former. I may find a new outlet (or more than one) for writing about other topics, including some that I’ve written about here in the past, and if I do I’ll mention it here. But in view of the particular audience for this site and its history, I think it’s best to keep the focus here fairly narrow going forward. I haven’t been as able to keep up on recent research on Chaco Canyon as I used to, but there’s been a lot of it and I’m sure I will return to it at some point. When I do, I’ll discuss it here.

I’m also going to dispense with the artificial monthly schedule and just post whenever I have something to say. The sorts of posts I have in mind, some of which I’ve been thinking about for years, will be long and take a while to write, and I don’t want to either rush them or put them off even longer in an effort to post with a consistent rhythm. Stay tuned.

Finally, to give this post a little bit of substantive content in addition to my blathering on, here’s a nice post, written fifteen years ago by another old-school blogger, Kieran Healy, about the Irish megalithic site of Newgrange and its solstice alignment. Healy’s conclusion about it is thought-provoking and seasonally appropriate, now more than ever:

A society—a civilization, if you like—is a hard thing to hold together. If you live in an agrarian society, and you have only stone, wood, and bone for tools, and you are on the western edge of Europe, few times are harder than the dead of Winter. The days are at their shortest, the sun is far away, and the Malthusian edge is right in front of you. It’s no wonder so many religious festivals take place around the solstice. Here were a people, more than five millennia ago, able not only to pull through the Winter successfully, but able also to build something like a huge timepiece to remind themselves that they were going to make it.

Times change, but we’ll make it too. Happy solstice.

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Chetro Ketl, the Talus Unit, and Pueblo Bonito from the Cliff Top

The New Chaco Museum

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New Museum at Chaco Canyon

Last week I went down to New Mexico for Thanksgiving, and while I was there I stopped by Chaco Canyon to see the new museum there. I had seen the new visitor center last year when I was there last, but the museum was still under construction so I wasn’t able to see it. It’s actually still not totally complete, but it is open to visitation and it is very impressive.

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Old Museum of Chaco Culture

The old Chaco museum was put together in the 1980s and by the time I was working at Chaco it was very outdated. It only had artifacts from the park’s own collection, which is fairly limited and doesn’t include the extraordinary finds excavated by early archaeologists, which are now in various museums elsewhere in the country. The interpretations weren’t necessarily inaccurate, but they were old and didn’t incorporate recent findings. It was also just a generally dark and dingy space, and not very pleasant as an experience.

The new museum is a vast improvement on all these counts. When it is complete it will have artifacts borrowed from those other museums, so the enormously impressive artifacts for which the canyon is famous will finally be available for viewing at the park itself after decades away. I say “when it is complete” because the artifacts are not actually there yet. Due to the lending museums’ strict standards, the park needs to develop and demonstrate very high-quality protective environmental conditions, which takes time and specialized expertise, and that process is not yet complete though park staff told me it is expected to be in the next few months. For now, there are a lot of empty cases with notes explaining the situation.

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Note Explaining Lack of Artifacts at New Chaco Museum

Even so, however, the types of artifacts intended to be shown and the explanatory material already in place shows that the new museum will incorporate current understandings and recent research to an impressive degree. Several interesting concepts that have come up in research discussed on this blog will be highlighted, including the discovery of chocolate residue in cylinder vessels and the idea that the “hachure” designs on black-on-white pottery represent the color blue-green. There is also a much more extensive discussion of modern Native communities and their connections to Chaco.

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Discussion of Modern Native Connections at New Chaco Museum

Aesthetically, too, the new space is much lighter and feels more open. It actually has the same footprint as the old one and isn’t any bigger, but it feels more spacious and comfortable. It’s a very pleasant visiting experience.

I’m looking forward to returning once the artifacts are in place, of course, but even without them it was a very worthwhile visit. This well-planned museum bodes well for the future of the park.

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“Chaco in Color” Display at New Chaco Museum

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Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Fajada Butte is one of the most prominent and noticeable landforms in Chaco Canyon. Standing as it does in the middle of one of the larger gaps in the canyon, it never fails to impress new visitors and longtime ones alike. These days it is most famous for the “Sun Dagger” spiral petroglyph near its summit that marks the summer solstice through an ingenious use of naturally occurring rockfall, but there is much more to Fajada than this one site and it seems to have played an important role in human understanding of the canyon for centuries, down to the present day.

We have only the limited information that can be gleaned from archaeology to use to try to understand what Fajada may have meant to the ancient Chacoans, but we are on firmer ground in understanding its meaning to the modern Navajo residents of the canyon and surrounding area. (Whether there is any connection between the two sets of meanings is an interesting question that is even harder to answer.) Navajo traditions about the butte center on a widespread and very interesting story, which serves in part to explain how it rises as an isolated promontory in the middle of one of the larger gaps in the mesas that define the canyon. This is the story of the “Witch Woman” or “Woman Who Dries You Up” who is said to live atop the mesa.

There are many versions of the story told by Navajos from various places, not just in the vicinity of Chaco itself, but the core of it is that the Witch Woman disguises herself as a young woman to seduce a man and bring him back to her house, which is at ground level. When he wakes up in the morning, she has transformed into an old crone and the butte has magically risen up beneath her house. Since there is no source of water atop the butte, the men entrapped this way generally die of thirst, hence the name “Woman Who Dries You Up.” There is an isolated boulder on top of the butte that is locally called the “Witch Woman’s House” from this story.

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Fajada Butte from Road into Chaco

The simple version of the story given above is pretty straightforward and could be viewed as merely an attempt to account for the origin of the notably isolated landform, and that may well be the origin of it. There are some versions that are more complex, however, possibly weaving in parts of other stories that may not have been originally related but that are certainly evocative.

One such version was reported in a brief article by W. W. and Dorothy Hill published in 1943 based on fieldwork by one of them (it’s not clear which) a few years earlier. It was told by a man from Crown Point, New Mexico, which is one of the closer communities to Chaco but definitely well outside the canyon itself. As reported in the article it is somewhat disjointed, and it’s clear that there must be more detail in the full version, though whether it was abridged by the Hills or by the original teller is unclear.

Anyway, the story centers on a “Holy Man” who has various adventures. He runs a race against Old Man Frog and has to give up his legs, which Frog gives to his wife who then grinds corn for four nights without stopping. Some men put pollen on her and she falls asleep, which allows the Holy Man’s brother to retrieve the legs and return them to him. The Holy Man then heads home and lightning misses him four times, which “initiates” him into something (presumably giving him some sort of supernatural power).

When he gets home he asks his relatives to have a ceremony for him, perhaps to cure him of some sort of bad influence from his adventures so far. At one point in the ceremony he is sent outside the hogan, where he meets the Witch Woman in her seductive young woman form. She brings him to her house, described as “a piece of hard rock where he found all kinds of jewelry, shells, and hides.” He spends the night, during which the rock grows and becomes the butte.

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Fajada Butte with Ramp (Lower Right)

So he wakes up and the young woman has become a crone, and he’s up on top of the butte with no way down. He walks around for a while until a jay and a dove, who are explained to be young girls in disguise, come to him. They make fun of him but also give him water, foiling the Witch Woman’s usual modus operandi.

The birds feed and water him for four days, then they tell him that Big Snake will come up to the east side of the butte and take him down, which does indeed happen. The snake tells him to run when he gets to the ground, which is good because the Witch Woman somehow got down too and is in hot pursuit.

He runs to the east and meets a series of lizards and frogs who can’t help him, until eventually he gets back to his old adversary Old Man Frog. After the Holy Man begs him four times for help, Frog does help him by hiding him in a hole. The Witch Woman comes up and asks about him, but Frog says he hasn’t seen him. Frog and the Witch Woman then race around Mt. Taylor (which is visible from many parts of Chaco including Fajada Gap) with the understanding that if Frog wins she has to let the Holy Man go. It’s a close race through various types of wind and rain, but Frog narrowly wins and the Witch Woman lets the Holy Man go free. Frog then advises him never to let anything like that happen again.

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Mt. Taylor from Chaco

So that’s the story. There are a lot of fascinating elements to it, along with a lot of traditional folktale elements common to Navajo stories as well as Pueblo ones, especially the prominence of the number four. It seems likely to me that some of these elements are from other stories that have been combined with the Fajada Witch Woman story, but some of them have echoes in other Navajo stories, likely of Pueblo origin, that relate to Chaco, such as the Gambler story. The Big Snake part is also fascinating due to the importance of the horned/feathered serpent concept in Pueblo tradition, and the role in plays is interesting in light of the artificial ramp leading up to the summit that appears to have been built in Chacoan times.

I don’t really have a theory tying this all together, and coming up with one would require a more detailed survey of the different versions of this story than I’ve done. Still, it is really interesting. Happy Halloween!

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Fajada Butte at Sunset

Local Action

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Quinhagak, Alaska

I’ve mentioned before that the prehistory of Alaska is much less well-understood than that of many other parts of North America, but there have been some interesting recent efforts to expand the amount of data available and the interpretations it can support. One of the most interesting is the excavation of the Nunalleq site in the small, remote community of Quinhagak. This project is distinctive in that it has been driven primarily by the local community, which saw that the site was in danger of being lost from accelerated erosion (driven in part by climate change). In partnership with archaeologist Rick Knecht from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, local people led by the village corporation, Qanirtuuq Incorporated, worked to excavate this extremely well-preserved late pre-Contact site, which dates to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries AD. The number of elaborate, well-preserved artifacts is astounding, and it is by far the richest site of the ancestral Yup’ik people of southwestern Alaska known to date.

Even more interesting, the artifacts are being displayed in a newly opened museum right in Quinhagak, rather than being stored in a distant location where they are not accessible to the descendant community. This not only gives the local people an opportunity to understand and access their heritage, but it also provides a tourist destination that can bring in much-needed economic activity to this very poor part of the state. This isn’t a model that can be replicated everywhere, but it’s a fascinating success story of archaeological research and heritage presentation driven by a local indigenous community in cooperation with outside academic experts. Definitely worth noting.

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Qanirtuuq Incorporated Building, Quinhagak, Alaska