Sunny California


California Welcome Sign

Today is the summer solstice, on which I tend to write about archaeoastronomy. This time I’d like to briefly discuss an area with a rich heritage of Native astronomy that seems to get relatively little discussion: California.

California is known in anthropological circles for the astonishing variety of cultural and sociopolitical groups that traditionally inhabited this climatically favorable, highly productive area. Although these groups were all devastated to varying degrees by the influx of Anglo settlers in the nineteenth century, and some were also heavily affected by earlier Spanish colonization starting in the late eighteenth, most of them are fairly well documented ethnographically due to the extensive “salvage ethnography” pioneered by Alfred Kroeber and his students at Berkeley in the early twentieth century. There is therefore a rich base of data in which to look for evidence of Native astronomical observations, and a paper published in 1979 by Travis Hudson, Georgia Lee, and Ken Hedges does just that, in addition to reporting some early archaeoastronomical observations at California archaeological sites. The paper focuses specifically on solstice observations, which tend to be among the most important astronomical practices in many cultures.

The authors’ review of the literature shows that observation of the solstices was widespread in Native California. The vast majority of groups they investigated had some record of solstice observation, and most of those that did not may just not have had it documented. Only two groups were associated with definite statements that they did not observe any solstices, and even these might be due to mistaken information.

The winter solstice was by far the most commonly observed, with relatively few groups also observing the summer solstice and none observing summer but not winter. This ties in to a widespread pattern of keeping a calendar that often began with the winter solstice. A general geographic pattern held that Southern California groups were more likely to observe both solstices, while Northern California groups tended to only observe the winter one. This is in keeping with broader geographic patterns, with Southwestern groups generally observing both solstices but Northwest Coast groups focusing on the winter. There are many other cultural patterns connecting these two parts of California to these adjacent culture areas as well.

In addition to the ethnographic data, the authors report on several observations of potential solstice observation alignments at archaeological sites, mostly those involving rock art. These again showed a general pattern of most often aligning with the winter rather than the summer solstice. In some cases the rock art associated with these observation points contained apparent solar imagery, and in a few cases the authors even suggest that some of the rock art symbols represent the actual horizon line along which the sun was observed. This is a fascinating suggestion that I have not seen made of any other area, so it may be distinctively Californian if it holds up. They include examples of other rock art of similar form that may also be interpreted this way, although it has not been tested for alignments.

All in all, this is a fascinating introduction to the astronomy of a culture area that doesn’t get as much attention in this respect as others like the Southwest and Plains. While this was an early paper in the development of archaeoastronomy and not all of its conclusions may hold up, it is still an excellent starting point. Happy solstice!



Ancient Alaska


Welcome Sign at Alaska/Yukon Border

I’ve lived in Alaska for almost seven years now. It’s a really interesting place in a lot of ways, and right now is a fascinating time to be here. People often think of it as being extremely different from the Southwest, but there are actually a lot of similarities, and there are a number of parallels especially between New Mexico and Alaska that make the two feel pretty similar to me.

One major difference, however, is the status of archaeology and understanding of prehistory in Alaska versus the Southwest. Southwestern archaeology has been going on in earnest for over a hundred years and has led to quite detailed understanding of many aspects of the region’s prehistory. The findings of archaeologists, especially at iconic sites like those at Chaco Canyon, have also been well incorporated into the region’s self-understanding and sense of identity. While the mythology of the Southwestern “mystique” has a lot of problems and doesn’t always accurately reflect what is now known about the historical and prehistoric record, there is no denying the importance of archaeology there.

Alaska is a very different story. While the region’s obvious importance to theories about the peopling of the Americas from Asia has led to a long history of archaeological interest, the research that has been conducted over the years has been frustratingly difficult and its results highly fragmented and confusing. Part of this is because of the remote location and poor preservation of archaeological remains in many parts of the state, but those factors don’t come close to explaining all of it. It seems like the prehistory of Alaska is just very complicated and doesn’t easily fit any of the straightforward theories people have come up with for its role in continental or hemispheric events.

That said, part of the issue is the relatively small amount of research done in Alaska to date, and that does indeed reflect in part the region’s remoteness and the difficult conditions for both preservation and research. As a result, the archaeological literature on Alaska is frustratingly thin and largely technical and specialized, with a relative lack of the sorts of introductory, popularized accounts that are a dime a dozen in the Southwest. One good introduction, however, that I have recently come across is Ellen Bielawski’s In Search of Ancient Alaska.


Welcome Sign, Utqiagviq (Barrow), Alaska

This book is definitely a very general introduction, and it doesn’t go into very much detail at all about the various archaeological cultures that have been identified or the theories about how they relate to each other. It is however a good starting point, especially for the absolute beginner. It is primarily organized by culture area, according to the general schema used by modern Alaska Native institutions like the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which is a reasonable approach to organize the archaeological data.

There is also a chapter on the archaeology of the very early inhabitants of the state, which is probably of the most interest to general readers outside Alaska due to its relationship to the peopling of the Americas. What this chapter shows, however, is both how little we actually know about these early inhabitants and how hard it is to relate their remains to either comparably early people elsewhere or to later people anywhere. This is an accurate reflection of the state of knowledge on this, despite how frustrating it seems.

I don’t have much more to say about this book, but I do recommend it as a general introduction to a topic that I find very interesting even though it is so poorly understood. I would really like to be able to write more about Alaskan prehistory the way I write about Southwestern prehistory, and I’ve tried to some extent, but the data currently just isn’t there for the same level of discussion and interpretation.


Russian Orthodox Church, Ninilchik, Alaska

Dreaming Rocks


Petroglyphs above Una Vida

I often peruse used bookstores and particularly look at their sections on archaeology, anthropology, history, Native American studies, and other subjects of interest to me. Some bookstores are better than others in these subjects, and my main local one is pretty good. A while back I saw a book there on the subject of Native American rock art that I had not seen before: Painted Dreams by Thor Conway. I recently got around to reading it, so I thought I’d give a brief review here.

Overall, it’s an odd book. It purports to cover all of North America, and has many pictures of rock art from all over the continent. However, Conway is an archaeologist by training who seems to have spent most of his career in Canada, particularly in northern Ontario but also to some extent in British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces, and he has also spent a lot of time in California. The rock art traditions he focuses on reflect this experience, with by far the most attention given to the Great Lakes region and a fair amount to the Chumash tradition of southern California.

Conway mentions other regions briefly from time to time, but based on his discussion of the Southwestern rock art tradition his understanding of it seems pretty shallow. His discussion of the “Kokopelli” figure, for example, is very superficial and doesn’t engage at all with the complex and contentious scholarly disputes over this figure.


“Supernova” Pictograph

That said, within the narrower regional scope of his expertise, Conway has some interesting things to say about the rock art of the Great Lakes Algonkians, especially the Ojibwe. He talks extensively about his relationship with two Ojibwe shamans, and their words, quoted extensively throughout the book, give shape to his interpretations of the meaning of rock art. Based on this, his interpretations of the meaning and importance of rock art are very heavily focused on its spiritual role, and particularly its relationship to dreaming and the vision quest, both of which are very important among many Algonkian tribes.

So there is some interesting content here, at least for someone without much knowledge of the Great Lakes region (like me). I’m not sure it really hangs together well as a book, though. The organization is not particularly intuitive or cohesive, and while it’s clearly pitched at a popular rather than scholarly level, I’m not sure how useful it would be as a general introduction for someone without any previous knowledge at all. It feels a lot like a vanity project. It’s not actually self-published, but it is published by a small regional press that clearly didn’t put a whole lot of effort into editing the text.

So yeah, not an awful book, but not one I’d particularly recommend either. I don’t regret buying or reading it, and it could well be worthwhile to someone with a particular interest in the rock art of the Great Lakes and its relationship to the spiritual traditions of the tribes in that area.


Pictographs at Lower Scorpion Campground, Gila National Forest


A Wedding on Kodiak

Kodiak 011

Kodiak, Alaska

In 1805, while visiting the Russian settlement on Kodiak Island as part of the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe, the Russian naval commander Yuri Lisianski observed among the local Alutiiq Natives the presence of individuals known as “schoopans” who had male genitalia but were brought up from childhood as girls, performing women’s work and marrying men. This was a highly honored role in Alutiiq society, and an example of the widespread “berdache” or “Two Spirit” tradition of the Americas that I have discussed before. Lisianski noted that the schoopans “even assume the manners and dress of the [female] sex so nearly, that a stranger would naturally take them for what they are not,” and continues in a footnote:

As a proof of how easily this mistake may be made; it once happened, that a toyon [rich man or “chief”] brought one of these unnatural beings to church to be married to him, and the ceremony was nearly finished, when an interpreter, who came in by chance, put a stop to the proceedings, by making known to the priest, that the couple he was joining in wedlock were both males.

This anecdote caught my attention in part because it is strikingly relevant to modern political debates over the rights of trans people, especially the so-called “bathroom bills” that have cropped up in various places over the past few years. Here in Anchorage, we have one of these measures, Proposition 1, on the municipal ballot right now in our first vote-by-mail election. Election Day is on Tuesday, April 3, but ballots have already been mailed and voting is going on right now.

I’m strongly opposed to Prop 1, which is highly discriminatory against the trans community and serves no real public purpose. Beyond its discriminatory nature, the very premise of Prop 1 is fundamentally absurd in ways highlighted by Lisianski’s story that would render it totally unenforceable and perhaps even cause the sorts of “problems” it purports to solve.

Many of the arguments for Prop 1 and similar measures rely on the assumption that gender is not just an “immutable” biological characteristic on a deep level, but one that is impossible to affect even superficially. Prop 1 seems to take it as a given that a trans person using the “wrong” bathroom under the law will be easily identifiable because they will look to any bystander like their “biological” gender.

This is however not true at all. As with the population as a whole, there is a lot of physical variation among trans people, but many look well within the physical norms of their preferred gender and fit in much better in the bathrooms they prefer to use than in those they don’t. That is to say, trans women really are women, in many cases even physically, visually, to strangers who don’t know anything more about them than how they look. And similarly, trans men really are men.

Indeed, if we are judging gender the way most of us do in practice, by how people look rather than by careful inspection of their genitals or birth certificates, Prop 1 would likely lead to, if anything, a massive increase in the number of “men” in women’s restrooms, because trans men who look like and lead their lives as men would be forced by the terms of the law to use women’s restrooms. In other communities that have adopted laws like this trans men have posted pictures to social media showing what this looks like; it looks like a man in a women’s restroom. If seeing that is what people who support Prop 1 are concerned about, voting for it is certainly not going to help.

The greater visibility of trans issues in recent years may make the idea of gender diversity seem new and strange, but there is actually a long history of different concepts of gender in many societies around the world. The berdache or Two Spirit tradition, present in many indigenous societies of the Americas, including some in Alaska, is one of the most striking examples of a socially accepted, often high-status role for individuals who do not conform to a strict gender binary typical of European societies.

I’ve been digging into the ethnographic and ethnohistoric data on berdaches in Alaska Native societies specifically, which don’t seem to have gotten a whole lot of attention in the anthropological research on gender diversity. The data are spotty and difficult to interpret to an even greater degree than for many other societies, but there are a lot of fascinating nuggets in there like Lisianski’s anecdote about the wedding. I’m thinking of doing a research project to synthesize the existing data, maybe in blog posts here but maybe in a more formal venue. It’s a fascinating topic with a lot of relevance to issues today, which makes it of particular interest to me. Stay tuned.


Cliff Palace and Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

In addition to reports of potential astronomical features at prehistoric sites and speculations on the role of astronomy in ancient societies, Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited contains some chapters giving guidance on methodology for archaeoastronomical research, particularly aimed at developing increased rigor that can make the results of this research more useful for archaeologists. One of these chapters, by Gregory Munson, focuses on archaeoastronomy at Mesa Verde National Park and how it can be supported or challenged by using a methodology he calls architectural documentation or “ArcDoc.”

Munson spends much of the paper laying out the details of how to do ArcDoc, which basically amounts to a standardized set of recording procedures for sites and a commitment to fully research historical archives for materials relating to site excavation and restoration. The formal procedures are apparently those used by park management at Mesa Verde, but the basic ideas here are standard pretty much anywhere archaeologists have put in place a rigorous site documentation program (e.g., on most public lands in the US).

Munson then turns to specific examples of how ArcDoc has helped clarify findings from archaeoastronomy, focusing on three sites at Mesa Verde: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Sun Temple. In each case, archival research has either significantly challenged findings from initial archaeoastronomical research or otherwise improved understanding of the sites.


Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

With Cliff Palace, Munson focuses on two features in the well-known “Tower” part of the site, both of which have been proposed to have associations with lunar standstill observations. One is a vent in the wall of the tower that has been demonstrated to align with moonset over Sun Temple during the southern major lunar maximum. The other is a nearby pictograph of four vertical lines with horizontal “ticks” that has been proposed to be a record of four 18.6-year lunar standstill cycles.

The vent alignment turns out to be very questionable after looking back at records of excavation and reconstruction of the site beginning with the work of Gustav Nordenskiöld in the 1890s and Jesse Walter Fewkes in the 1900s. Photographs from before the partial reconstruction of the site by Fewkes in 1909 show that this whole portion of the tower had largely collapsed, and the original size and shape of the vent in question is impossible to determine. Furthermore, the current vent that has the documented alignment isn’t even the result of Fewkes’s reconstruction, but of a later one by Earl Morris and Al Lancaster in the 1930s that replaced it. Munson claims that there is another opening in the wall that is more original and seems to display the same alignment, but this is an important cautionary tale for archaeoastronomers who, like many visitors, all too often assume that what they see at a site today is exactly what was there when it was originally occupied.

A similar problem affects the pictograph. The current version turns out to be a partial reconstruction by Lancaster in 1934 after two of the vertical lines had severely deteriorated, and the number of ticks on these lines does not match what appears to have been the original pictograph based on a photo taken in 1902, which Lancaster appears to not have had access to when doing his reconstruction. The numbers are still fairly close and Munson argues they could still be a record of lunar standstill cycles given the level of precision that might be expected for these observations, but still, another cautionary tale. Especially at a well-known, heavily visited, and actively managed site like Cliff Palace, you can’t assume that everything you’re seeing is original. (I used to make this point frequently to visitors at Chaco, and toward the beginning of my tours of Pueblo Bonito I would explain which parts of the masonry are and are not original.)

At Balcony House, Munson explains that proposed summer solstice and equinox alignments are thrown into question, in one case because an editing error resulted in results from observations at a different site being attributed to this one in publication, and in another case because archival research showed that a wall opening with a purported alignment had been partially sealed before impacts from recent visitation. These issues aren’t as major as those with Cliff Palace mentioned above, but they are noteworthy because they affect Munson’s own previous research, and he deserves a lot of credit for being straightforward and transparent about them.


Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

Finally, a happier story from Sun Temple. Fewkes excavated here in 1915, and a 1916 publication of his illustrates two prayer sticks found in these excavations. However, the collections from this work, housed at the park, do not include any prayer sticks. Where did they go?

Through some archival sleuthing in Fewkes’s papers at the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, it turned out that he had also excavated at Oak Tree House in 1915, and the collections from this work are now held at the Smithsonian. And sure enough, this collection turned up two prayer sticks that could be matched to those in the illustration through their shapes and distinctive cracks. The fact that these actually appear to have come from Sun Temple rather than Oak Tree House helps to better understand the history and use of both sites.

In all these cases, the understanding of potential astronomical or ritual use of specific sites has been improved by carefully examining the archival history of their excavation and reconstruction. Archaeologists are increasingly aware of the importance of looking at this history when trying to understand sites like this, but this awareness is only beginning among archaeoastronomers, and Munson’s contribution here is a welcome illustration of its value.


Vent at Sun Temple, Mesa Verde


Salmon Ruins Sign

One of the most interesting chapters in Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited reports on archaeoastronomical research at Salmon Pueblo (also known as Salmon Ruins), a large Chacoan “outlier” great house near modern Bloomfield, New Mexico. The paper is by Brooks Marshall and Larry Baker of the San Juan County Museum Association, which manages the site, and it argues that one particular room at Salmon was likely used as an observation station for both solar and lunar events.

The room, known as Room 82, is in the southeast corner of the central room block on the north side of the plaza, just southeast of the elevated “tower kiva” in the center of the block. When it was excavated in the 1970s, the excavators found that it had several unusual features that suggested it was used for specialized non-domestic purposes, though it was not clear to them at the time what those might be. In addition to the commonly found hearths, milling bins, and T-shaped doorways, there was an unusual opening in the east wall which Marshall and Baker call a “window” (unfortunately they don’t explain why they use this term, which is generally not used in describing Chacoan architecture), an adobe platform in the northwest corner that had two shallow pits at its north end, and a dividing wall in between of uncertain original height. The platform and wall were destroyed in the course of excavation, while the window has deteriorated a bit over time but is still there.

The unusual nature of these features and their east-west alignment made Marshall and Baker suspect an astronomical role, so in 2008 they created a replica of the adobe platform out of plywood and positioned it where they calculated it would be hit by light through the window at equivalent times to the original, taking into consideration the higher floor level due to backfilling of the room. In 2009, a stabilization project removed the backfill and allowed them to place the replica in the original location of the platform to verify their results. Further testing in 2010 and 2011 involved simulating the original size and shape of the window opening. Throughout these tests they placed two rocks on the platform to simulate the two pits at the north end of the original, known as Features 71 and 72.


Central Roomblock at Salmon Ruin

Their results were striking. They found that the northernmost pit, Feature 72, was lit by sunlight coming through the window only on the summer solstice, and when the original window opening was simulated the light was quite narrowly focused on this feature. Feature 71, despite being only a few centimeters away, was never lit up by the sun at all. It was, however, lit by moonlight during the major lunar standstill, when the moon rises at its most extreme position relative to the sun for a few years. It’s long been known that the first major period of construction at Salmon in AD 1089 and 1090 corresponds to the lead-up to a major lunar standstill, and indeed Marshall and Baker’s calculations showed that it was in these years that moonlight would have first illuminated the features at the north end of the platform. By the standstill itself, which lasted from AD 1093 to 1095, moonlight would have hit about three quarters of the platform. Marshall and Baker propose that the south end, which is never nit by moonlight, may have served as an observation point where someone could sit and observe the moonlight move across the platform over time, possibly allowing the prediction of the standstill.

Obviously the wall in between the window and the platform adds a complication to all this, as it would have blocked at least some light from coming through. There’s no way to tell how high it initially was, so Marshall and Baker ran some calculations based on different heights to see how they effected the illumination patterns they documented. They found that at a certain height the wall would have prevented the beam of light coming through the window from moving beyond the platform onto the floor, which may have been intentional. At higher heights it would have blocked the beam entirely, but the base of the wall was fairly thin and probably couldn’t have supported a full-height wall.


Excavated Rooms at Salmon Ruin

This is exciting research for several reasons. It’s always interesting to see a careful study of architectural alignments to celestial phenomena that takes into consideration excavation history and possible confounding factors. It’s particularly interesting that this study seems to have shown strong evidence for alignments even taking those other factors into consideration. The solstice alignment seems like the best established to me, which is unsurprising since solstice alignments in general are the best documented phenomena in ancient Pueblo archaeoastronomy. What I find most intriguing, however, is the possible lunar alignment and its relation to the construction dates at Salmon, since despite a lot of talk about lunar alignments at Chacoan sites very few have been securely documented, and unlike solar alignments there is no support for them in modern Pueblo ethnography. If this lunar alignment really does hold up, it helps strengthen the argument that the Chacoans really did observe and care about these subtle lunar cycles.

The strongest evidence so far for Chacoan observance of lunar standstill cycles comes from Chimney Rock Pueblo, further north in Colorado. The evidence here is quite strong indeed, as the full moon rises between twin spires of rock as seen from the great house only during the major lunar standstill, and this accounts for the otherwise very puzzling location of the great house atop a high, steep mesa. There is also some evidence from the dates of construction at Chimney Rock that some building periods were related to specific lunar cycles. The lack of support from other Chacoan sites, however, has made the seemingly solid evidence fr,om Chimney Rock hard to integrate into the picture as a whole. If people at Salmon, which is fairly close to Chimney Rock and is connected to it by an easy travel corridor along the San Juan River, were also marking the lunar standstill cycle, the picture begins to fill out a bit.

That said, this research is still fairly preliminary and I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the lunar alignment proposed here has been definitely established. More research is certainly necessary to confirm and interpret the patterns documented here. It is certainly suggestive, however, and very interesting.


Backfilled Rooms at Salmon Ruin

Fajada Revisited


Fajada Butte at Sunset

Today is the winter solstice, which makes this the ninth anniversary of this blog. It’s a particularly appropriate date for the paper I’m going to discuss in this post, another chapter from Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited. It’s by prominent archaeoastronomer J. McKim Malville, and entitled “The Enigmas of Fajada Butte.”

Fajada Butte is plenty enigmatic. Though it’s one of the most prominent landmarks within Chaco Canyon, and the “Sun Dagger” petroglyph on top of it is one of the most famous pieces of astronomically aligned rock art in the world, there has been surprisingly little detailed archaeological study of the butte itself. While there has been considerable more study of other ancient sites in the general area, that work has not really been well-integrated with what is known about the butte, which makes Malville’s integrative work in this paper extremely interesting, tentative though it is.

Much of Malville’s paper discusses cross-cultural examples of sacred mountains and stairways, as support for the idea that Fajada played this role in ancient Chacoan culture. This is plausible enough, though of course speculative, and I don’t have much more to say about it. More interesting to me is his discussion of the archaeology of the butte itself and the nearby Fajada Gap community, which contains three great kivas dating to the tenth century AD along with many small-house residential sites, some possibly dating as early as the eight century but most apparently from the tenth and early eleventh. Several of these small houses were excavated by the Chaco Project in the 1970s and are among the best-documented sites in the whole canyon. The great kivas, two of which are part of great houses (Una Vida and Kin Nahasbas), are largely unexcavated and much less thoroughly understood.

The third, isolated, great kiva (site 29SJ1253) is of particular interest to Malville, as it appears to have a winter solstice alignment with the butte. Malville presents documentation that on the winter solstice as viewed from the great kiva the sun rises over the summit of Fajada Butte. Malville suggests that the great kiva was positioned where it was in order to set up this alignment, which would have been an important ritual event for the people in the Fajada Gap community. Based on ceramic evidence, the great kiva appears to have been built in the tenth century, which makes it one of the earliest in the canyon. It is also one of the largest, with a diameter of 20 meters. Both of these characteristics suggest that it was a particularly important site from a very early point in the development of Chaco into a regional center, especially in the tenth century when the Fajada Gap community may have been particularly important, even more so than the South Gap community which may have become more prominent later.

Evidence for this importance also comes from some of the excavated small houses. 29SJ1360, the closest site to the butte, is known especially for one of its pithouses containing the remains of several people who apparently died accidentally there in the early eleventh century. One of the women was found with a necklace containing an exceptional number of beads, suggesting relatively high status in life. These are the remains, furthermore, that Nancy Akins in her biometric analysis found showed the greatest similarity to the extremely high-status burials in the north rooms of Pueblo Bonito, some of which we now know were quite early themselves (as are the rooms). 29SJ1360 contained the only macaw remains found outside of a great house context at Chaco, along with evidence that macaws may have been raised there, and it also had a cylinder jar, a high-status pottery form, perhaps used for consumption of chocolate, that is also very closely associated with the north part of Pueblo Bonito.

Overall, then, there are many indications that the people living at 29SJ1360 were of relatively high status and had connections, possibly familial, to some of the people associated with the earliest part of Pueblo Bonito. Malville documents a winter solstice alignment here as well: viewed from about 100 meters upslope, around noon on the solstice, the sun briefly disappears behind the butte then reappears. This is a less rigorous alignment than the one from the great house, obviously, but it is still suggestive, and combined with the other evidence reinforces the sense that this is an important site despite its small size.

Another small house in this community, 29SJ629 or the Spadefoot Toad site, had evidence for a workshop for the manufacture of turquoise beads, which Malville suggests indicates connections to trade routes coming up from the south. Turquoise at Chaco actually came from all over the place, but it’s true that the Fajada Gap community seems to have connections to the south, which makes sense given that the gap itself is an entrance to the canyon from that direction. As I’ve mentioned before, earlier sites to the south of Chaco are much less well understood than those to the north, but there are indications that these connections were very important in the early development of the canyon, and Malville’s argument that the spiritual status of Fajada Butte played an important role in this development is quite plausible.


Fajada Butte with Ramp (Lower Right)

So much for the community; what about the butte itself? Malville discusses two main items of interest: the ramp leading up the butte from its base, and the rooms at its top. The ramp, which appears to take advantage of some natural ridgelines but is definitely at least partly artificial especially in its upper parts, has received oddly little attention in the literature despite being an impressive accomplishment that, judging from the pottery found on it, apparently dates to the tenth century just like the nearby community sites. There are fire pits at the base and top of the ramp, which Malville suggests may have been used in winter solstice ceremonies that ritual procession up the ramp. Again, this seems pretty likely to me and may well have played an important role in Chaco’s rise to preeminence regionally.

The rooms at the top, on the other hand, appear to date much later than the ramp and to have had a quite different purpose. The pottery on them is overwhelmingly late, mostly thirteenth-century, and the construction of the rooms is rather slapdash by Chacoan standards. Extensive remains of the debris of daily life indicate that they were occupied residentially. Based on these characteristics, Malville suggests that these rooms were used as refuges by the thirteenth-century residents of canyon floor sites like the Gallo Cliff Dwelling during times of upheaval and violence. He associates them with the widespread pattern of “pinnacle” refuge sites throughout the northern Southwest during this period, which is very different from the residential patterns of the much more peaceful Chacoan heyday in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. He notes that most of the rock art on the butte was clearly accessed from these rooms, which suggests strongly that it dates to this late period rather than earlier.

This mention of rock art brings us to what might be considered the punch line of the paper: a reevaluation of the famous Sun Dagger spiral petroglyph with its alignment to the winter solstice. Malville proposes that the “sun dagger” alignment around noon on the solstice at the site with three rock slabs was discovered serendipitously by the thirteenth-century residents of the upper butte, who pecked the spiral petroglyph to mark it. This is quite different from the interpretation that others have made, that it was a primary focus of ritual during the height of the Chacoan era, but it does explain some odd things about it pretty well. The spiral could not have easily served a direct calendrical role in calculating the date of the solstice, which some other petroglyphs with astronomical alignments elsewhere in the canyon could have done, and its noon alignment is both not particularly precise and not documented to be of particular importance in modern Pueblo religion.

Most importantly, however, this theory explains something that has always puzzled me about the Sun Dagger: it no longer works. That is, the alignment of the slabs no longer results in a dagger going through the center of the spiral. This is generally thought to be the result of the ground underneath shifting as a result of too many interested people going to look at it in the period between its (re)discovery in 1978 and its closure to general visitation in the 1980s. If this really was a key site visited by at least some Chacoan ritual specialists for hundreds of years, after which it remained intact for several hundred more years until its rediscovery, why did it only take a few years for modern visitors to impact it enough to ruin the alignment? One possible answer was that it was so important in antiquity that it was only visited by very few people with particularly important roles, and may not even have been widely known about among the general population. Malville’s theory provides what I find a more plausible answer, that it was discovered late in the prehistoric occupation of Chaco by the small population who occasionally retreated to the top of the butte for refuge, and it may not even have been particularly important to them. There is extensive evidence in modern Pueblo ethnography for individual people marking astronomical alignments and keeping solar calendars, apart from the formal roles of Sun Priests and so forth to do so for the community. (Indeed, there is evidence that some people did this because they didn’t trust the Sun Priest to get it right.) I think it makes sense to interpret the Sun Dagger as part of this tradition. (Malville also notes that recent reevaluation of the supposed secondary alignments to lunar standstills and other astronomical events hasn’t confirmed that they are real and deliberate.)

Malville’s conclusions about the Sun Dagger are controversial in some circles, I’m sure, but for the more interesting part of this paper is the part about the early alignments between the butte and sites in the Fajada Gap community. This provides nice support for the theory I’ve suggested that the rise of Chaco was due in part to it being the place where certain kinds of astronomical knowledge were first developed or introduced within the (northern?) Southwest, which gave the canyon and its residents a kind of spiritual power that they were able to translate into considerable economic and/or political power, as manifested in the monumental architecture, exotic trade goods, and other things that make Chaco such an impressive place even today.


Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation