Today is the winter solstice, which means it’s also the sixth anniversary of this blog. On these anniversaries I like to write about archaeoastronomy, which is a very interesting topic and an important one for understanding Chaco and Southwestern prehistory in general. Last year I wrote about some research indicating that in the Rio Grande valley, an area generally thought to be outside the Chaco system but that was certainly occupied at the same time as Chaco, there was a long and very consistent tradition of orienting pit structures to the east-southeast, which is the direction of winter solstice sunrise. The winter solstice is very important in the cosmology and rituals of the modern Pueblos, so it makes a lot of sense that at least some Pueblo groups would orient their dwellings based on it.
As I noted at the time, this orientation is very different from that in the San Juan region to the west, including Chaco and Mesa Verde. In this area there is an equally long tradition of orienting pit structures to either due south or south-southeast. I’ve long wondered why this might be, and an article I read recently discusses the issue and proposes some interesting potential answers.
The article is by Kim Malville and Andrew Munro and was published in the journal Archaeoastronomy in 2010 as part of a special issue on archaeoastronomy in the Southwest. Malville is an astronomer who has done a lot of research on archaeoastronomy in the Southwest and identified many potential astronomical alignments, but this article is actually largely about debunking many of the alleged alignments claimed by others, particularly Anna Sofaer and her Solstice Project. Sofaer, an artist who turned her attention to archaeoastronomy after discovering the “Sun Dagger” effect involving a spiral petroglyph on Fajada Butte that on the summer solstice appears (or appeared) to be bisected by a “dagger” of light coming through a slit between large boulders in front of it. Sofaer went on to organize surveys of the major great house sites in Chaco Canyon to identify any celestial alignments in the orientation of their walls, and her team found that virtually all of them did show alignments to the positions of the sun or moon on solstices, equinoxes, or lunar standstills.
Sofaer and her collaborators went on to publish these findings widely, and to make a well-known documentary that has often been shown on television and inspired a lot of interest in Chaco. As Malville and Munro show in this paper, however, the evidence for these alignments is very thin. There is little to no justification in Pueblo ethnography for the idea of celestial building alignments, and the alignments themselves are identified with a substantial margin for error that makes spurious positive identifications likely, especially when so many potential alignments are tested for. Particularly concerning is how many of the alignments are to the minor lunar standstill, which is not a very impressive or noticeable event. (The major lunar standstill is a different story, and there is strong evidence at Chimney Rock in Colorado that the Chacoans were familiar with it and considered it important.) Malville and Munro also argue that the fact that most of the alignments are based on the rear walls of sites is also questionable, since there is no evidence that rear wall alignments were or are important culturally to Puebloans.
Instead, they argue that the alignments of rear walls are epiphenomenal, and that they mostly result from the more solidly established concern with the orientation of the front of a site. The bulk of the article is devoting to tracing these frontal orientations across time and space, with a primary focus on Chaco itself and on the earlier Pueblo I villages in the area of Dolores, Colorado that are often seen as being partly ancestral to the Chaco system.
As I noted above, there are two main orientations that persist through time in the San Juan region. One is to due south, and the other is to the south-southeast (SSE). With pit structures these axes are typically defined by a straight line of sipapu (if present), hearth, deflector, and vent shaft. There is often also a measure of bilateral symmetry between features on either side of this line, such as support posts. When there are surface rooms behind a pit structure, they often (but not always) conform to the same alignment, and when the back of a row of surface rooms is straight, it is typically perpendicular to the main orientation. Malville and Munro argue that these perpendicular back walls on many Chacoan great houses, which Sofaer has identified as having alignments to various astronomical phenomena, are really subsidiary effects of the main emphasis on frontal orientation.
The authors start their survey of orientations with the Basketmaker III pithouse village of Shabik’eschee at Chaco. Of 15 pithouses for which they could find adequate information on orientation, 11 faced SSE with an average azimuth of 153.7 degrees and 4 faced south with an average azimuth of 185 degrees. Strikingly, none of the pithouses showed any other orientation.
The north-south orientation isn’t difficult to understand, and Malville and Munro attribute it to use of the night sky for navigation (which would have been easy enough at this time even though there wasn’t actually a north star), and they also mention the widespread presence of Pueblo traditions mentioning origins in the north. While the exact reasons for adoption of this orientation may not be clear, its consistency isn’t unexpected since it’s pretty obvious and easy to replicate.
The SSE orientation, on the other hand, is a different matter. Note that at Shabik’eschee this was much more common than the southern orientation, from which it is offset by about 20 to 30 degrees in individual cases. There is more variation in this orientation than with the southern one (standard deviation of 7.7 degrees versus 2.4), but it’s sufficiently consistent and common that it seems like there must be some specific reason for it. Unlike the southern orientation, however, it’s not at all clear what that might be. Malville and Munro, sticking to their interpretation of orientations as references to places of origin, suggest that in the case of Shabik’eschee it might reflect the fact that some people might have migrated to Chaco from an area that was more to the north-northwest than due north, which seems implausible to me but then I don’t have a better explanation myself.
In any case, this pattern continues through time. The next set of orientations Malville and Munro look at are those of the pit structures at the Pueblo I Dolores villages. What they find is that SSE orientations are dominant here too, even more so than at Shabik’eschee. In fact, all of the pit structures they looked at had SSE orientations except those at Grass Mesa Village, which mostly faced faced south (although even here there were a few SSE orientations). This is in keeping with other evidence for differences in architecture among different villages at Dolores; Grass Mesa is known for having long, straight room blocks, as opposed to the smaller and often crescent-shaped roomblocks at McPhee Village, which with it is most often compared.
The Duckfoot site, to the west of the Dolores villages but contemporaneous with them, also had a SSE orientation. Further west, however, southern orientations become more common, including at the important village sites of Yellow Jacket and Alkali Ridge, plus some of the earlier Basketmaker II sites on Cedar Mesa in Utah.
There was one more orientation used during the Pueblo I period in the Northern San Juan region, however. At Sacred Ridge, in Ridges Basin near modern Durango, Colorado, the average azimuth of the pit structures is 120 degrees, the same east-southeast orientation corresponding to winter solstice sunrise so common in the Rio Grande. Malville and Munro remark on the similarity to the Rio Grande pattern and consider it “puzzling,” positing some potential ways that it could have come about. They argue, however, that wherever this pattern came from it didn’t last in the north, and they point to the extremely violent end to the occupation of Sacred Ridge as the end of this orientation tradition in the San Juan region (although this may not be strictly true, as discussed below).
From here Malville and Munro turn back to Chaco. Specifically, they look at the great houses at Chaco during its heyday from about AD 850 to 1150. Rather than pit structures, they focus on roomblocks, and they interpret the orientation of a roomblock to be the perpendicular to its long axis (in the case of rectangular roomblocks) or the perpendicular to the ends of the crescent of roomblocks with that shape. They find that most of the great houses have a SSE orientation, in keeping with the general trend throughout the region, as do the three northern outlier great houses of Chimney Rock, Salmon, and Aztec. Since this orientation is very close to the perpendicular of the minor lunar standstill moonrise alignment that Sofaer has proposed for many of these buildings, Malville and Munro argue that this widespread orientation explains the pattern much better than the lunar alignment. Pueblo Alto and Tsin Kletzin have north-south orientations, which is unsurprising since they lie on a north-south line with each other.
A few of the great houses have a more complicated situation. Peñasco Blanco appears to face east-southeast at an azimuth of approximately 115 degrees. This is intriguingly close to the Rio Grande/Sacred Ridge winter solstice orientation, which Malville and Munro do note. Although the unexcavated nature of the site makes it hard to tell for sure, it is possible that this is in fact an example of this orientation surviving much later in the San Juan region than the destruction of Sacred Ridge, although what, if any, connection there might be between the two sites is unclear.
And then there’s Pueblo Bonito. While the very precise north-south and east-west cardinal alignments of some of the key walls at this site are well known, it has also long been noted that there is evidence for different alignments and change over time here. Malville and Munro interpret the early crescent shape of the building as having a SSE orientation, and like many others they relate it to the similar size, shape, and orientation of McPhee Pueblo at McPhee Village. They then describe multiple stages of drift away from this orientation toward the cardinal orientation. There is surely something to this interpretation, but a careful look at the stages of construction of the site shows that the picture is probably more complicated. The very first construction at Bonito appears to have been straight and oriented to the south, and to have been incorporated later into the SSE-facing crescent. Subsequent building stages show evidence of both orientations having been present throughout the history of the building.
The complicated situation at Pueblo Bonito provides a convenient segue to the key issue here: what was driving this long-term but consistent variation? Why were two different orientations for buildings present in close proximity for hundreds of years, even as populations moved long distances and adjusted their cultures in profound ways? Malville and Munro suggest that these orientations may reflect longstanding cultural and ethnic diversity in the prehistoric Southwest. Given how long-lived and consistent these patterns are, they propose that they were related to deep-seated cultural identities. This is an intriguing idea that may allow tracking of specific cultural groups across the Southwest over centuries. It also provides another piece of evidence that Chaco Canyon was a multicultural community, and implies that even Pueblo Bonito itself contained groups with diverse backgrounds.
The picture is probably even more complicated than Malville and Munro suggest. They tend to implicitly assume that the orientations of pit structures are the same as those of the room blocks with which they are associated, but at least at Chaco this is not necessary true, particularly for small-house sites, which they also don’t address at all in this study. There are many examples of small houses where the room blocks are oriented to the east but the pit structures are oriented to the south (and possibly also SSE, although I haven’t checked this). This eastern orientation may reflect connections to the south, which have gotten a lot less attention in the literature than connections to the north although they appear to have been pretty important in the origins of Chaco.
In any case, I think this is fascinating stuff. It may not be archaeoastronomy per se, but it seems like a fitting way to mark the solstice.
Malville JM, & Munro AM (2010). Cultural Identity, Continuity, and Astronomy in Chaco Canyon Archaeoastronomy, 23, 62-81