Archeoastronomy: Chaco Culture National Historic Park

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Writen by my Wife Kristalee Crow.
Archaeoastronomy (also know as Astroarcheology) is the study of beliefs and practices relating to the sky in the past, especially in prehistory, and the uses to which people's knowledge of the skies was used.

Submitted: April 22, 2011

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Submitted: April 22, 2011

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Archeoastronomy:
Chaco Culture National Historic Park
 
 
 
Kristalee Crow
Astronomy 10
Dr. Jon Pedicino
November 16, 2009
 
 
 
 
Archaeoastronomy (also know as Astroarcheology) is the study of beliefs and practices relating to the sky in the past, especially in prehistory, and the uses to which people's knowledge of the skies was put (Site 1). Archaeoastronomy draws on several scientific disciplines, primarily astronomy, archaeology, anthropology, psychology and epigraphy, the decoding of ancient inscriptions (Site 2). When people learn of this field of science the first places or things that come to mind are the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge or maybe even the Mayans and their infamous calendar. When I thought about writing this paper those were the first things I thought of also. Then I started researching the topic and was surprised that there are archeoastronomy sites in the United States. I was even more shocked to find that growing up in Southern Utah I had lived near one and never even knew it existed. That fascinating site is Chaco Canyon located in Northwestern New Mexico. 
In 1907 Chaco Canyon was designated a Nation Monument, it was expanded and turned into Chaco Culture National Historic Park in 1980. It is also on the UNESCO World Heritage List of Cultural Properties (Site 5). “Chaco Canyon was a major center of Puebloan culture between AD 850 and 1250. The Chacoan sites are part of the homeland of Pueblo Indian peoples of New Mexico, the Hopi Indians of Arizona, and the Navajo Indians of the Southwest.” (Site 3) 
One of the most incredible things about this area is the enormous size of what was created there by a people that are known as the Chaco Anasazi (Site 4). They built roads and communities throughout the American Southwest that covered 95,000 square miles. There is evidence from artifacts found at the site that they traded with cultures 2000 miles away to the south in Mexico. Because of these facts, and the 200 miles of ancient engineered roads that connect to the Chaco buildings, the area was thought to be a trade center collecting and redistributing goods. They built 15 major complexes and numerous other building from thousands of tons of quarried sandstone from the surrounding mesa tops and massive timbers transported probably by foot from distant mountains some 50-70 miles away. Construction of the site took 250 years and 12 generations to complete. (“The Mystery of Chaco Canyon”)
The largest of these buildings is Pueblo Bonito. It is located in the central canyon at the foot of Fajada Butte. It contains almost 700 rooms, was 4 stories high and at completion would have been roughly the size of the Roman Coliseum (Site 5). 
In 1977 a scientist by the name of Anna Sofaer, who would go on to lead The Solstice Project team, was studying the rock art on Fajada Butte when she discovered the Sun Dagger petroglyph. “A set of spiral petroglyphs pecked into a cliff face behind three giant slabs of rock functions as a solar marker. At summer solstice, a vertical shaft of light pierces the main spiral exactly at its center. On the winter solstice, two shafts of light perfectly bracket the same spiral. Light shafts strike the center of a smaller spiral nearby on the spring and fall equinoxes.” (Site 6) This petroglyph demonstrates that the Chacoans had knowledge of the movement of the sun and the seasons. 
On the same butte she also found a petroglyph that had the same shape as Pueblo Bonito and led her to wondering if the alignment of the walls of the structure had any solar significance.
 She discovered that on the equinoxes the sun rises and sets directly along the front wall of the building. She also determined that the center wall that cuts the building in half is lined up exactly north and south and that when the sun is directly overhead there is no shadow effectively cutting the day in half. After learning of the possible significance of these alignments the team surveyed the prominent walls of 13 other Chaco buildings. They found that three other buildings displayed a similar relationship to the sun: Hungo Pavi, Tsin Kletsin and Pueblo Alto. This discovery lead Anna Sofaer’s team to wonder why the rest of the buildings weren’t similarly aligned. (“The Mystery of Chaco Canyon”) 
The team studied the cycles of the moon and found that the Sun Dagger petroglyph also tracked the lunar cycle extremes. When the moon casts a shadow during the lunar minimum extreme the shadow goes through the middle of the spiral. At the maximum lunar extreme the shadow sits at the far left turn of the spiral. Amazingly not only did the Chacoans know that there was a lunar cycle but the number of turns in the spiral accurately mark the 18.5 year time frame it takes for the cycle to complete. The team discovered that seven other buildings in the canyon are aligned with the minimum and maximum lunar cycle extremes. “This is the only culture known to have aligned buildings to a lunar cycle.” (“The Mystery of Chaco Canyon”)
When the Solstice Team mapped the buildings they found that while the central canyon complex buildings are all aligned with either the sun or the moon they are also aligned with each other. “These findings suggest a cosmological purpose motivating and directing the construction and the orientation, internal geometry, and interrelationships of the primary Chacoan architecture.” (Site 8)
While it seems clear to me from findings of The Solstice Project team that the Chaco Canyon buildings were much more than an ancient trade center, it isn’t entirely clear what the building were truly used for. Why in an area with such extreme temperatures (38 to 102° F) and little in the way of natural resources would they chose to build such enormous and complex buildings? Archeologists have found little evidence of human occupation. There were few hearths found in the buildings, mounds where they expected to find common household refuse were mostly broken pottery, which could have been offerings to their ancestors, and only a few hundred burial sites have been found in the entire canyon. Many buildings have numerous rooms that are for the most part closed off from the plazas, from the outside and from each other. They seem to be blocks of enclosed space with no ventilation that may have been designed to overwhelm visitors with their monumental exteriors. While few people appear to have actually lived there evidence exists that large numbers visited the area. The circular kivas that exist in many buildings were most likely ceremonial rooms. There are 15 great kivas, which can hold over 400 people each and over 100 small kivas, which can hold 50-100 people each in the complex. “The great number and size of the kivas suggests that the scale of ceremonies is immense.” (“The Mystery of Chaco Canyon”) Since the entire structure of their buildings are aligned with the solar and lunar cycles it would make sense that their ceremonies were probably timed to solar and lunar cycles also. When the Chacoans left they didn’t just leave either. They carefully sealed up many buildings and burned the kivas. Burning the kivas was almost as massive an undertaking as building them was, since they removed the massive wood and soil roofs before burning them. Their migration out of the canyon seems to have been slow and calculated. (“The Mystery of Chaco Canyon”) We will probably never know why the buildings were constructed or why the Chacoans abandoned the structures. We do know they had a remarkable knowledge of the movement of the sun and moon, they left the proof in the architecture they abandoned.
 
 
 
References
"The Mystery of Chaco Canyon." PBS: KEET, 06162000.
Television. The Solstice Project Documentary
 
  1. http://www.cliveruggles.net/
  2. http://www.archaeoastronomy.com/
  3. http://www.nps.gov/chcu/index.htm
  4. http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/chcu/index1.html
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaco_Culture_National_Historical_Park
  6. http://www.exploratorium.edu/chaco/HTML/bonito.html
  7. http://www.solsticeproject.org/
  8. http://www.solsticeproject.org/pdf/Lekson_Chapter_9.pdf
  9. http://www.solsticeproject.org/celeseas.htm
 
 
 
 
The following diagrams are for reference only and came from the following website:
http://www.solsticeproject.org/pdf/Lekson_Chapter_9.pdf


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