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Western Slope Skies - Archaeoastronomy in the Four Corners

Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock in southwest Colorado during a "lunar standstill." The phenomenon happens every 18.6 years when the moon rises exactly between the rock's pillars.

When was the last time you looked up at the sky? Were you admiring a bright blue, cloudless day? Were you soaking in a cotton candy sunset? Or perhaps was it at night? Maybe you were marveling at a full moon, or searching the stars for your favorite constellation.

Humans have looked up at the sky for thousands of years. These days, we look up for inspiration, discovery, and exploration. We look up in search of a deeper understanding of the universe around us and our place in it.

Ancient humans likely looked up at the sky for the same reasons, but they also relied on the sky for survival. Long before the days of GPS or analog clocks, humans used the stars to navigate and the sun to tell time. Archaeological evidence suggests that ancient cultures across the Earth tracked the rising and setting of the sun along the horizon from summer solstice to winter solstice and back again.

The Ancestral Pueblo people are one such culture. They lived, and continue to live, throughout the Four Corners region and are skilled farmers who grow crops like corn, beans, and squash. Pueblo people use their understanding of the sun’s journey through the sky to decide when to plant and harvest.

Ancestral Pueblo people probably spent a lot of time looking up at the sky. Imagine them living on Mesa Verde in the 1200s, observing the moon from cliff dwellings and watching the sun rise across the canyon on the winter solstice.

Archaeologists have studied ties between Ancestral Pueblo culture and archaeoastronomy. Evidence suggests that Ancestral Pueblo people carved petroglyphs and built structures to observe and celebrate the celestial bodies.

One famous example from Chaco Canyon is the sun dagger: a sliver of light, formed when sunlight passes between two slabs of rock. On the summer solstice, the sun dagger strikes the center of a spiral petroglyph.

Ancestral Pueblo people living near today’s Pagosa Springs might have viewed the full moon rising between the double spires of Chimney Rock, once every 18.6 years of a lunar cycle. Tree-ring dates from logs in the nearby Chimney Rock Pueblo tell us that parts of the structure were built right before these lunar appearances in the years 1076 and 1093. Perhaps the residents were preparing for these special events.

The next time you bask in the warm sun, sigh at the beauty of the moon, or gaze up at the stars, think of all the people who have done this before you. Perhaps remembering these ancient connections to the sky can help us feel connected to the expansive and wondrous universe around us.

Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and recorded by Kim Chamales, Park Ranger at Mesa Verde National Park.

Additional reading: McKim Malville, J. A Guide to Prehistoric Astronomy in the Southwest. Johnson Books, 2008.

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