Posts Tagged ‘Ancestral Puebloans’

On December 21st, buried back there under the frantic ramp-up to Christmas, the Winter Solstice occurred. Beyond the astronomical explanations about the earth’s tilt and relation to the sun, much is made of the winter solstice’s age-old celebratory events. Festivals, feasts, yule logs, ancient carols, and modern celebrations, from Christmas to Hanukkah, have been linked to this moment, when winter’s lengthening darkness ends and the days again head back toward spring’s light and new life.

Winter ©SR Euston

There are two solstices, this winter one, the Northern Hemisphere’s shortest day, and June’s, the year’s longest. In Sydney or Sao Paulo, it’s the opposite. The name, from middle English, is roughly translated to come to a stop or cause to stand. I have a mental image of the winter sun, stopping and shaking itself off as far away as it’s going to get from Earth for this year, then beginning to return, lengthening and brightening our days toward summer. (This is totally astronomically inaccurate, I might add.)

Petroglyph©SR Euston

But what about all those solstice markers scattered about our Four Corners region, especially Chaco Canyon’s highly studied and postmodern- mythologized Sun Dagger, whose main claim to fame is marking the summer solstice with a knife sharp shaft of high noon light on a large spiral petroglyph? What do these markers mark, if anything, about winter?

At Chaco, this solstice marker is, in fact, a kind of annual astronomical calendar made of five remarkable human-placed components—three slabs of closely aligned rock which form two separate slits of illumination cast onto two distinct petroglyph spirals. At the winter solstice, sun comes through both slits, illuminating the larger spiral in two offset bands, one on each side of its center. The spring and autumn equinoxes are marked with one shaft on the smaller petroglyph spiral. Unique in archeoastronomy, these sun dagger motions are related, not to the sun’s rising and setting, but rather to its height in the sky. (See http://www.solsticeproject.org/science.htm for more detailed information.)

So a thousand years ago, Ancestral Puebloans were carefully, intentionally, scientifically, marking critical annual astronomical events.

And this solstice what were we up to? Probably out reveling and buying things.

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In 1906 Congress established Mesa Verde National Park, the first to expand the parks concept beyond exclusively preserving scenic natural wonders (like Yellowstone), to include the “works of man.”

Cliff Palace ©SR Euston

In 1888 the Wetherills, a local ranching family, stumbled upon magnificent and mysterious cliff dwellings perched in caves up Mesa Verde’s canyon walls. Throughout the 1890s commercial pot hunters looted these ancient ruins; many original artifacts now reside in private collections. This widespread destruction led to the drive, spearheaded by Colorado women’s clubs, to preserve Mesa Verde for posterity.

Although the cliff cities remain the park’s major attraction, there are vast mesatop ruins in Mesa Verde too. Today, within its 52,000 acres, there are the over 4500 identified archeological sites, only about 600 of them cliff dwellings.

One of the most accessible of the mesatop complexes is Far View, an agricultural community which encompasses a cluster of small unit family housing within a stone’s throw of each other. There are larger pueblos too: One of these is Far View House, a two-story 40 room building enclosing four kivas. Because of its size, archeologists speculate that Far View House was more a town hall than a housing development, serving public purposes for the extended Far View community. Along with four other partially excavated sites, the Far View complex give a flavor of ancestral puebloan agricultural life.

But there is also a different kind of surprise at Far View. Unnoticed by most visitors are the remnants of Mummy Lake, a specially engineered reservoir to the north of the community. A network of upstream ditches served as catch arteries for runoff which was channeled into this 90 foot diameter stone walled and lined depression. Mummy Lake could hold as much as one half million gallons of water. Besides providing water for Far View’s 500 residents, it also was used to irrigate nearby fields of corn, squash and beans.  In the late 1200s, when Far View inhabitants moved over the edge to cliff dwellings below, they built a ditch which continued to provide water for fields and drinking.

This now dry, sediment-filled reservoir was certainly a remarkable feat of coordinated planning and construction. In 2004, a millennium after its construction, Mummy Lake received a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark designation as “One of the earliest public works projects in North America.”

How was all this planning and construction—cliff cities, mesatop towns, huge reservoirs—accomplished with tools of only wood and stone? It’s those kind of questions that make Mesa Verde such a haunting place.

Edge of Chapin Mesa ©SR Euston

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I think there is nothing more distinctly Southwestern than our Ancient Puebloan Ruins. Built roughly 700 to 1000 years ago, they dot our sage, rabbitbrush and piñon/juniper mesatops, canyon floors and sandstone cliffs. They lie beneath thousands of mounts of southwest earth, where their stones or adobes have tumbled or melted. They are, it seems, everywhere, especially in the  inhospitable, windblown, inaccessible, drylands.

Autumn Day—Aztec Ruins

Autumn Day—Aztec Ruins

Except for Aztec Ruins National Monument in northwest New Mexico. Located on the everflowing Animas River, it lies 55 miles north of Chaco Canyon. Chaco is one of the most well known ancient puebloan sites, an enormous stone city abandoned by its builders in the 1100s, “discovered” by Richard Wetherill in the early 1910s, and recently “re-discovered” by new age revelers and sun dagger buffs.

Aztec, on the other hand, remains another of the national monuments which is missed by many on their ruins pilgrimages. And that’s too bad.

We visit on a warm, hospitable Indian summer day. Against the New Mexican autumn blue sky, adrift in flame-gold cottonwoods, is etched the enormous ruin which is Aztec, an ancient  community of east and west multistory complexes, on the Animas River’s north bank. At its peak, each unit was up to three stories high and formed a three-sided enclosure around a central plaza, a great kiva, and smaller kivas. (Kivas are round underground rooms used for ceremonial, spiritual and community purposes. They are still found at modern pueblos along the Rio Grande.) Other even smaller kivas are found inside partially excavated West Ruin, a 400 room building, a football field long across its north face.

At first Aztec may have been an outlier of Chaco but as Chaco’s influence waned in the late 1100s, Aztec’s may have risen and, judging by its size and the grandeur of its great kiva, it may have served as a regional trading and ceremonial center.

Visitors see the various ancestral puebloan units as they were when acquired by the National Park Service (NPS). Because of NPS policy, few ruins have been restored, except for necessary stabilization to preserve what remains. (Or, in too many cases, what’s left, after ransacking by amateur “archeologists” and low life pot stealers.)

Not so at Aztec. In the 1930s, Earl Morris, an archeologist with the American Museum of Natural History, returned to Aztec, where he had undertaken the original mapping and excavating of the Aztec mounds, beginning in 1916. On his return in 1934, he supervised the reconstruction of the great kiva, based on his earlier findings. Today, it remains the only reconstructed great kiva in the Southwest and is the largest and oldest of its kind.

Upon descending into this huge (two stories tall, 40 feet in diameter), round, underground architectural feat there can be no doubt of the builders’ incredible skill and dedication when, after all, they were using only stone age tools. The sheer magnitude of the construction is awe-inspiring. The spiritual power held within it is unmistakable. I approach it as sacred space, not in the new age sense, but with a sense of its timeless centering in the earth. The grounded culture and community it embodies are undeniable.

This reconstructed kiva, for me, is the greatest gift of Aztec. Even for those few who are not moved by the huge community ruin, the great kiva confirms that Eurocentric culture isn’t the only culture to achieve greatness.

In this time of incessant noise and instant communication, of  arrogance, the silent walls of Aztec Ruins are a wonderful, and humbling, tonic.

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