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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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