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Fourteen of us caravanned through the desert in two vans.  It was a cultural anthropology class studying the native populations of the American Southwest.  We pulled into Chaco Canyon and our instructor announced, “Students, I have a surprise for you,” and promptly ushered us into the visitor center to see a movie.  I was pissed.  We had been in the van for hours and the last thing I wanted to do was sit some more.  I wanted to be outside exploring Pueblo Bonito.

Chaco Canyon, located in northwest New Mexico, is a fascinating place to visit. Mysteries abound.  About a thousand years ago (from 900 to 1150 CE), the Ancestral Pueblo People made this canyon one of their cultural centers.  The ruins they left spark the imagination and repeatedly beg the questions, “how and why did they do that?”

Buildings constructed of strikingly beautiful, mortar-free masonry populate the canyon.  The most famous enclave is called Pueblo Bonito.  My mother, a math professor, once told me that  math books often include aerial photos of Pueblo Bonito because it is shaped like an almost perfect parabola.  But how and why this is, no one can say.

Pueblo Bonito. Photo by Chris M Morris.

Then there are the roads, eight to ten meters wide, radiating outward for miles and miles in almost perfectly straight lines.  How did they build such straight roads? And why? Their culture did not have wheels or pack animals.  Curiouser and curiouser. Even NASA is on the investigation.

Finally, there is the solstice marker.

Fajada Butte, a majestic monolith, stands in the middle of the canyon.  Nestled at the top of the butte sit two vertical rock slabs.  The ancient inhabitants carved a large spiral into the rock behind these slabs and when the midday sun shines through on the summer solstice a dagger of light perfectly bisects the spiral.

It’s actually way cooler than that.  I recommend you see the film yourself to understand how amazing this is: http://www.solsticeproject.org/index.html .

Fajada Butte. Photo by Claudia Zimmer.

Hearing about the “Sun Dagger” opened a whole new world to me and made me appreciate the fact that ancient peoples lived under the sky in a way that we home-and-office-dwellers no longer do.  Learning about the illusion of the snake slithering down the pyramid at Chichen Itza on the summer solstice, the original city of Cuzco designed as a living calendar and the wonders of Stonehenge have changed the way I visit ruins.  A few recommendations:

  • Consider the timing – you may want to plan your visit in concert with an astronomical event (solstice, equinox, eclipse, etc.).  In the case of Chichen Itza, I was delighted to discover that they recreate the solstice-serpent every evening during the otherwise cheesy sound and light show.
  • Carry a compass so you can appreciate how ancient city planners frequently aligned their constructions perfectly with the cardinal points.
  • Look at the horizon and note which landmarks could have been used to note the sun’s most extreme rising and setting points. In ancient times, this type of “horizon calendar” is how folks knew that spring had sprung.  Pretty important knowledge to have if your staple crop- corn for instance, needs a long growing season.

I learned other things on that trip as well, including the importance of looking down as well as up.  But that’s a story for another time…