2011 Annual Letter

I think we derive meaning in our lives right now, today, knowing that there were incredible people here; people who had a visual sense that we can’t get close to…and for us today, that’s a gift; for us to know that we as human beings are capable of such beauty.
Rina Swentzell, architect, Santa Clara Pueblo.


As we approach winter solstice and the end of 2011, I want to share with you news of the Solstice Project’s recent work on Chaco’s ancient sites — new projects originating from our studies of the mysterious web of early constructed roads — and our continuing efforts to ensure their preservation. Most provocative in this recent research is our evolving realization that these massive linear features, called for decades simply “roads”, have far greater significance than as routes of trade and travel. We’ve also initiated a series of seminars to bring together scientists and scholars working on other ancient cultural sites in northern and southern latitudes to compare research methods and evidence of advanced knowledge of solar-lunar astronomies. The findings are compelling!

Chaco Greater Landscape Selected for 2011 List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places

First, we are extremely pleased to report that responding to the Solstice Project’s nomination, the National Trust for Historic Preservation selected the Greater Chaco Landscape for its 2011 List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places. This designation signals to the American public that numerous ancient Chaco buildings and roads — the monumental works of the ancestral Pueblo culture — are currently in danger of vanishing. Rapidly expanding energy development in the region, as well as ongoing natural erosion, imminently threaten the fragile sites and network of roads surrounding them. The area consists of 53 square miles (including Chaco Culture National Historical Park), along with a ten-mile wide buffer zone and approximately 30-mile buffered segment of the Great North Road. This prestigious recognition by the National Trust for Historic Preservation of the worldwide value of the Chacoans’ heritage has also alerted the public agencies that manage the region to take the strongest possible actions to protect it.

For an update on other concerns for the protection of Chaco and for actions you can take, please see our Preservation Alert on our web site solsticeproject.org and for more details see www.chacoalliance.com. You can help by commenting on a currently proposed General Management Plan to close to visitors a good deal more of the Park’s resources. You may also want to speak up for the removal or revamping of a grossly imposing water tank recently constructed above the Visitors Center. (over)

Expanding Parallels II Seminar: Hopewell, Palenque, Stonehenge and Chaco

In May, the Solstice Project hosted a seminar in Santa Fe with scholars of the cultures of Hopewell, Palenque, Stonehenge and Chaco. Our two days of intensive exchange allowed time for each presenter to explore in depth their latest research findings. The presenters included Christopher Powell (Palenque), Bob Horn and Ray Hively (Hopewell), Anna Sofaer (Chaco), and the late Gerald Hawkins (power point recording on Stonehenge). A small group of archeologists, geologists, art historians, and Pueblo educators joined in the discussions. Our sessions were filmed so we can continue our study of their rich content and plan a film for PBS.

The seminar was inspired by evidence developed over the last several decades that these four ancient cultures integrated, in the layout of their monumental works, solar-lunar astronomies with special geometries — and that they did so in ways uniquely corresponding to their particular geographies and topographies.

Through these two days, we could see that the parallel expressions of these cultures, significantly separated in time and space, suggest exciting new insights into the complex conceptual framework in their works — far more complex than has previously been thought. For instance, Mayan scholar Chris Powell demonstrated that the people of Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico) in 700 AD united in their sacred architecture and iconography Pythagorean and golden section geometries (geometries that most of us had been taught originated with the Greeks and were known only after their discoveries).

We were equally impressed by the elegant geometries shown by Bob Horn and Ray Hively of the Hopewell culture of Ohio between 200 and 500 AD. Here the design of the massive earthwork constructions are near perfect squares and circles (consistently measuring 1054 feet in diameter). Many are oriented to the solstices and equinoxes. A road 200 feet wide appears to have been built over a distance of 60 miles to connect two remarkable sites — Newark and Chillicothe. At these sites two enormous octagons, the most exquisite of the Hopewell earthworks, are oriented to the major standstill of the moon. It appears that the Hopewell people made use of the octagon geometry because it uniquely makes possible lunar alignments at their particular latitude.

Stonehenge has long been seen as placed in the Salisbury plain for its latitude. Gerald Hawkins’ work demonstrates that the sun and moon alignments form a right angle which is incorporated in the monument’s design. In my presentation I showed tantalizing evidence of the Chaco culture’s incorporation of certain similarly complex geometries, related to solar and lunar astronomy, in the design of its large ceremonial buildings.

What were the origins and motivations for these works? What was the source of the ancients’ knowledge of complex geometries: were they derived from observations of nature and/or from practical building requirements, perhaps from working with sticks and cords? Were these geometries especially valued for their role in shaping natural phenomenon and expressing the growth of life forms? At Palenque, for example, Chris showed that flowers and shells, which are multiply incorporated in the iconography of religious architecture and texts, are imbued with divine power; and these objects, like many in nature, are formed in patterns of Pythagorean and golden section geometries.

We will continue to expand our inquiry in seminars with the same scholars and with our plan to publish a book of papers showing and comparing the works of these four cultures. Through these explorations we are working toward understanding the reasons for the huge expenditure of energies invested in creating these ancient sites and for their remarkably lasting integrity over centuries. Clearly the development of these sites required abstract thought and astute conceptualizing powers. What was the overarching vision and how was it communicated over generations? It appears that people connecting the geometric forms perceived in nature with the cycles of the sun and moon, as they are seen at particular latitudes, may have been expressing a sacred relationship of their place in the landscape, and on the earth, with infinite powers of the universe. A largethought to be explored in the context of more lengthy collegial discussions and analysis.

The New School of Commonweal in Bolinas, California, will honor the Solstice Project, by co-hosting our upcoming seminar in the fall of 2012 as a continuation of Expanding Parallels II— one of an ongoing series of Solstice Project seminars bringing together scientists of other ancient sites to explore astronomical findings parallel to those we have made in Chaco. We are working together on both publication and filming, with a $10,000 grant from the Jenifer Altman Foundation. Further funding of $12,000 is needed to meet the budget requirements of this seminar and its filming.

New Documentary Film on Chaco Roads

Recently, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded the Solstice Project a grant to support a twenty-minute film production on the ancient roads of the Chaco culture. It will highlight the work we accomplished in 2010 with a previous NTHP grant that captured astoundingly precise imagery of the Chaco Great North Road using the new technology of aerial laser scanning (LiDAR). Last year’s Annual Letter reported some of our findings; key among them, compelling evidence that Chaco roads, despite their large numbers and their extensively engineered construction, were not means of travel or trade. Chaco roads are not roads.

The focus of the film is on Chaco’s Great North Road, a thirty-five mile corridor that is regarded by the descendant Pueblo people as a sacred avenue connecting the world of the living with the place of their emergence and of the return of the spirits of the dead. Archaeologists and Pueblo people will speak in the film about the urgency to document the Chaco roads before energy development and natural erosion destroy them. The quote from Rina Swentzell at the beginning of this letter is taken from our rough cut of this short roads film; it refers to the Great North Road as seen from Kutz Canyon.

This film will be used educationally in presentations and museum exhibits as well as on the web sites of such groups as the Solstice Project and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It will also serve as a tool to advocate for the protection and preservation of the invaluable Chaco roads. The film will form the basis for an hour-long documentary for public television and academic use that expands on the vulnerability of Chaco sites and explores such broader topics as the similarities between Chaco roads and those found at Cahokia (Illinois) and Hopewell (Ohio), and in Mesoamerica and Peru. We find intriguing interpretations of other ancient American “roads” as symbolic constructions. In certain Classic Maya texts “to enter the road” is a metaphor for death, as well as to be born, and at monumental Maya sites constructed roads appear to represent the metaphoric rebirth of rulers upon taking office.

When we look at the translations and the ethnography from the different Pueblo language groups, the concept of road is nuanced to indicate “Life Road,” “the Spirit’s Road,” and, in some instances, the road for the newborn to move on from north to south. When we began looking at roads in the 1980s as not utilitarian, the late Alfonzo Ortiz (Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo) commented that “the Chaco roads are more like the Nazca Desert than they are the Roman roads.” He also said that the word in his Pueblo language of Tewa translates as “Channel for the Life’s Breath.” This film will be available on our web site in early 2012. We will let you know!

Please contribute to the development of this new documentary and to our other efforts to bring forth and preserve the ancient knowledge of Chaco and its companion ancient American cultures of parallel achievements. Your support, as always, is greatly appreciated.


Anna Sofaer

President, Solstice Project

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