2015 Annual Letter

December 21, 2015

Dear Friends,

As we come to this thoughtful time of the winter solstice, I want to share our progress and thank you for your support over many years for our work of understanding and conveying the complex heritage of the Chaco culture. In this year of the moon’s minor standstill, we are developing the last stages of our new film Written on the Landscape: Mysteries Beyond Chaco Canyon and pleased that it is being welcomed for broadcast by PBS. We conducted many recent interviews with scholars and Pueblo and Navajo people, which, together with new footage of monumental Chacoan Great Houses in alignment with the moon and sun, are creating a startling vision of Chaco.

Our film will be narrated by Robert Redford, as he narrated our two earlier films. It will open with Adriel Heisey’s entrancing aerial footage of the Chaco people’s immense expanse across a major portion of the Southwest — the severe high desert of the Colorado Plateau — showing massive ruins, some as far as 130 miles from the center, Chaco Canyon. In exploring the fascinating challenge of how and why this ancient society wrested life from this spare desert, let alone constructed monumental Great Houses and engineered “roads” across 80,000 square miles — all without modern forms of mapping, writing, and math — our film turns to the center and its mesmerizing astronomical and architectural works — and its meaning to descendant Pueblo people.

At mid-summer full moon in June, within a 48 hour period, an astounding six Chaco Great Houses were in alignment with the mid-summer full moon at its minor standstill. We filmed in timelapse the rising and setting of the moon, in perfect light, in alignment with the walls of several major buildings in Chaco Canyon, revealing again the Chaco culture’s remarkably deep engagement with the moon.

In our recent interview, Philip Tuwaletstiwa, a geodesist and member of the Hopi Tribe, shed new light on the Chaco people’s relationship with the moon — unique in world archaeoastronomy for its redundancy. He suggested that an astronomer elite, likely of Maya origin, impressed people with their astute skills of aligning to its 18.6 year standstill cycle. This powerful knowledge may have in part inspired the hard labor of constructing the buildings. Charismatic rituals were perhaps timed to lunar rhythms. I believe that some of those would have been at the awesome times of lunar eclipses.

With this in mind, we captured in timelapse last September’s total lunar eclipse at Pueblo Bonito and, 92 miles to the north, at the Chaco Great House of Chimney Rock, Colorado. This site especially expresses the Chaco people’s reverence for the moon. They built a Great House on a sharp precipice to orient to two rock towers that frame the moon’s rise at its furthest northern position — reached only once every 18.6 years at its major northern lunar standstill.
Our recent work with William Stone of the National Geodetic Survey adds intriguing new insight to why the Chacoans were so enraptured by the lunar cycle. His GPS data on numerous shrines set upon the mesas that form the south side of Chaco Canyon suggests that the canyon itself is in topographic alignment with the major standstill of the moon, and that the Chacoans may have marked this alignment by these shrines, just as they aligned their buildings. We wonder: did the canyon’s landforms, along with its open vistas, set the Chacoans’ lunar commemorations in motion? The late Rina Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo, a close friend and wise colleague, always perceived the connection of land and sky as the underlying order of Chaco’s florescence. She described this alignment as ”brilliant.”

New evidence affirms that intense ritual activity in Chaco had a dynamic connection with Mesoamerica from its start in 850 AD. A picture of Mesoamerican presence is drawn emphatically in our interview with archaeologist Stephen Lekson. He sees Chaco as the northern end of Mesoamerica, and sees in its social and political structure the hierarchical tradition of nobles of the Maya and the Aztec, who guided and controlled the people in a feudal system. Christopher Powell, a Maya scholar, noted in his interview the sharp contrast of the expansive vistas of the Chaco region with those of the humid and forested tropics. He said the Maya had to build pyramids to make their observations, whereas in the vast and clear skies of the Southwest, the ancients would be able to observe and participate in particularly impressive dramas of the sky.

Rob Weiner, research fellow with the Solstice Project this summer, conveys in our film the Chacoans’ vibrant use of the exotica of Mesoamerica in rituals of sight, sound, and taste: trumpet shells blown, music of copper bells and flutes, frothing cacao, the squawking of scarlet macaws. These birds, revered in Mesoamerica, were transported to Chaco from the tropics, then raised and ceremonially buried in Pueblo Bonito. The stimulating drink of cacao was found in Bonito’s ceramics, also transported from distant tropical forests. There appears to have been a polar relationship between Chaco, a land of the North, with the lush lands of the South and their colorful objects and symbolism. Certain Mesoamerican imagery depicts the North as arid, dark, cold, and significantly, as lunar, and as the “land of the ancestors.”

Phillip Tuwaletstiwa describes the experience of a person entering a Chaco Great House on one of the “roads” as a transformation of consciousness: moving from the physical reality to another sphere. The encounter might have been with the “Capaqueslsiliwa,” people described by the late Edmund Ladd of Zuni (in our earlier film) as purportedly having powers to control the behavior of animals, birds, and the weather. Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz provided further insights in a recent interview, noting not only traditional Puebloan regard for the great knowledge of ancestors, but also their admonition to beware of the abusive use of knowledge and of people gaining corrupting powers from it. He related his people’s decision to move from Chaco and to live communally in a more reciprocal relationship with nature.

In Written on the Landscape, our interviews with scholars and Pueblo and Navajo people resonate with startling new scientific findings to tell a story of Chaco as a place of beauty, awe, and ultimately wisdom. There is enchantment in experiencing the “ruins” of Chaco today, perhaps because they reveal so little. Rather they evoke in us a consciousness of worlds and concepts extraordinary and far beyond our own. Only in film can this transcendent experience be conveyed.

Other news:

Archaeologist Tim Pauketat praised the work of the Solstice Project and our previous film The Mystery of Chaco Canyon, in a recent piece, writing, “I have featured that film in my courses… at the University of Illinois… it tackles the big questions surrounding the greater Southwest’s premier Puebloan archaeological complex… it parallels theoretical developments in archaeology proper… Sofaer’s approach has been inspirational in its illustration of astronomy’s relevance to Native American identity and history.” This echoes the public’s long lasting appreciation of the film as well, voiced by the CEO of PBS New Mexico, Franz Joachim, “The average rating was… [what] we expect with Nova, Nature and Masterpiece Theatre.”

We will have a chance to present our recent findings and this expanding view of Chaco in April, when we travel to Brown University for a screening of The Mystery of Chaco Canyon hosted by the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Rob Weiner, as a Masters student at Brown writing his thesis on Chaco, is facilitating a workshop with faculty specializing in the cultures of ancient Mesoamerica, Peru, and the prehistoric Mediterranean to discuss Chaco in the larger context of ancient monumentality worldwide.

While fracking in the Chaco region has subsided recently due to low gas and oil prices, we are aware that the infrastructure is in place to support another boom and further endanger Chacoan outlying sites and fragile “roads.” In anticipation of this, we are now preparing a paper with Richard Friedman and Rob Weiner to fully present the results of our unique LiDAR study of Chaco’s Great North Road. This technology provides extraordinarily precise documentation of the most subtle of Chaco roads. Our goal continues to be the LiDAR documentation of the entire Chaco cultural region. Southwestern archaeologist Paul Reed expressed in our recent interview our mutual sense of urgency to protect Chaco’s future with all the effort we can muster.

Follow our updating news on our recently renovated website: www.solsticeproject.org
You can learn more about our upcoming film at www.chacomysterycontinues.com

As the sun sets this Christmas Eve, enjoy the full moon as it rises at its minor standstill — a lovely convergence. The minor standstill will not return again for 18.6 years, and it is hundreds of years before it will rise full again on Christmas Eve in its minor standstill.
As we begin this exciting new year, we hope you can contribute to our nonprofit Solstice Project (501 c 3), protecting Chaco and bringing its amazing heritage to life.

Happy Holidays,

Anna Sofaer


Solstice Project
222 East Marcy Street, # 10
Santa Fe, NM 87501

For contributions, you may send a check
or donate through the website.

Receive Action Alerts & Project Updates by email from us!