2016 Annual Letter

Dear Friends,

It has been a productive year for the Solstice Project: we continue with our three goals of education, research, and preservation of Chaco Canyon and its stunning expanse across the Four Corners region. We persist in our efforts to protect Chaco sites and roads from fracking — highlighting the great number beyond the protective boundaries of the National Park Service — in our nearly completed film Written on the Landscape: Mysteries Beyond Chaco Canyon. With the Solstice Project’s new Research Associate, Rob Weiner, we have written and published several research papers and presented talks on the Chacoans’ cosmographic expressions — how their works beautifully integrate the natural landscape, astronomy, and architecture, and how their dynamic connections with Mesoamerica may have inspired these expansive works. As we forge ahead on these exciting frontiers, I wish to express our heartfelt gratitude for your many years of support and ask that you consider a tax-deductible donation to our non-profit (501c3) Solstice Project.

An Update on Fracking and LiDAR

One of the most compelling enigmas of Chaco’s far-reaching landscape is its hundreds of miles of “road” segments, linear features remarkably wide and rigorously straight, that appear not to have been intended for transport and trade. Roads are considered by Pueblo and Navajo people as sacred pathways. In the Chaco area, many appear to connect to powerful places in the landscape and to have served as “time bridges” joining sites of distant eras. Archaeologist John Stein called them “a world resource… a huge beautiful tablet” unlike anything known in the ancient world. And yet these features are most endangered by fracking.

While the current low price of oil has temporarily halted fracking in the Chaco area, the infrastructure is in place to resume it any day, threatening sacred cultural heritage, the fragile environment of the San Juan Basin, and the health of hundreds living in the area. Over 365 wells, facilitated by new roads and pipelines, have been constructed in the Chaco area in the last few years. Only twenty miles to the southeast of Chaco Canyon, 840 acres will soon be opened for lease permits. The Bureau of Land Management, admitting that it has not adequately assessed the impact of fracking on the greater Chaco region, and in response to the negative protests in protection of Navajo communities and Chaco sites, has recently extended their scoping period to February 20, 2017. We urgently encourage you to make your voice heard and contact the New Mexico Congressional offices and BLM field offices. The “Frack Off Greater Chaco” Campaign’s website: www.frackoffchaco.org is an excellent resource with lists of whom to contact.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors recently urged the BLM to establish a 10-mile buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park to protect their “ancestral graveyards, sacred sites or water sources.” In the Santa Fe New Mexican, Angelica Gallegos and Joaquin Gallegos of Santa Ana Pueblo and the Jicarilla Apache Nation argued passionately: “Underneath the clear night skies of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, we learn our life-ways, study astronomy and connect with religious places with millions of stars and hundreds of bats in sight…Ultimately, Chaco Canyon is a needed mystery and saving its power represents saving a part of ourselves.”

In our effort to protect the fragile Chaco heritage, we recently completed — with our colleague Rich Friedman — a research paper detailing our 2010 LiDAR (aerial laser scanning) documentation of Chaco’s Great North Road. We demonstrate the unique capability of this technology to detect and create precise 3D digital records of Chaco’s subtle “roads.” Rich applies a special combination of skills to read Chaco’s sites and roads on the ground as well as to conduct refined analysis of LiDAR. A summary of our LiDAR paper is now featured in the 7th edition of Robert Kelly and David Hurst Thomas’ textbook Archaeology.

We will soon send this paper to the BLM urging that they perform LiDAR scanning of the entire 6.2 million acres that they plan to lease for energy development — an area crowded with Chaco ruins, shrines, and roads. We are pleased that the BLM — in response to the Solstice Project’s advocacy from 2012 until now in collaboration with John Roney and Rich Friedman — did commission a LiDAR scan of one sixth of this larger area; approximately 950,000 acres was scanned at high resolution. We will soon have the opportunity to work with these results, and without doubt identify numerous roads and other Chaco sites that can then inhibit the fracking. Ultimately, this technology should record Great Houses and roads throughout the entire Chaco region of the Four Corners — a legacy of engineering feats and cosmology written on a vast desert landscape.

Recent Research and Findings

The Solstice Project is thrilled to be hosting Rob Weiner as a Research Associate for two years. Rob graduated from Brown University in May with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Archaeology and Anthropology. His MA thesis, “The Archaeology and Mythology of Gambling at Chaco Canyon,” involved a comprehensive study of 471 gaming pieces from Chaco sites and thoughtful consideration of Pueblo and Navajo oral histories of gambling at Chaco. At the Pecos Conference in August, Rob won first place in the Cordell-Powers Contest for his presentation on Chaco gambling.

Since joining the Solstice Project in June, we have co-authored two research papers and begun work on a collaborative Solstice Project book of unpublished findings. With several other Chaco scholars the book will explore new perspectives on Chaco’s powerful expanse throughout the Four Corners.

A principal focus of our investigations continues to be on the Chaco culture’s relationship with Mesoamerican cultures. We had conceptualized a number of years ago that, as a ceremonial center set in the arid desert of the North, Chaco may have been seen as a ”land of the ancestors” by the cultures of the tropical south; and the vibrant, tropical landscapes of Mesoamerica viewed as places of abundant life by the Chacoans.

New findings support such a vital conceptual exchange. Cacao residue in Chacoan cylinder vessels and evidence of the Chacoans’ fascination with six-digit individuals — recently documented by archaeologist Patricia Crown of the University of New Mexico — demonstrate intriguing parallels between Chaco and Maya societies. Maya archaeologist Alonso Mendez, in our recent interview, describes the symbolism of cacao in the Maya world as “the food of the gods… a magical drink; an elixir that really allowed one to connect with mythical deities — the gods of the past.” Also of interest are individuals with six fingers or toes buried at Pueblo Bonito and honored with elaborate burial offerings, and imaged in petroglyphs, pendants, and artifacts; the Maya often depicted gods with six digits and considered this a mark of divinity.

Rob Weiner explores, in his article in Kiva, the experience of the many objects of Mesoamerican origin found in Pueblo Bonito — macaws, cacao, copper bells, conch shell trumpets — suggesting that they may have been powerful symbols conveying a bright, sound-filled, tropical paradise in the desert canyon. Alonso Mendez described the possible allure of Chaco to people of the South — “any place to the north really was a foreboding place; a place of high respect. The north was associated to the color white. Perhaps for death, perhaps for the coldness of the winter.” Maya archaeologist Chris Powell, in a recent interview at Chimney Rock, observed that in contrast to the humid and forested tropics of the Maya, the vast open skies of the northern Southwest would have provided excellent sites for observation, learning, and performance of ritual astronomy.

In June, William Stone of the NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey presented a poster on behalf of the Solstice Project at the Harvard University conference “Science of Time: Time in Astronomy and Society, Past, Present, and Future .” Our poster demonstrated that numerous small shrine-like sites in and near Chaco Canyon are positioned on alignments to the major lunar standstill — the same extreme position of the moon commemorated in Great House alignments and in shadow markings at the Sun Dagger site.

These findings suggest a new perspective into the Chaco people’s choice of such a harshly challenging environment to develop their monumental center. Intriguingly, the placement of these shrines also appears to have marked a correspondence between the topographic trajectory of Chaco Canyon itself and the moon’s position at major standstill, suggesting that the Chacoans enacted a vision to integrate the canyon’s land formation with the moon. Did this correspondence in fact play a key role in their choice to develop the austere canyon with a uniquely intense focus on the moon, as well as the sun?

Our subsequent paper titled “Inter-Site Alignments of Prehistoric Shrines in Chaco Canyon to the Major Lunar Standstill” has been accepted for publication in the journal Astrophysics and Space Science Proceedings. Part of our challenge in writing the paper was to conceptualize (and to convey to a scientific audience) the Chaco culture’s “science of time,” which stands in stark contrast to the written documentations of other ancient societies. We conclude that first, “the Chacoans marked repeating cycles in azimuth positions rather than in tabulated periodicities… Second, they translated temporal celestial cycles into a spatial order on the landscape. Third, they did so through the establishment of a geometric plan in the layout of Chaco Canyon’s central complex to the rising and setting of the key positions in the solar and lunar cycles.”

Educational Outreach

The Solstice Project continues our commitment to disseminating our research to the interested public and scholars in an accessible way that is always grounded in data and the latest findings. This past March, the Solstice Project hosted archaeologist Tim Pauketat to share his recent findings of lunar astronomy at Cahokia in a seminar titled “The Worlds of Cahokia and Chaco: Parallels of Cosmographic Expanse and Power.” In April at Brown University, we screened The Mystery of Chaco Canyon and ran a small seminar for faculty members. In October, we presented a public talk at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe to an overflowing auditorium. Also in October, Anna and Rob guided a School of Advanced Research tour of Chaco.

Anna and Rob will be giving a public talk, introduced by Paul Pino, Lieutenant Governor of Laguna Pueblo, at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque, on February 17 from 7:00-8:30 PM. We are also teaching a two session class titled “Archaeology, Astronomy, and Cosmography of the Chaco Culture” through the RENESAN Institute for Lifelong Learning in Santa Fe, 1:00-3:00 PM, on February 13 and 20.

We extend the invitation for all to attend these events and ponder our latest findings and perspectives. The exciting new advantages of web-based media are providing us the chance to soon build into the Solstice Project website new in-depth film pieces on critical themes of the Chaco culture. These web films will draw on the rich video material we collected in recent interviews, our new 3D modeling of the buildings, and brilliant, aerial recording by Adriel Heisey. Follow our progress on our web site solsticeproject.org

As we enter a new year, we hope you will contribute to our nonprofit Solstice Project (501c3), protecting Chaco and bringing its epic heritage to life. Best wishes for this winter solstice and the sun’s return in this challenging time,

Anna Sofaer

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

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