One thousand years ago today
Ancient astronomers watched the sun dagger move into place
They knew that it marked the arrival of the Summer Solstice
This was the ancient wisdom of the mysterious Anasazi race
In a remote section of northwestern New Mexico's desert, ancient Chaco Canyon contains some truly fascinating ancient treasures.
Pueblo Bonita, the ruins of the largest pre-Columbian city in the United States, with nine great houses, the largest standing 5 stories high and containing 650 dwelling rooms and 37 ceremonial kiva rooms, along with some 3,500 smaller structures in and around the canyon, may have housed up to 10,000 ancient residents at one time.
Chaco Canyon was also the hub of a network of ancient roads that radiated in all directions for hundreds of miles, suggesting that this site may have been an important destination for pilgrims from other ancient settlements spread throughout the entire Southwest who came here for religious ceremonies, for trade purposes, or to study astronomy.
Shown in the picture above on the lower right is the now famous ‘Sun Dagger’ by which these ancient people were able to precisely read and mark the harvesting and planting seasons, thus enabling them to very accurately record time's passage.
This ancient Sun Dagger, located near the top of 480 foot tall Fajada Butte, revealed the changing of the seasons to ancient astronomers a thousand years ago.
And its remarkable secret was lost around 1250 AD, when these mysterious and extremely knowledgeable people called the Anasazi (The Ancient Ones) abandoned Chaco Canyon entirely for some unknown reason.
Then in 1979, artist Anna Sofaer who was studying petroglyph art on Fajada Butte noticed that a slender beam of sunlight passing between two rock monoliths precisely bisected the center of a mysterious spiral-shaped petroglyph symbol on the exact day of the summer solstice.
Returning time and time again to continue her astounding observations, she found that at the winter solstice this same ancient Sun Dagger sliced through a smaller petroglyph nearby, and that two parallel daggers bracketed the larger spiral at the spring and fall equinoxes.
Even more amazing was the discovery that the larger spiral's shape also precisely tracked the 18-1/2-year lunar cycle--an astronomical feat previously unheard of among North American Indians.
This mesmerizing discovery tended to confirm the belief that Chaco Canyon was located at the end of an ancient Toltec or Mayan trade route, evidenced by such treasures found nearby as mother-of-pearl from the sea and macaw bird feathers from the Central American jungle. The more these seemingly simple rock carvings were studied, the more mysterious and complex they soon became.
Fajada Butte stands like an ancient Egyptian pyramid high above Chaco Canyon's desert floor. For a very long time after it was abandoned by these Anasazi, its only visitors were probably rattlesnakes and scorpions.
That all abruptly changed when a PBS documentary about this newly discovered ancient Sun Dagger phenomenon, narrated by actor Robert Redford, suddenly captured everyone’s attention and imagination.
In 1982, with tourists flocking to Chaco Canyon in now record numbers, the National Park Service declared Fajada Butte and its surrounding areas off limits to all but scientific researchers.
And there was now no shortage of these scientists eagerly trudging up the butte's steep narrow trail with their heavy equipment. More people began climbing Fajada Butte than ever before.
Formerly faint, this ancient Anasazi trail up the side of the butte now wore ever deeper, and disaster struck in 1989 when erosion of the loose clay and gravel around the base of the ancient stone monoliths caused them to slip.
As the gigantic slabs slowly inched down the steep slope of the butte, this phenomenal ancient astronomical tool was lost – forever.
Having marked the passage of the earth’s seasons, and even more remarkably, the lunar cycle, for countless centuries; it lasted only a few years after its re-discovery.
I’ve journeyed to Chaco Canyon twice, and these truly were journeys back through time.
And the PBS documentary about The Sun Dagger is truly fascinating.