Sunwatcher
Back to ASTRO UTAH Home
Welcome to Project ASTRO UTAH
Our Goals

The Coalition

The Schools

Science Snippets

Interesting Links

Von Del's Astronomy Articles

ASTRO UTAH Newsletter

A Sunrise Calendar at Anasazi State Park

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

When you visit any of the Anasazi village sites scattered upon the Colorado Plateau, one of the things I hope you think about is how important keeping a calendar was for the people who made the silent rooms, kivas, plazas, pictographs and petroglyphs we tend to find so intriguing. Although many of the questions which come to mind as we wander through these places allude us, there are some things we can be sure of. These people were farmers, as well as hunters. They had strong religious, political and social interests. Knowing when it was appropriate to successfully plant and harvest crops, hunt game, initiate ceremonies, hold festivals and energize the factors of leadership was of paramount importance. Therefore, we can be certain that having reliable and accurate methods of keeping a seasonal calendar was a key element of Anasazi culture.

How did they keep their calendars? There were several very basic observational methods available to them. They could have watched the Sun on the horizon. They could have watched the seasonal migration of stars in both evening and early morning sky. They could have watched changing weather patterns. Finally, they could have paid close attention to changes in all living things around them, including budding of plants and the birth of animals. It is highly likely that they did every one of these things and that they had good awareness of the relationships between them. Indeed, it is perceived relationships between Sun, stars, weather and climate, and living things that generally lie at the foundation of traditional cosmologies.

The easiest and most basic part of keeping an observational calendar is watching the Sun on the horizon. I want to briefly share with you one example that I have been thinking about, along with some colleagues who work for our Utah State Parks. Within the small town of Boulder, Utah, on the southern slopes of the Aquarius Plateau, there is a small Anasazi ruin, known as the Coombs site, named after the individual who owned the land when the site was excavated. Thirty-six years ago it became one of our state parks and is now known as "Anasazi Indian Village State Park." An addition to the visitor center is nearing completion, making it a most attractive place to visit. This is one of the northern-most of Anasazi villages, populated by a branch of the Anasazi known as the Kayenta. The village is located in one of the beauty-spots of our State.

It is easy to see why people would consider living at this place. Boulder Mountain, with its small streams and lakes abounds with wild game. Crystal clear water rushes down the slopes into the valley, right next to the Coombs village site. Not far away are some of Earth's most spectacular canyons. The Kayenta Anasazi group who moved into the area about 900 years ago, found abundant wild life, lots of water and fertile land to plant crops on.

On the other hand, it is easy to see why this group of people remained not much longer than half a century. The site is at an elevation of 6700 feet above sea level. It is not unusual to have late frosts and early winters, so the growing season is short and unpredictable. Winters can be long and severe. Thus, for the people who did set up housekeeping there, calendar was most important. They had to know when to plant various crops in hopes of reaping a harvest. The Sunwatcher at that village was likely one of its most important residents.

Knowing all of this, archaeologist Todd Prince began thinking about calendrics at the Anasazi village site as he worked there for a number of years. I met Todd a couple of years ago at another of our state parks, Edge of the Cedars, where he had relocated. He told me about a small set of old walls located on top of one of the sandstone buttes very close to the main complex at the Coombs site. He had been watching the rising Sun as viewed from this hill-top, being interested in the alignment of the building walls, the distant mountains and the points of sunrise at key times of the year.

When I first visited the site I quickly became interested in it. From the village below, where the silent crumbled walls now stand, one can look off to the east and think about how the Anasazi people might have watched the Sun to keep their calendar. The very distant Henry mountains can be seen in places, but are mostly obscured by nearer sandstone formations. So, I wondered, what would the view to the east and west be like from atop "Schoolhouse Ledge," as the local people refer to the butte with the smaller complex of Anasazi rooms on top. The name for this tiny site comes from its proximity to the old school at the town of Boulder. The ledge certainly has proven to be a school for me: I have learned a great deal from climbing to its top; looking down upon the Coombs site to study the layout of the place; watching many sunrises and sunsets; listening to the sounds of rushing water, winds, birds and animals; and trying to imagine what life was like for those early Americans.

William Latady, the current park archaeologist, has been my companion and guide, for together we have climbed the butte many times to look around and discuss the matter of calendar keeping at this place. Once on top, one can see as fine a set of distant features as I have ever found to use for calendar keeping. From up there, you look over the near-by features for a wondrous view of the Henrys with lots of peaks and dips providing a perfect set of marks to associate with the things that must be done for quality life at this place.

On top of the Ledge at break of day and at sunset, Bill and I have carried on a dialogue to consider the factors involved. (1) people lived down there below us where they could easily plant crops and hunt game. (2) The crops they planted had to be managed with the greatest of care, especially getting seeds in the ground at the right time--early enough so that crops would mature, yet not so early that they would be lost to frost. (3) The easiest and most reliable method of keeping a calendar was to watch the sunrise and sunset against those distant mountains and this ledge was the most convenient place for such observations. (4) There were structures up here where people stayed, at least for short periods, for some reason. And (5) that reason might well have involved keeping the calendar for the entire population residing at this Kayenta site on the very edge of Anasazi occupation.

With these things in mind, Bill and I started keeping a photographic record of sunrises and sunsets. Incidently, we found ourselves wanting to rename the place we had visited so many times: "Sunwatcher Ledge" or "Sun Priest House" rolls out of our minds better than "Schoolhouse Ledge." We had in mind obtaining data and images that could be used for an exhibit at the visitors center and thought we might publish a paper on our work. We do not claim that the Boulder Anasazi people necessarily did keep their calendar from atop this ledge, but we think it not unlikely that they might have done so. We know that they had to keep a calendar. We know that the Anasazi people generally kept their calendar by watching the Sun on the horizon, and there is no place better to have done it than from the top of this butte so accessible to the village. Our work, then, is an exploration intended to show the most likely method, in detail, for Anasazi calendar keeping, and we are gaining experience in the many factors involved in keeping such a calendar.

So we share a summary of our work so far in the accompanying illustration. You can see the range of sunrises on the distant landscape, from "Sunwatcher Ledge." The contours are the "pages" in the appointment book for the Anasazi who lived there.

At winter solstice the Sun rises at the base of the second of three small steps to the southeast (see the point for 21 December sunrise). For all practical purposes, this is the end of one year and beginning of another for most traditional cultures; we could think of it as the Anasazi new year. Equally as important as the point of solstice sunrise is the place where it comes up about 10 days prior to the solstice (see our 11 December mark), for the people needed to know when to begin preparation for the important solstice ceremonies. Thus, the sunrise at the base of the first step, marked this "anticipation" point, and we can guess that the Anasazi people started getting ready for the most important ritual of the year. The Sun would rise at this point again after the solstice, about 1 January.

Equinox sunrise occurs between the two highest points on the eastern horizon, the dip between Mount Hillers, on the south, and Mount Pennel, on the north, as they are currently known. This, then, is the point of sunrise about 21 March and 21 September.

One of the most important parts of this horizon calendar would be the marks used for planting crops. Information gathered from people who have lived in Boulder for most of the past century, suggests that planting was likely to have been done during May. For the Anasazi, there would have been early, mid and late corn plantings and times to plant squash and beans. Looking at our sunrise marks for early and late May, you can see that there are nice features on our calendar for planting dates. Perhaps some of the Indian names for the dips and peaks on this part of the panorama might have related to the types of seeds to be put in the ground when the Sun reached those places.

The Sun rises at the south end of a flat mesa a dozen or so days before and after the summer solstice, marking a convenient time for the Anasazi to begin preparations for solstice ceremonies. At summer solstice the Sun rises near the middle of the top of the mesa (see mark for 21 June). It will go no further north, but will rise there for several days without any apparent change (the term solstice means "Sun stand still"), then ever so slowly begin moving back southward. By autumnal equinox it will rise between the two high mountains, on its way to the southern most rising at the winter solstice again.

Every year it will be the same, from solstice to solstice, from short and cold days to long warm ones and everything in between. Those mountains, as viewed from this place, represent all of the changes that can be anticipated during the year, and all the activities that were important to that small group of Kayenta Anasazi who cooked their meals, sang their songs, and raised their children at that place 900 years ago. A sunrise or sunset calendar is the most reliable way humans have ever found for keeping time by actual unaided-eye observation. It still works today just as it has throughout the ages.

For more information on Anasazi State Park visit http://utah.com/places/state_parks/anasazi.htm or http://www.so-utah.com/hwy12/anasazi/homepage.html

Copyright 1999-2003 The Clark Foundation.
Please direct all comments and queries to webmaster@clarkfoundation.org