Hidden in a remote area of Northwestern New Mexico, USA, are the ruins of a prehistoric community believed to have been built by the Anasazi people, which contains precise alignments to the solstices and equinoxes.
Chaco Canyon is a massive complex of great stone buildings and ceremonial platforms covering an expanse of approx. 80,000 square km.
This vast site has hundreds of buildings in and around the canyon, with researchers finding no obvious utilitarian purposes to their construction or placement.
Instead, the Anasazi people who constructed these remarkable buildings not only had a very deep understanding of celestial events, but went to great lengths to align their buildings and roads with them.
Artifacts and rock art found within the various buildings and around the canyon suggest they also held a deep knowledge of spiritual principles and ceremonies and practiced the Religion of the Sun.
The research group, “The Solstice Project” has done extensive research into the central buildings of the Chaco ruins, and is responsible for the discovery and study of many of its significant solar and lunar alignments. Much of the information regarding the alignments in this article has been sourced from their work.
The massive buildings of Chaco Canyon were constructed using a ‘core and veneer‘ style of masonry, much of which is still standing after over a thousand years. An incredible amount of stone and timber was used, with some of the buildings reaching 4 stories high.
At first glance, it may seem that the buildings were constructed at random along the canyon, but The Solstice Project has found that the placement of the various buildings not only contains precise solar and lunar alignments within the individual buildings themselves, (even down to the specific angles used in the structures) but throughout the design of the site as a whole. This level of detail in organizing the buildings to align with celestial events is quite telling of what may have been important to the ancient people of Chaco Canyon.
Significant Buildings in Chaco Canyon
Considered one of the largest of the ‘great houses’, Pueblo Bonito is built within the heart of Chaco Canyon, and sits on roughly four acres. The building would have stood about 4 stories high, containing around 700 rooms and over 30 ceremonial kivas (ceremonial platforms) throughout the complex.
Within the hundreds of rooms of Pueblo Bonito, various artifacts were found that suggest the site was used for ceremonial purposes during certain times of the year.
Wooden flutes, ceremonial sticks, pottery, incense burners, stone and ceramic effigies, garments made with macaw feathers, turquoise jewelry, copper bells and even traces of cacao believed to have possibly been used in rituals were found within Pueblo Bonito.
Researchers believe that the low amount of human burials and refuse mounds found around the site suggests Pueblo Bonito (and Chaco Canyon in general) may not have been a permanent residential complex for large groups of people but instead a thriving ceremonial center.
Solar Alignments of Pueblo Bonito
The Solstice Project found that Pueblo Bonito marks the daily and yearly passage of the sun. The dividing wall built through the center of the ruin perfectly aligns to the cardinal directions (North, South), and marks the sun’s daily passage. At midday the wall casts no shadow.
During the middle of the Sun’s yearly journey at the time of the equinox the sun can be seen rising in line with the eastern part of its southern wall and setting in line with the western part. As the sun rises and sets at the time of the summer solstice it is north of Pueblo Bonito’s southern wall. Then, during the equinoxes, the southern wall marks exactly the midpoint in the seasons, ending with the sunrise and sunset south of the wall during the winter solstice.
An animated depiction of this occurrence at Pueblo Bonito can be seen in this excerpt from The Solstice Project’s film, “The Mystery of Chaco Canyon.”
One researcher has found that the layout of the kivas at Pueblo Bonito possibly matches the layout of the cluster of stars known as the Pleiades, which seems to be another interesting connecting point of many ancient sites that have embedded references to the Seven Sisters star cluster (such as Kokino or Grianan of Aileach for instance).
Pueblo Bonito seems to have served as a great ceremonial complex for the people of Chaco Canyon. It is possible that people came from the surrounding areas to celebrate with spiritual ceremonies at various times throughout the year.
Fajada Butte – The Sun Dagger
One of the most well known sites in Chaco Canyon is Fajada Butte. The isolated stone hill stands 135 meters high and is found at the south entrance of Chaco Canyon. Artifacts such as purposefully broken ceramic pots and other items found on the butte suggest it was most likely used ceremonially. At the top of the butte a series of petroglyphs are carved into its cliffs, positioned to display a pattern of sunlight and shadows throughout the year, with particular patterns marking the solstices and equinoxes.
Near the top of the butte are two spirals carved into the stone. Three large slabs of rock positioned near the spirals were discovered to direct the sunlight onto the spirals, depicting the movement of the sun throughout its yearly cycle, with an emphasis on the solstices and equinoxes. At midday of the summer solstice for example, a dagger like ray of light is displayed directly in the middle of the spiral.
The patterns of light change over the course of the year. At the spring and autumn equinox a display of light is directed onto the smaller spiral (shaped like a serpent) to the top left of the larger one. The dagger remains to the right of the center of the larger spiral.
On the winter solstice, the patterns of light again change to two daggers framing the large spiral. Remarkably, the spirals not only mark the cycle and movement of the sun, but they also mark the movement of the moon. Light and shadow directed through the three slabs align with pecked groves along the spiral, depicting the major and minor standstills of the moon which occur once every 18.6 years (another trait similar to other ancient sites around the world, such as Macedonia’s Kokino observatory).
Fajada Butte also contains other petroglyphs that are marked by light and shadows on the solstices and equinoxes. On the east side of the Butte, a spiral, rattlesnake and rectangular figure are found deeply carved into the stone. As the sun moves throughout the year, its light is displayed on these petroglyphs in a particular pattern. Anna Sofaer, one of the main researchers who discovered these alignments describes the patterns on the spiral:
A shadow edge crosses the spiral glyph within 10 minutes of noon throughout the year, forming a seasonally changing pattern. This pattern is momentarily symmetric about the center of the spiral within a few minutes of noon, forming a wedge at summer solstice, a quartering at equinox, and a bisecting at winter solstice.
At the same time the light is producing specific patterns onto the spiral, a shadow covers the snake and rectangular figure to varying degrees along with it.
On the west side of the butte, two spirals joined together are etched into the stone, along with another rectangular glyph. During the equinox, at solar noon, a dagger of light crosses and pierces the spiral on the right in its middle.
While it is hard to say exactly how Fajada Butte was used during the time the Anasazi community was thriving, it is clearly another incredible example of their knowledge of the cycle of the sun, and the great importance they placed on it in their surroundings.
Here is a video of the Fajada Butte Spiral behind the three stone slabs during the summer solstice:
Spanning 63 feet wide in its interior, Casa Rinconada is the largest isolated kiva in Chaco Canyon. It is located south of Pueblo Bonito where evidence of a road possibly leading from Pueblo Bonito to the great kiva has been found. Casa Rinconada contains similar cardinal orientations as Pueblo Bonito, with it being aligned within a degree of due North and containing both solstice and equinox alignments.
The great kiva was constructed with immense precision and seems to have been used for ceremonial purposes. Running along the walls are 34 niches and an inner bench. A fire pit and two stone boxes with what appears to have been roof supports attached to them are situated in the center.
Additionally, a 39 foot underground passage runs out into the kiva coming from its northern antechamber. Participants in a ceremony at this kiva would have been able to enter the kiva unseen and emerge from the antechamber. Artifacts such as beads, shells and ceramics found within Casa Rinconada have also suggested its use as a great ceremonial gathering place.
At the summer solstice, the sun shines through the northeast window and moves across Casa Rinconada, resting on the 7th niche built into the wall.
Here is a video of the summer solstice alignment taking place, in June of 2010:
On the equinox, the sun is seen shining between the two doors of Casa Rinconada which are perfectly aligned east/west.
Here is a glimpse of the equinox alignment between the doors of Casa Rinconada:
Sharing many of the same characteristics as Pueblo Bonito, Hungo Pavi is another D-shaped great house with over 150 rooms, a great kiva and large plaza.
The long, high, straight back wall of Hungo Pavi resting along the canyon was found to align with the equinox sunrise, making it another great building to have solar alignments as a main feature.
Outside of the main cluster of buildings are several outlying buildings with similar styles and celestial alignments. Among these are what’s known as the Aztec ruins, consisting of several buildings with hundreds of rooms and several great kivas. Like other Chaco buildings, many artifacts were found such as pottery, effigies and ceremonial deposits of beads, shells, stones and turquoise.
The long back wall of the building known as Aztec West is aligned to the Summer and Winter solstice. In the summer, the sun rises in alignment with the east corner of the wall and in the winter, the sunset aligns with the west side of the wall.
Other Buildings and Features
There are many more intriguing structures within Chaco Canyon and the surrounding areas. Great buildings, Stone circles, shrines, and herraduras are scattered throughout the landscape, many whose meaning and purpose remain a mystery. Incredibly well engineered road systems throughout Chaco Canyon link up some of the structures and surrounding communities. Modern engineers believe the Chaco roads to be too overbuilt to have been used for utilitarian purposes and perhaps signify something deeper.
It seems quite obvious that the builders of Chaco Canyon had an incredible knowledge of celestial events and the significance of them was something that reached almost every corner of their world in some way.
Inter-building Relationships and Alignments
The Solstice Project found during their research that several of the major building’s orientation took into account the cycles of the sun and the moon. This relates to the positioning of the buildings in the canyon individually as many are aligned to significant astronomical azimuths, but also between the positioning of the buildings and their relationship to each other throughout the site as a whole.
For example, John M. Fritz noted that the four central buildings are designed in a symmetrical cardinal pattern of north-south, east-west. Pueblo Alto and Tsin Kletsin are on the North-South axis, and Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl along the east-west. The solstice project further discovered that three out of four of of these buildings also have cardinal orientation within the construction of the individual buildings themselves.
Also, The Solstice Project discovered that within the major Chacoan buildings were “strictly repeated internal diagonal angles and a correspondence between these angles and astronomy.” They found that 11 major Chacoan buildings continuously used angles between 23° and 28° or 34° and 39°. These angles correspond with those of the lunar standstill azimuths and the east-west cardinal axis associated with the rising and setting of the sun. The Solstice Project explains that “It suggests that the Chacoans may have favored these particular angles in order to incorporate a geometry of the sun and moon in the internal organization of the buildings.”
Many of the Chacoan buildings were aligned to the major and minor lunar standstills, both individually in their placement and the use of internal angles, as well as in relation to each other.
It would have taken a very sophisticated knowledge of those celestial events as well as great efforts to design and execute at such a large scale as found in Chaco Canyon. It is certainly intriguing to consider the meaning of such depth put into the positioning of their buildings to align to celestial events by the builders of Chaco Canyon.
Ancient Symbology Found in Chaco Canyon Petroglyphs
There are many sacred sites around the world which align to the solstices and equinoxes. Found within them are often what seems to be universal spiritual symbols that were expressed by the ancient people and communities that left them there. They can give us clues as to the deeper meaning behind the structures themselves, as well as what they meant to people who built and used them. Many of these symbols are present at Chaco Canyon.
Spirals are found all over Chaco Canyon. The symbol itself is one found throughout the world in many ways, from sacred geometry found in nature to being associated with the movement of sun and the earth in the cosmos. This symbol is very often found at sacred sites that align to the solstices and equinoxes.
An intriguing symbol that was found on the west side of Fajada Butte which shows a play of shadow and light during the equinoxes. The double spiral has been associated with the solstices and the path of the sun throughout the year in general. During an artistic experiment the artist Charles Ross documented the path of the sun throughout a year. He tracked it by capturing the sunlight through a magnifying glass which burnt impressions onto wood, and when he put them together they formed the pattern of a double spiral.
Archaeoastronomer Martin Brennan (author of The Stars and Stones: Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland) describes how a double spiral is formed by the path of the sun in the shadow of a gnomon:
At summer solstice the shadows are shortest and the arc is concave. At winter solstice the shadows are longest and the arc is convex. In archaic astronomy, these were known as the ‘horns of the solstice.’ At equinox the shadow is straight. If the shadows of the sun are correlated over the period of one year in chronological order following their curvature they form a double spiral. In winter the spiral is counter-clockwise and the coils are wide. The shadows begin to straighten as equinox approaches, and after equinox they begin to wind into a clockwise spiral and tighten. They contract until the summer solstice, straighten again at equinox and return to a left-handed spiral again in winter to continue the process perpetually.
The circle is perhaps one of the most used universal spiritual symbols around the world, and is found incorporated into thousands of sacred sites from cultures of all different time periods and places. It’s another symbol associated with the sun.
In Chaco canyon the circle is found again and again in the form of its ceremonial structures (kivas) as well as stone circles all around the canyon. Given that the builders of Chaco Canyon surrounded themselves with aspects of the cycle of the sun, it is quite possible this is another extension of their appreciation for its deeper significance.
Another symbol found at Chaco Canyon in its rock art as well as in ceremonial artifacts found at Pueblo Bonito is the serpent.
The serpent is a symbol that is found at many sacred sites around the world that are aligned to the sun.
Turquoise, Shells and Jewelry
Incredible amounts of various turquoise, shells and stones have been found all over Chaco Canyon, with the majority coming from the great house of Pueblo Bonito. Much of the various jewelry decorated the few clusters of burials at Chaco Canyon and was placed intentionally in niches or areas within the kivas as offerings.
In describing the possible significance of the jewelry found in Chaco Canyon, Archaeologist Hannah Mattson writes that, “Turquoise and shell ornaments, in particular, appear to have been intimately linked with status and ritual in Chacoan society” and that “debris from their production represent the majority of objects contained within structured depositional contexts in Chaco Canyon, including dedicatory offerings in kivas of all sizes. In addition, they comprise a signiﬁcant portion of objects intentionally deposited in storage rooms as ritual retirements, along with other probable inalienable and ceremonially important items such as altar fragments, cylinder jars, shell trumpets, and wooden staffs of ofﬁce.”
Symbols have been used for thousands of years to convey deep spiritual truths and teachings. If we take a look at some of the oldest sacred sites around the world, a pattern emerges which seems to point to a universal knowledge of these spiritual truths that wasn’t altered by time or difference in culture. Chaco Canyon is another example added to the collection of these sacred sites.
Disappearance of the Anasazi Civilization
The Anasazi people had a distinct and sophisticated culture, which seemed to begin as early as 1500 B.C. The name “Anasazi” was attributed to these people by another unrelated tribe in the area, which means “ancient enemies.”
There is evidence that suggests the Anasazi civilization was violently persecuted from other peoples, and eventually had to flee the Four Corners region to survive.
They fled south to Arizona and beyond, making settlements in difficult to reach places, often nestled high up in cliffs. It seems that eventually the Anasazi people vanished, having been driven or wiped out of the region altogether.
While this is a tragic end to these peaceful people, they left behind an incredible heritage which thankfully can still be studied and explored today, giving us a window into ancient cultures in the Americas that descended from the lost civilization of the sun.