Hidden in a remote area of Northwestern New Mexico, USA, are the ruins of a prehistoric Pueblo community which contain 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. Tree ring data taken from logs used in the construction of the buildings suggest they have been built as early as 800 A.D. and in use until around 1130 A.D. approximately.
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, it seems as though the ancient 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 the people of Chaco Canyon also held a deep knowledge of spiritual principles and ceremonies.
The symbolism found within Chaco Canyon coupled with the importance placed on the cycle of the sun seems to suggest the people of Chaco Canyon were like many cultures around the world who knew about and celebrated the spirituality 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 is 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 this Pueblo 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.
Some believe what’s known as the ‘Great North Road’ (a Chaco road leading directly due north and ending in Kutz Canyon) to possibly have a more spiritual significance given the importance of the Northern direction found in the structures of Chaco Canyon and in Pueblo folklore. 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 sun, growth, fertility, and spiritual enlightenment. This symbol is very often found at sacred sites that align to the solstices and equinoxes.
In The Path of the Spiritual Sun, a book about the ancient religion of the sun, the authors describe some of the significance of the spiral, as well as why the ancient builders of the pyramids used sacred geometry and sophisticated math to align their buildings with celestial events. This could give us some insight into the reasons why the people of Chaco Canyon went to such lengths to include the alignments as well as these universal symbols in their structures as well.
There is an ancient maxim of wisdom that states “as above, so below.” The universal principles of life exist in everything – that is why the same mathematical “logarithmic spiral” is found in the shape of a shell, and the spiral of a galaxy. The same principles that govern the movement of the heavens, the formation of structure and life, and the cycles of growth and decay, etc., also govern the spiritual development of a human being. The whole of life is created for beings to awaken, and is intrinsically imbued with the wisdom of this process so that we can remember who we are and find our way back home.
This is why the builders of the Great Pyramids and Sphinx aligned their sacred structures to the movements of the heavens using sacred geometry, with a precision that is unmatched even today. A study of fifty Egyptian temples revealed that the builders had used highly advanced sacred mathematics in the construction of every single one. A universal principle manifests itself in numbers, sound, color, natural cycles, the formation of life, astronomy, etc., which are studied in separate distinct disciplines. However, these are all expressions of the same universal truths. By using the expression of particular principles, whether it be astronomical or mathematical, the builders of the Great Pyramids and Sphinx, were able to create places that harnessed these principles energetically and multi-dimensionally, and could be experienced and understood on many different levels beyond the mind.
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. Associated primarily with the sun, but also eternity, unity and rebirth/reincarnation.
The circle is also associated with the four directions, the four seasons and the four elements (air, fire, water, earth).
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 widely recognized universal spiritual symbol found at Chaco Canyon in its rock art as well as in ceremonial artifacts found at Pueblo Bonito is the serpent. The serpent has long been associated with fertility, sexuality and desire, rebirth and eternity, among others. Some more recent pueblo communities recognize the snake as a symbol associated with the sun, which is possibly knowledge that would have been passed down by the builders of Chaco Canyon. They speak of the serpent’s importance in many of their traditional stories, teachings and folklore. The serpent is a symbol that is found at many sacred sites around the world that are aligned to the sun. Like many other universal symbols it seems to be another which contains an esoteric truth or teaching that was acknowledged by and held great meaning to the ancient people and cultures from around the world.
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. It is also thought that the jewelry could have indicated social or spiritual importance and have been used in ritual.
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.”
Modern Pueblo communities speak of the various stones and shells to have a particular spiritual meaning or use. Some say they are used in rituals and prayers, as well as for healing and protection.
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, and it seems the people who built it had this spiritual knowledge and celebrated it stone by stone.
The Mesoamerican and Cross-Cultural Connection
Taking a close look at the artifacts, symbols, architecture and solar/lunar alignments within Chaco Canyon, one wonders if the builders did not share a common relationship to those in the Mesoamerican regions specifically, and perhaps on a larger scale to other cultures around the world. Some researchers have begun to make this connection, due to the fact that many of the artifacts found in Chaco Canyon like Cacao and Macaw birds originate in the southern regions and couldn’t have existed in the Chaco Canyon except by import.
Pottery found in both the North American and Mesoamerican regions share similar forms and styles (particularly between Aztec and Pueblo pottery), and the metate and manos (a stone tool believed to be used for grinding corn into flour and commonly found all over the Mesoamerican region) were found in many buildings within Chaco Canyon.
Turquoise for example was very often used in Aztec art which is believed to have been mined in the American southwest and transported south. It has also been considered sacred in many cultures all around the world having been used by the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Aztecs, and the people of Mesopotamia and Indus Valley in spiritually symbolic or ritualistic ways.
The complexity and sophistication of Mesoamerican sacred sites in many ways mirrors what is found in Chaco Canyon and the surrounding area. The large ceremonial platforms and temples of Olmec, Mayan or Aztec origin such as Tikal in Guatemala, Chichen Itza or Teotihuacan in Mexico, share common symbolism and solar alignments.
Many of the Mesoamerican Gods, ritual, myths and legends contain similar symbolism that is also found in Chaco Canyon. Suns, spirals and serpents (among many others) are found in various ways all throughout the region. The serpent in particular is used quite often in the Mesoamerican region. The feathered serpent was a symbol found among the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs.
It was called Quetzalcoatl among the Aztecs, Kukulkan among the Yucatec Maya, and Q’uq’umatz and Tohil among the K’iche’ Maya. The double symbolism used in its name is considered allegoric to the dual nature of the deity, where being feathered represents its divine nature or ability to fly to reach the skies and being a serpent represents its human nature or ability to creep on the ground among other animals of the Earth, a dualism very common in Mesoamerican deities. – Wikipedia
In Chaco Canyon and the surrounding areas, the serpent is found etched into the rocks. Serpent mounds have been found in Ohio, USA and even in Southeastern Ontario, Canada. In many of the tribes of North America (like Zuni or Hopi who are believed to be descendants of the builders of Chaco Canyon) you’ll find the serpent symbol as a mystical figure in the form of a rattlesnake or a horned serpent often associated with water, rain or death.
It’s interesting to note that the serpent is not only found among the Pueblo communities of North America or in Mesoamerican culture alone, you’ll actually find this symbolism in almost every culture and area of the world. You’ll find serpent symbolism in ancient Egypt, Greece, Sumeria, China, Peru, Iceland and India, among others. Many of these cultures also contained symbols of the sun, and contain sacred sites that align to the solstices and equinoxes and other celestial movements.
Is it possible that at the roots of human history this shared spiritual knowledge was celebrated by cultures all across the world, with some even existing at the same time? How did this come about? Did these people whose deep knowledge of spiritual truths and celestial alignments know of each other?
Of course there are more questions than answers regarding the extent of these connections, but the striking similarities of the use and knowledge of celestial alignments, pottery, art, and spiritual symbolism are hard to ignore.
Like most sacred sites found around the world, it is of course difficult to speculate on exactly how Chaco Canyon was used. Given the wider picture of a universal spiritual knowledge of the spirituality of the sun seemingly being present at the root of almost all major cultures though, it does seem safe to assume that some of that influence would have carried over into the building and use of Chaco Canyon.
While it does seem that much of this rich history is more obvious in other countries where many of the sacred sites and artifacts are more intact, there are still a number of other sites all around the USA and even in Canada where remnants of an ancient spiritual knowledge are displayed in incredible and mysterious stone structures built in alignment with the cycle of the sun. Hopefully we can begin to understand some of the meaning of these ancient roots before they disappear entirely.
Written and researched by Vida Norris. Edited by Jenny Resnick.
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