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Here Comes the Sun:

Skywatchers and Winter Solstice Markers

by Karen L. Monsen

Throughout human history, the sun has been worshiped, celebrated, and observed. Ancient civilizations ritualized its celestial journey; Native American Skywatchers monitored its movements; and shamans reassured disciples that following the shortest day in the year, the sun would return for a new growing season. Today, winter holidays continue to evoke the sun’s journey, winter solstice, new beginnings, and festivals of lights.

On August 21, 2017, millions of Americans became transitory skywatchers, witnessing a total solar eclipse. In prehistoric times, significant celestial episodes might have been unsettling to agricultural societies closely monitoring environmental changes. Prehistoric people seeking control over nature devised sacred practices — rituals that continue today.

On the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona, tribal members perform ceremonies as they have for centuries in Oraibi — considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States, dating back thousands of years to Basketmaker cultures.

Light Dagger Crossing Petroglyph Panel on Anasazi Ridge, Ivins, UT.

In Book of the Hopi, historian-writer Frank Waters describes Hopi solstice ceremonies. “Chiefs of the Sun and Flute Clans make solar observations each sunrise from a house in Oraibi on a high point which gives an unobstructed view of Sun House Mesa across the valley. Each morning the rising sun casts its shadow a little closer to a designated mark on the west wall. When it reaches the mark, the chiefs are able to determine the exact number of days until the Winter Solstice, when the most important ritual in Soyál is observed.” Waters asserts the word Soyál is derived from all and year referring to Hopi ceremonies that establish life anew for all the world.

Light Daggers and Shadows
Light daggers and shadows created by predictable solar movements could have served early agricultural societies like a Farmer’s Almanac, foretelling when to begin planting. Researcher and Solstice Project founder, Anna Sofaer, and Utah’s self-described amateur archaeologist, Ray Urbaniak, provide insights on how light and shadow interactions with petroglyph images may have functioned as early calendars.

Sofaer is known for her research on celestial alignments in Chaco, New Mexico, a community dating from AD 400 to AD 1300. In her book, Chaco Astronomy: An Ancient American Cosmology, Sofaer states, “Among our earliest findings, between 1978 and 1979, we confirmed that the people of Chaco marked the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes by forming vertical light patterns on two spiral petroglyphs at the Sun Dagger site on Fajada Butte.” During the summer solstice, a light dagger descends through the center of a large spiral and moves rightward on succeeding days until winter solstice when two daggers bracket the spiral.

During several decades of studying petroglyphs in southern Utah, retired engineer Urbaniak documented over 70 cosmic events involving petroglyphs, and authored, Anasazi of SW Utah. Observing light dagger interactions on petroglyphs in 2011, Urbaniak’s Facebook posting noted, “When the Sun is at its highest Point on the Winter Solstice, the Sun is in the Shaman’s left hand. The Light & Shadow line moves from left hand to feet, to hands & back to left hand over the course of 1 ½ hours.”

Solstice Markers
Light daggers and shadows are not the only solar-tracking devices ancient people used. Spirals and concentric circles, commonly found in petroglyphs across the American Southwest, have been linked to journeys, migrations, emergence, growth, and calendars.

To understand how a spiral calendar works, remember that at summer solstice the sun rises further north than any time in the year and at winter solstice it rises the furthest south. Next, bisect the spiral with a horizontal line to represent earth’s horizon. A skywatcher could use the intersecting vertical spiral lines as waypoints corresponding to horizon markers tracking sunrise positions over time. At summer solstice, the sunrise notation point would be on the left side of the spiral, pass through the center at equinox, and reach the right side at winter solstice. The entire sequence then reverses as the sun moves from winter back through equinox to summer solstice. The number of turns or concentric circles on a specific spiral may represent the skywatcher’s observation points.

Today, many Native American tribes continue traditional winter solstice observations as southern Utah resident, ranking Lakota Nation Bear Clan member (Oglala tribe), Bearpaw Langness recounts. Langness lived near the Pine Ridge South Dakota reservation and left in 1956 to join the USMC. He remembers winter solstice as when the tribe was entering the “starvation time as food was generally running out.” Solar observations indicating the end of winter must have provided encouraging signs that resources would soon return.

No doubt, this year’s eclipse skywatchers were as humbled as ancient viewers witnessing celestial events beyond human control. Now, as winter holidays approach, we eagerly anticipate the sun’s return to bring a new growing season and a New Year.

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right

~ The Beatles lyrics

Caltech planetary science graduate student Peter Buhler, Peter Ngo, and Elaine Ngo at Lake Cascade Idaho during 2017 solar eclipse.

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