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Chasing Sunlight: Inside the Growing Field of Archaeoastronomy

A spear of light is seen on the summer solstice at McKee Springs in Dinosaur National Monument.
John Lundwall
A spear of light is seen on the summer solstice at McKee Springs in Dinosaur National Monument.

There’s a growing number of observers finding a connection with solar events and some rock-art panels. The study of these interactions is called archeo-astronomy… or cultural astronomy… or ancient astronomy. And the field relies on the work of amateurs scouring the Southwest for examples. For Rocky Mountain Community Radio, Justin Higginbottom reports from Moab.

Rory Tyler wasn’t in Moab for long before he had a hunch about “The Snake.” He had moved from Oregon in 1993 and soon after hiked with friends to see the 20-foot long petroglyph.

That first trip was on the equinox. It’s the time of year when day and night are about equal length. The group wondered if the sun that day would hit the panel differently. But nothing happened. Still, Tyler had a feeling and he returned on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. At about 11 a.m. he saw it.

“The sun comes over the cliff above it. And there’s a kind of a curved fracture… where the snake’s face is. And the light comes over the cliff, touches one edge of that fracture and then spreads across it and forms a perfect arrowhead of light about a foot and a half high, right on the snake’s face,” says Tyler.

The whole event lasts about two minutes. If you miss it, that distinct arrowhead of light fades into a smear.

“It just smacked us between the eyes. It was so amazing,” he says.

Word soon got out and now Tyler estimates around a 100 people make the four-mile hike in the middle of summer to see the event every year.

In his own twist of calendrical fate, Tyler first became interested in archeoastronomy, what he likes to call “ancient astronomy,” at the beginning of the field’s study in the Southwest. He was hiking in Chaco Culture National Historical Park in the 1970s when Anna Sofaer first recorded the astronomical importance of the Sun Dagger petroglyph.

Sofaer was a volunteer documenting rock art in the area when she noticed a dagger of light bisecting a petroglyph spiral at the solstices and equinox. It was the spark that kicked off similar research — what some call “rediscoveries.”

After coming across Sofaer’s work, Tyler was hooked. He began visiting rock art at those necessary times of the year.

“If I don’t go, I just kicked myself…. I could have gone, it might have happened. And I feel disappointed in myself that I didn’t even try. So for a long, long time it was, ‘I gotta go.’ Because if I don’t, whether or not it occurs, it’ll just make me feel bad about myself,” says Tyler.

Since the snake, he’s documented events at other sites: a goose that lays a golden egg in Arches National Park, a panel in Hidden Valley that comes alive with the sun.

“And that’s kind of what I’ve been doing here in Moab, going out to places like the snake… I can’t go there anymore. I’m too old and broke down. But I’ve been up there over 200 times… Hidden Valley is amazing. It’s one giant calendar. And I just figured that out a few years ago. That’s not in any textbook you’ll ever find. It will be in a few years,” says Tyler.

He has a websitewhere he documents his findings. And he’s gained followers in the mission. He took around a half a dozen people on 25 hikes between last fall and the spring equinox. He says there’s now a whole cadre of area locals seeking first-hand experiences in the field of archaeoastronomy.

The Big Dipper is seen over a Fremont site in the Uinta Basin.
John Lundwall
The Big Dipper is seen over a Fremont site in the Uinta Basin.

Mary Grande, based in Grand Junction, Colorado, is one of those cadre. During this year’s summer solstice she was at Hovenweep National Monument in Southeastern Utah where around two dozen people stood in front of a boulder, about the size of a truck, with just enough of an overhang to shade a spiral petroglyph.

“It was a wonderful cold morning. And just to see this light start to edge through and watch it bisect the circles from two different directions… It sounds like something that’s so simplistic and maybe that’s part of the attraction,” says Grande.

She doesn’t know what exactly brought the visitors there that morning — just like she doesn’t know the intent of those ancient artists — but she does know what draws her to events like this.

“To have that kind of accuracy, to have that power of observation… I just think it’s a glorious thing in the world that we live in. We’re all so fast moving… But to see that someone took the time and the observation to create that and then just think about how many generations of people like myself have sat there and watched that and went, ‘Yes, the Earth is still turning, the sun is still coming up.’ It’s really quite an experience,” says Grande.

Dr. John Lundwall, co-founder of the Utah Cultural Astronomy Project, says archaeoastronomy in the Southwest is still a growing field and slowly carving out academic respect.

“It’s gone beyond just studying the sunrise and sunset at a standing stone to a wider field of exploration as to how astronomy is used in basically any feature of ancient culture,” says Lundwall.

His group’s focus has been the Fremont civilization. They work with the Utah Rock Art Research Association and archaeologists to catalog their findings. They’re the first to do it. Lundwall just got back from a summer solstice trip in the Uinta Basin. He took time-lapse photos of a panel with a figure possibly wearing a triangular headdress.

“One week a year, the sunlight spills through a little crack in the opposing canyon wall, and a ‘V’ of light comes down and fills the figure’s headdress perfectly,” he says.

He says they’ve looked at hundreds of panels so far. They’ve found six that have solar interactions. With so many unstudied sites, he says there’s an important space for amateurs in this work.

“It’s actually very time consuming to go through each of these sites. There’s tens of thousands of sites. We have to rely on people living in the local area who have seen something,” says Lundwall.

He’s published his findings with colleagues in the peer-reviewed American Indian Rock Art journal. But he says mainstream respect isn’t always easy.

“We’ve gotten very rude responses,” he says about submitting to publications.

There’s a common criticism that is made against any work analyzing rock art — not just archaeoastronomy. Lundwall sums it up as: “We don’t interpret rock art and neither can you. So go away.”

“We don’t try to interpret rock art because it is very subjective. And there’s far more that we don’t know, that we’ll never know. So we are just looking at the measurements and the interactions. I mean, it’s hard not to interpret some of it at some times,” says Lundwall.

Theorizing a purpose to rock art can even be offensive to some, including the descendants of those civilizations responsible for the work.

What Rory Tyler in Moab knows for sure is what he experiences when he’s there for an event. Once he witnesses some interaction, he’ll return again and again.

“You can’t help but feel apprehensive as to whether or not it’s going to happen. And then when it does happen, there’s the sense of relief… ‘Yeah, there it is. It’s doing what it’s supposed to do.’ And that as a human being, that tells me that the cosmos is in order. And no matter what my personal problems may or may not be, the universe is doing exactly what it should be doing. And I feel a certain sense of security and joy, actually, you know. It’s all working,” says Tyler.

He says there’s still so much to learn — so many more “rediscoveries.” He recommends the wise observer to visit every panel at every reasonable season. But he has a warning.

“The sun might take over your life.”