My house sits on a round hill in the foothills of the Wet Mountains. This hill is the last vestige of the Wet Mountains and looks out over the Wet Mountain valley. Across the long, narrow valley, the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise up with many peaks topping 14,000 feet. The Sangre de Cristo is the longest, continuous mountain range in the Rocky Mountains and stretches from the Arkansas River to the north down to Santa Fe, New Mexico in the south.
Equinox sets between 2nd and 3rd peak from left
If I had lived on this spot 1,000 years ago, The Wet Mountains to my east and Sangre de Cristos to the west would have provided me the most perfect solar calendar to track my days, months, and seasons. All I would have to do is note where the sun rises and where it sets each day for a year and then I would be able to predict the longest day of the year (first day of summer), the shortest day of the year (first day of winter) and the day when night and day are equal (first day of spring and first day of autumn). Why would I care? Because planting at the right time is critical. Knowing when winter is coming is critical.
|Sunset the day before my father's birthday|
Every year for Christmas, my sister creates a calendar for me on her computer that notes everyone’s birthday and the holidays. That calendar sits on my desk and I use it to remember birthdays, plan vacations, observe the holidays, etc. What would I do without my calendar? Well, 1,000 years ago, the rising and setting sun would have been my calendar. Over time, I would come to know that when the sun sets between Crestone Needles and Crestone Peak, it is September 20th, the vernal equinox, the beginning of Autumn. And when the sun sets in the saddle of Marble Mountain, I had better send my sister a birthday card!
Equinox would set on mountain above the "6"
I would know that as the sun continuously set further and further south, the days would grow shorter and shorter and it would get progressively colder. My greatest fear might be that it would never stop traveling south and one day there would be no more days, just night! So, around December 20th when the sun sets in the same spot for several days in a row and then starts travelling back to the north, that would be a most significant time and I would want to celebrate – Christmas maybe?
Today, I can take a picture of the sunset and my digital camera will imprint the date down in the bottom right corner of the picture. Then next year, when the sun sets there again, I can take out my picture and say, “Today is ________”! The picture to the right is sunrise near the Equinox, note how the shadow points to the spot where the sun will set that evening.
Well, pre-historic Native Americans (all ancient cultures, for that matter) didn’t have digital cameras so they had to come up with their own methods for remembering the days and following their calendars. The Plains Indians, for instance, created medicine wheels (see below) that enabled them to line up the sun in alignment with stones they had placed the year(s) before. The Anasazi built great stone buildings with significant alignments. At Casa Rincanada, a giant Anasazi kiva, on the equinox, the sun would shine through a small window on the east side of the kiva and light up a small, square cache in the west wall. At Stonehenge, on the summer solstice, the sun would shine through two pillars and illuminate an alter in the center of the circle of stones.
For as long as man has had the intelligence to watch the sun and stars, he has used this information to help him plan his days. And, as we know, man is a most creative and imaginative being. I think this is why I enjoy “Archaeoastronomy”, the study of how the ancients used astronomy, so much and why so many articles in Native American Antiquity are devoted to this subject.
Well, gotta go, the sun is about to rise and I need to run grab a picture of it!-- Courtney Miller