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Watching the sky is ancient tradition
Written by Lu Stitt   
Monday, 12 December 2011 00:00

Today we know a great deal about the stars, the moon, the sun, their movement and how they affect the earth. Much of the information is written on calendars or in almanacs. Not so for ancient peoples, but they still knew when to do what — by turning to the sky.

Ken Zoll, local archaeoastronomer, points to a photograph showing one of the methods ancient peoples used to mark the seasons, particularly the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes.“They watched for sacred directions, planting, rituals and times for hunting and gathering,” said Ken Zoll, an archaeoastronomer who studies ancient sites for evidence of prehistoric calendars. “We have a calendar that tells us when deer season is. For the ancient people, they could tell by the position of the sun when the migrations are.”

Archaeoastronomy is the study of what peoples throughout history and prehistory made of phenomena in the sky, how they used the information and the role it played in their cultures. Ancient cultures, like the Hohokam and Sinagua, used naked-eye observations for sacred directions, cosmic mythology, ritual sites and shrines, ritual and planting calendar and times for hunting and gathering.

The primary form of telling the seasons, particularly the summer and winter solstice and the equinoxes, was to watch the horizon as the sun rose or set. A “sitter” would observe where the sun hit the peaks and valleys to tell the time of year — always from the same, exact spot. To ensure that, they would mark the spot, often with a petroglyph.

“I’ve proved, so far, only two sitter positions in Arizona. One is at Honanki, which is not open to the public. On top of a large boulder there’s a smoothed out area. At the back is a half sun image of the horizon. The watcher would sit on the petroglyph and watch the horizon,” Zoll said. “You can tell they used the spot often because there’s a shine to it, so it had been buffed over the years of use.”

Zoll found another at the V-Bar-V Heritage Site, which is approximately 2.8 miles east of the I-17 and State Route 179 interchange. When he found the observation spot, he also found three shrines built by the people.

“You had to be at the spot to locate the shrines up on the Mogollon Rim. They were piles of stones where the people would greet the sun,” Zoll said. “The Hopi proved this.”

The people would perform dances and ceremonies there at the equinox, the summer solstice and the winter solstice.

“That’s the exciting part, to find the spot someone actually sat and watched the sun hundreds of years ago. All of the methods they used are cool, but the watcher seats are the best,” he said and smiled.

Horizon, or sun, watching is one of four methods people used to track the sun. The others include gnomon — a vertical stick used to cast a shadow; light and shadow imaging to mark a time of day or year with rock art at a specific location; and building structures aligned with a particular sun, moon or star rise or set.

The V-Bar-V site also has other calendar activity using light and shadow from the sun. The area is near a 30-foot cliff.

“It’s probably the only documented 12-month calendar in the Southwest. You can tell the months of the year and sometimes even the weeks,” Zoll said. “I took 45 archaeologists there on a field trip for the summer solstice. They all agreed it was a calendar and that it was pretty sophisticated in that you track time for an entire year.”

Studying from the ground Zoll followed the sun’s light through some rocks on the cliff, but it was after he received permission to build a scaffold next to the cliff he discovered something spectacular — rocks deliberately placed in breaks in the cliff’s surface and wedged with basalt.

At Palatki Heritage Site near the end of Forest Road 525 off of State Route 89A south of Sedona, Zoll has found rock art related to the sun’s light and shadows. One is a petroglyph that depicts the horizon. Zoll watched and photographed the sunrise once a month for one year. He found where the solstices and equinox were on the horizon, which matched the petroglyph.

“That’s my method. If something looks promising, I go and take photos and use the scientific method of observation and recording. In some cases I go for two years to validate the first year,” Zoll said.

The other petroglyph is a sun shield. For the Yavapai who live in the Verde Valley and Sedona area, it is one of their sacred symbols, he said.

The shield is divided into four quadrants. Coming into the center circle are small lines from three of the four quadrants.

“I went at dawn and found that both in spring and fall the sun shines across two of the lines perfectly, but the third line didn’t come into play. So, I started coming at sunset and found a triangle appeared between that third line and another,” Zoll said. “I’m working with the Yavapai people to see what that means. It’s fun to work with them on one of their cultural images. They want to trust you and know the reason you’re doing this. They want to make sure their culture isn’t exploited.”

For the winter solstice, which is usually Dec. 21 or Dec. 22, Zoll is going to Casa Malpais Ruins in Springerville. The town asked him to come and study the site. At one time, the ruins had a meteorite imbedded in one of the walls. Zoll said the people brought it from the Flagstaff area. Today the meteorite is at Arizona State University for study.

The site has always been claimed to be an astrological observatory. Zoll went back and forth for two years studying why the doorway to one large, circular area was offset.

“That was intriguing. What I found was the offset allowed the sun to come into the room. At the solstices and equinox, the shaft of light makes a certain triangular shape,” Zoll said. “Once you see it, it becomes clear. I’m still researching the site.”

Studying ancient forms of calendars is what Zoll has spent his time doing for the past six years. He is one of four archaeoastronomers in Arizona and said he learned from Todd Bostwich, executive director of the Verde Valley Architectural Center in Camp Verde. Bostwich is also a professor at ASU.

“He trained me how to do field work,” Zoll said.

All ancient people studied and followed the sun. Some of the imagery used is the same from the Mayan culture all the way up to the Southwestern United States.

“You find it everywhere, like the multiple ring circles, the spirals and the sun images,” Zoll said. “We keep looking for evidence that there were traveling practitioners who shared their methods. Nobody’s been able to prove it, but we have a strong suspicion.”

Zoll discovered the Hopi would only watch from the spring equinox to the fall equinox. During the winter they didn’t do anything.

“They only watched from planting to harvest,” he said.

Once Zoll is finished with his observations, he writes a report. He has also published a book and will have a signing at the Red Rock Ranger District Ranger Station south of the Village of Oak Creek on Saturday, Dec. 3.

Zoll is the secretary and treasurer of the Society of Cultural Archeology of the Southwest. He has taught classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

“I enjoy when people tell me they had no idea these people were so sophisticated to figure this out,” Zoll said.


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