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Rodrigo Córdova-Rosado, MPhil candidate in the Archaeology of the Americas

December 9th to 17th, 2019

With the generous support of Sidney Sussex College and the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, I was able to undertake a fieldwork project during the second week of December 2019. As a candidate for the MPhil in Archaeology of the Americas, I sought to develop my dissertation project to explore my interests not only in the pre-Columbian history of the North American Southwest, but also the relationships humans form with the stars, skies, and conceptions of the cosmos as a whole. Having done my undergraduate degree in Astrophysics and Physics, I am thrilled to be able to combine these interests to develop a dissertation project on the Archaeoastronomy of the American Southwest, with an emphasis on the site of Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, USA.

 

 

The massive structures of Chaco Canyon, known as Great Houses, were built and lived in between the 9th and 13th centuries, during which time the site had its greatest population density and influence; so much so that trade reached all the way to Mesoamerica, as evidenced by the Macaw feathers – and other artifacts – found at Chaco. The site was home to the Ancestral Puebloans, part of the same linguistic and ethnic groups that live in the Southwest today. These people constructed massive structures across the landscape, and archaeologists have long pondered why these were constructed, and how they were used.

Many theories point to seasonal occupation, such that the structures would be heavily inhabited during “festivals” perhaps, something akin to a pilgrimage site for the Puebloan people who lived around Chaco Canyon at the time. My question, then, hinges on what was the nature of the ceremonial complex found at Chaco. What was the reasoning for constructing these structures the way they did – interesting shapes and intriguing roads to mention a couple of their elements – and what can we learn about their beliefs and ceremonialism from their construction? In particular, archaeologists have long recorded a series of features that demonstrate the Ancestral Puebloans’ interest in knowing the time of solstices and equinoxes throughout the year, indicating a reliance on celestial patterns to measure time. But what was its purpose? Was it to know the key agricultural dates for seeding, reaping, and the like? Or, is there a deeper significance?

 

 

In order to ponder these questions, I probed the nature of structural alignments with celestial bodies, the crucial means of arriving at archaeoastronomical information aside from iconography and symbolism. To do so, I traveled to Chaco Canyon in December of 2019 with a compass, GPS, and camera in hand to document the positions and orientations of architectural structures and ceremonial centers – what sunken structures known as “kivas” in the Southwest are widely considered. Walking across the landscape for the better part of a week, I scaled canyon walls to visit Great Houses all along and atop the canyon.

Additionally, I had the opportunity to visit the structures at night, such that I witnessed the ways in which certain key structures on the landscape interact with the stars, and how the heavens could have been viewed from these possible observatories. With these measurements, I hope to extrapolate if and how the Chacoans constructed their world to align with the cosmos. Additionally, I will be using available long-range laser images of the Chaco landscape to research the myriad roads of Chaco Canyon, many of which radiate outside the canyon to no known destination, and yet continue for dozens of kilometers. These features present interesting questions to be explored in more detail, the aim of my dissertation.

 

 

Aside from the key archaeological aims of this project, I also look forward to developing this area of investigation in order to highlight the magnificence of the world of the American Southwest, and the stories of the Native peoples that are too often overlooked. Along with collaborators from Pueblo communities, I hope to highlight the ancestral knowledge that has been passed down through generations, illustrating the incredible ways humans have understood the world and found meaning while gazing at the stars. To this end, I also had the opportunity to visit the site of Mesa Verde in Colorado – a couple of hours north of Chaco Canyon – and Jemez Pueblo in central New Mexico, hoping to learn more about the context of the Southwestern world. I aspire to develop this project into an exploration of how we arrive at our wonder at the skies and realms beyond our tactile experience – how this awe is expressed in the worlds we create, be they made of bricks and mortar or songs and stories.

All words and images credit: R. Cordova-Rosado