Feb 262015

Lunar_standstill diagramDuring the month, the moon rises at different points across the eastern horizon.  When it reaches the farthest point north it pauses, or rises in the same spot for a couple of days, and then reverses course.  This pause is called a “Lunar Standstill”.  The same thing happens two weeks later at its farthest point south.   You may have noticed that the sun does the same thing, but it takes the sun a year to move from its farthest point north (Summer Solstice) to its farthest point south (Winter Solstice) and back again.  At each solstice, the sun pauses before reversing course and this is called a Solar Standstill.  [refer to last week’s article: Native American Skies: Lunar Standstill]

Unlike the sun, however, the moon’s standstills widen and shorten over time.  The point when the gap between standstills is the widest is called “The Maximum Lunar Standstill”.   9.3 years later, the gap is at its narrowest and that is “Minimum Lunar Standstill”.  The complete cycle takes 18.6 years.  The last maximum standstill was in 2006, which means that this year we will be treated to the minimum standstill.

Chimney Rock, Colorado

Chimney Rock, Colorado

The ancient Native Americans were very aware of the lunar standstill cycle and tracked it in various ways. All around the world there are sites where the ancients marked the maximum and minimum standstills. Most people have heard about Stonehenge in England, but there are many sites in the United States, as well. One is not far from where I live in Colorado. It is known as “Chimney Rock” and can be seen from the road between Pagosa Springs and Durango.

Chimney Rock was once part of the vast Anasazi empire known today as the Chacoan Society since it was centered around Chaco Canyon in central New Mexico.   The empire covered most of New Mexico and  parts of Arizona, Utah and Colorado about one thousand years ago.  Chimney Rock is classified as an “outlier”, meaning it was built near the outer reaches of the Chacoan regional system.  We may never know what drew the Anasazi to the remote location, but the first permanent inhabitants built around A. D. 1000.

Building at this location was no easy chore!  Chimney Rock from Great House 001The plateau of Chimney rock rises up from the valley over 1200 feet above the water and agricultural lands of the valley floor..  Steep slopes make access very difficult, but the inhabitants hauled stone bricks up the slopes to build great houses in the chacoan style.   They also had to haul their water and food.  I can tell you from having visited the site, that even walking from one great house to another is extremely strenuous.  But the towering stone spires at the top, Chimney Rock and Companion Rock, provide spectacular views of astronomical events including the Maximum Lunar Standstill.   There is convincing evidence that the Chimney Rock site was primarily a Chacoan observatory.  For instance, building on the plateau coincided with great solar and lunar events.

In his book, “Guide to Prehistoric Astronomy in the Southwest”,  J. McKim Malville talks about his research at Chimney Rock, “The dates of full moon rise between the chimneys in the latter half of the eleventh century were 1056-1057, 1075-1076, 1093-1095.  These moonrises were at sunset, close to December solstice, and 20120908-FS-UNK-0001would have been the most spectacular events.  When I compared these dates with the tree-ring dates obtained by Eddy from logs found in the Chimney Rock Pueblo, I was astonished to discover that the two episodes of construction of the pueblo correspond with the last two lunar standstills of the century. . . . Then the story gets really interesting.  Chacoans came up to Chimney Rock during that summer of 1076, trees were cut, and the free-standing East Kiva may have been completed in time for the winter solstice moonrise of December 13, 1076 [between the chimneys].”

Manville suggests that astronomical observations at Chimney Rock may have started in 1054 when an astonishing super nova occurred.  We see many archaeoastronomical sites that mark this significant event throughout the Chaco culture.  After the supernova, the following events occurred:

Full Moon rising between chimneys:   December, 1056

Full Moon rising between chimneys:   December, 1057

Full Moon rising between chimneys:   December, 1074

Full Moon rising between chimneys:   December, 1075

Partial solar eclipse:                                 March 7, 1076

Cutting of trees for East Kiva:                July-August 1076

Full Moon rising between chimneys:   December, 1076

Then, in anticipation of the next Full Moon rising between the chimneys, in the summer of 1093, trees were cut for the construction of a great house built around the East Kiva.  Note the dates:

Cutting of trees for great house:            July-August 1093

Full Moon rising between chimneys:   December, 1093

Full Moon rising between chimneys:   December, 1094

Full Moon rising between chimneys:   December, 1095

Total solar eclipse:                                    July 11, 1097

This phenomenon continues to be observed at the Chimney Rock National Monument.  The last one was December 26, 2004.  For more on the extraordinary Chimney Rock site, go to www.chimneyrockco.org .

  One Response to “Native American Skies: Lunar Standstill at Chimney Rock”

  1. […] Because this year is when the moon is in its minor “Lunar Standstill” (refer to article on Lunar Standstill at Chimney Rock), it was the shortest Lunar Eclipse for many years.  Because of the nature of the Moon’s and […]

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