Connecting Heaven and Earth: “Dagger of the Sun” from Fahad Butte, New Mexico

(ORDO NEWS) — Near the entrance to Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, USA, is an imposing structure that held sacred significance to the ancestors of the Pueblo culture who inhabited Chaco Canyon until about 1150 AD.

On Mount Fahada, behind three stone slabs, there are petroglyphs that were used to record the annual movement of the Sun and, possibly, the Moon. This place is known as the Dagger of the Sun because the sunlight forms an image of a dagger passing right through the middle of the spiral at the time of the summer solstice.

The sun dagger was sacred to the people of Chaco Canyon, who made regular pilgrimages to the site. It also illustrates the role that astronomy played in the religion and society of the ancient Chacoans.

Solar dagger “watch” from the Chaco Canyon Fahad Butte

At the top of Fahad Batte, behind three stone slabs, there are two spirals that were carved into the rock. Large spiral measuring 34 cm by 41 cm (13.4-16.1 inches) and a smaller spiral at top left.

The light and shadows that enter through the cracks in the plates interact with the spirals throughout the year, but at certain times of the year they form special patterns.

Most archaeoastronomers and indigenous informants consider these “clocks” to be evidence of deliberate alignment with the annual motion of the Sun.

On the day of the summer solstice, in the late morning, the Sun, illuminating the plates, creates a spot of light directly above the large spiral. Over the next fifteen minutes, this point of light will turn into a shaft of light, or “dagger”, which will pass right through the middle of the spiral.

Appearing in the center of the spiral, the dagger will gradually drop down from the spiral and disappear. The whole process from the appearance of a point of light to the disappearance of the dagger takes about 20 minutes.

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Light of the Sun on the Dagger of the Sun by Fahad Batta at the key moments of the annual cycles

Something similar happens during the winter solstice. Two points of light will appear on either side of the spiral.

Over the next half hour, the points of light will turn into shafts of light encircling the spiral. During the equinoxes, an off-center shaft of light crosses the larger spiral, and another shaft passes right through the middle of the smaller spiral.

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The Fajada Butte Sun Dagger in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon is a spiral petroglyph that is illuminated by bright streaks of focused sunlight at key times of the year

Connection with Chimney Rock and the lunar cycle

In addition to reflecting the annual movement of the Sun, it is possible that the Dagger of the Sun on Fahada Batta is also intended to reflect the periodic movement of the Moon.

Fajada Butte may be related to another feature about 140 km (87 miles) away. Chimney Rock is a geological formation consisting of two natural rock tops that rise imposingly from the landscape.

During the heyday of the Chacoan culture, in the 9th to 12th centuries, there was a well-known ancestral Pueblo community nearby.

Perhaps the reason for the presence of this community was that they considered the peaks of Chimney Rock to be sacred. Contemporary Puebloan sources state that Chimney Rock is associated with the twin gods of war from Puebloan mythology.

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Members of the Chaco culture may also have used the Chimney Rock formation to observe the moon

Another reason why Chimney Rock may have had important cultural significance is due to the 18.6-year lunar cycle caused by the precession of the plane of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth under the influence of the Sun’s gravity.

Just as the Sun rises and sets further north or south along the horizon depending on the time of year, so the Moon rises and sets further south or north depending on where it is in its 18.6-year cycle.

When the winter solstice was near the rising of the next full moon at a significant point in this 18.6-year cycle, the Chaco priests may have used this to synchronize the solar and lunar cycles that made up their calendar.

The event when the Moon reaches its maximum or minimum declination at either rising or setting during the 18.6-year lunar cycle is called a stasis. A moon rising between the peaks of Chimney Rock during a solute would be a prominent marker of where the moon is in its 18.6-year cycle.

Another important cycle that may have been known to the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon is the Metonic cycle, a cycle discovered by the Greek astronomer Meton around 432 BC. Meton based this cycle on the fact that 235 synodic months correspond to 19 solar years.

He is believed to have prescribed rules for inserting intercalary months into specific years for 19 years to keep the ancient Greek lunisolar calendar in sync with the solar year. This is due to the fact that 12 lunar months of 29-30 days are only 354 days, while the solar year lasts 365.25 days.

Due to this discrepancy between the lunar phase cycle and the solar seasonal cycle, the calendar based on the lunar months will eventually become out of sync with the solar year, and the months will no longer correspond to the seasons.

For this reason, it is necessary from time to time to introduce a thirteenth month, or intercalary month, to bring the lunar and solar components of the calendar into line.

It is possible that the ancestors of the Pueblos did the same with their calendar, which explains why some places in Chaco Canyon, including Chimney Rock and possibly Fajada Butte, seem to record the movement of the Moon as well as the Sun. If the Chaco calendar was lunisolar, then it was necessary to know both the solar and lunar cycles.

At Fahada Butta, the plates were shown to cast shadows that obscure the spirals in a certain way during the fade. It is possible that the dagger of the Sun was also intended to mark the events of lunar stagnation and was used to synchronize the lunar and seasonal cycles recorded in the ancient lunisolar calendar of the Pueblo ancestors.

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Pueblo Bonito is one of the largest Great Houses in Chaco Canyon

Solar dagger in the wider Chaco cultural context

Evidence that Chaco Canyon was inhabited dates from around 2900 BC. Around 200 AD, there is evidence that the inhabitants of the Chaco Canyon began farming.

By 850 AD, the people of Chaco Canyon began building large ceremonial structures such as the Great Houses. The great houses were four or five stories high, with up to seven hundred rooms and several kivas.

It appears that these structures were also built with astronomically significant alignments in mind. The great houses were associated with a large ritual landscape that included sites such as Fahada Butte and Chimni Rock.

Another example of such a ritual landscape is the Great North Road, which is associated with the central complex in Chaco Canyon and the heavenly north. The road is also associated with the canyon to the north, which it traverses straight down the steepest bluff of the canyon.

The Chaco culture flourished until around 1150 AD, when a drought apparently left settlements throughout the region deserted.

Chaco Canyon is a high desert, very dry, with scorching hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Despite these harsh conditions, humans have lived in this region for thousands of years and have even built a proto-civilization.

It is unclear why the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon chose to build their civilization here. However, one of the benefits of the Chaco Canyon environment to their civilization was clear skies, which allowed them to make accurate astronomical observations.

Part of the interest in astronomy could be due to the need to create a calendar. After 200 AD, with the advent of agriculture in the Chaco Canyon, it became necessary to mark the seasons so that farmers would know when to plant and harvest their crops.

Knowledge of the cycles of lunar and solar motion during the year would make it easier to designate the seasons. Over time, these lunar and solar cycles may have taken on ritual and ceremonial significance and were incorporated into the spiritual and religious beliefs of the Chaco Canyon people.

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This 11th-century pictogram in Chaco Canyon may represent the supernova of 1054 AD. This supernova and the Moon were in a configuration where the supernova was at its brightest. The handprint at the top means that this is a sacred place

Solar Dagger and Chacoan Cosmology and Religion

The large-scale ritual landscape created by the monuments built along the celestial landmarks suggests that the Chaco culture was unified by shared ideas about the cosmos.

They seem to have believed that their daily lives were deeply connected with the drama of celestial movement. The Dagger of the Sun may have served as a link between earth and sky, a point of contact between different parts of the pueblo universe.

Contemporary Puebloan sources report that pilgrims came to the Dagger of the Sun to pray, make observations, and leave offerings. These small ceremonies at the Dagger of the Sun were a microcosm of the larger ceremonies that took place in the Great Houses.

Little is known about how the Ancestral Pueblos themselves understood astronomical alignments, other than what is known from contemporary Ancestral Pueblo peoples such as the Hopi and Zuni.

It is believed that the ancestors of the Pueblos perceived the Sun and Moon as living spiritual beings. For example, the interaction between the Sun and the Moon during the winter solstice was understood in terms of the woman on the Moon persuading the Sun to turn back from its path to the south.

Another example of a Pueblo tradition associated with the winter solstice is that the Hopi held the Soyal festival on the winter solstice, during which prayer sticks were placed on the altar of the Sun to turn the sun’s course south.

This festival was followed by several ceremonies during which beans and then corn were planted in the kivas as a symbolic anticipation of the crops that were to take place in the coming months.

It is possible that the ancestors of the Pueblos of Chaco Canyon had similar ceremonies linking daily life on Earth to the heavens above.

Dagger of the Sun today

In 1989, archaeologists noticed that erosion caused by visitors had shifted the slabs and distorted their alignment. The midsummer dagger now seemed thicker and slightly left of the center of the spiral before moving down.

The winter solstice alignment was also significantly deformed from its original configuration. Since this opening, Fahada Butte has been closed to visitors and is now open only for annual site inspections by authorized personnel.

Despite these changes, Fahada Butt is still a remnant of the ancient Chaco Canyon culture. It testifies to a culture that was scientifically advanced enough to make accurate observations of the sun and moon, and possibly even the planets. She also shows a culture that saw a deep connection between astronomical cycles and their daily lives.

Archaeoastronomy shows how cosmic events that do not directly affect the Earth’s environment or ecosphere can have amazing effects on the course of history and cultural evolution.

An eclipse, for example, has little physical effect on the Earth’s planetary environment, but because of how people interpret an eclipse and imagine its meaning, it can significantly affect human societies.

In a culture attuned enough to the night sky, it can even lead to the overthrow of the incumbent government if interpreted as a sign of the gods’ displeasure.

Modern Western civilization does not see itself as connected to the universe in the way that the Pueblo ancestors did. However, science has shown that we are connected in important ways to the cosmos beyond Earth.

The atoms that make up the Earth and our bodies formed in stars billions of years ago. The sun warms our planet and is the reason why our planet is not an inhospitable ice ball.

Another important way in which celestial objects directly influence the development of life on Earth is through asteroid impacts, such as dinosaur impacts during the Cretaceous and Tertiary mass extinctions about 65 million years ago.

Also, the solstices and equinoxes are important for more than just cultural reasons. They mark real seasonal transitions due to the Earth’s axial tilt as it orbits the Sun. Thus, the sacralization of the solstices and equinoxes is not just superstition.

This is an ancient premonition that what is happening in the celestial sphere really matters for life on our planet. The Pueblo Ancestors of Chaco Canyon seemed to have a premonition. Perhaps the modern world should listen to them.


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