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Inter-site Alignments of Prehistoric Shrines in Chaco Canyon to the Major Lunar Standstill

Part of the Astrophysics and Space Science Proceedings book series (ASSSP,volume 50)


In and near Chaco Canyon, New Mexico—the center of monumental ceremonial architecture of the Ancestral Puebloan culture—ancient peoples appear to have intentionally interrelated numerous small masonry structures on alignments to the major standstill moon. The structures include low-walled C-shaped, circular, and cairn configurations located on prominent positions near the tops of three mesas that form the south side of Chaco Canyon and mesas located beyond the canyon, with inter-site alignments spanning 5–15 km. Deposits of turquoise and other offerings at these small sites, and their similarity with later Puebloan features, suggest their use as shrines. Geographic information system analysis of the spatial distribution of these sites—with precise geodetic coordinates determined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Geodetic Survey—shows clustering of their interrelationships along azimuths to the rising and setting moon at its major standstill. Previous extensive investigation by the Solstice Project, with geodetic support by the National Geodetic Survey, documented the Chacoans’ commemoration of the lunar standstill cycle at the Sun Dagger petroglyph site on Fajada Butte and in the wall alignments and inter-building relationships of numerous Chaco Great Houses. Other research documented the relationship of the Chacoan Great House of Chimney Rock, Colorado, to the major lunar standstill. Our findings of the inter-shrine-site alignments to the major standstill moon provide significant evidence for a hitherto undocumented small scale of lunar astronomical expression of the Chaco culture. The placement of these shrines also appears to possibly have marked a correspondence between the topographic trajectory of Chaco Canyon and the alignment to the moon at its major standstill, suggesting a specific effort to integrate Chaco’s land formations with celestial patterns. These preliminary findings are part of a study in progress of cosmographic expressions throughout the Chacoan cultural region.


  • Chaco Canyon
  • Archaeoastronomy
  • Major lunar standstill

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  1. 1.

    We note that the astronomical knowledge demonstrated by the Chaco culture may have been another form of “exotica” the Chacoans acquired in their dynamic trade/ideological relationship with Mesoamerican cultures (Sofaer 2008:xviii; Tuwaletstiwa 2015:xv; Weiner 2015).

  2. 2.

    We acknowledge that our previous work on Chaco building alignments has been critiqued (e.g., Malville 2008; Munro and Malville 2011) and these concerns will be addressed in future work. For a recent third-party publication in support of the Solstice Project’s previous findings, we recommend Pauketat (2016).

  3. 3.

    It is of interest to note that an additional cut date from Chimney Rock dates to AD 1011, the year of the minor lunar standstill (Lekson 2015:196).

  4. 4.

    The most common types include Red Mesa Black-on-white, Escavada Black-on-white, Gallup Black-on-white, Chaco-McElmo Black-on-white, and Cibola plain, banded, and corrugated indented (Marshall and Sofaer 1988:264).

  5. 5.

    Two other small cairn sites on Chacra Mesa (29SJ184 & 29MC463), located approximately 3 km southeast of our study area, have also been brought to our attention (Ruth Van Dyke, personal communication Jan 7, 2016). It is of interest that preliminary examination, using locational information provided by Van Dyke, shows that both appear to be on the inter-site same alignments to the lunar standstill presented in this paper.

  6. 6.

    LA 40423 also is located next to a Basketmaker III site that predates the Bonito-era occupation of Chaco Canyon and might be understood as attempting to express a link with real or imagined ancestors (Van Dyke 2007a:142).

  7. 7.

    In addition, the Great House Una Vida, which itself is aligned to the setting of the southern major standstill moon, is also positioned on an alignment with isolated great kiva 1253 at a bearing of 55.3°, paralleling the inter-site alignment of the Poco Site to Casa Rinconada.

  8. 8.

    Astronomer Carl Sagan drew a correspondence between Casa Rinconada’s 28 niches and the number of days in the lunar cycle (Sagan 2013:43).

  9. 9.

    While there are many parallels of the Chacoan culture with the traditions of historic and contemporary Puebloan cultures, there are also distinct differences. For instance, the Chacoans’ multistoried Great Houses with up to 400–800 rooms and engineered roads of 9 m width are not present in the historic Pueblos. Similarly, there are no known historic Puebloan alignments to the 18.6 year standstill cycle of the moon. It has been frequently stated that Pueblo people deliberately left Chaco and the knowledge and hierarchy manifested there for a choice to live in a more “reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth” (Ortiz 1992:72; interviews in Sofaer 1999). For these reasons, we do not find it necessary or appropriate to refer to ethnographically documented Puebloan practices for validation of the findings of astronomical expression by the Chaco culture.


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We owe a special debt to NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey for supporting the precise survey of the shrine-sites of this study, following its critical support of the Solstice Project’s earlier survey of the major Chacoan Great Houses. Archaeologist Michael Marshall conducted his usual thorough and insightful surveys of the sites, describing them in the context of his extensive knowledge of such sites throughout the Chaco region. Demetrios Matsakis (US Naval Observatory) generously produced the histogram that shows the clustering of the inter-shrine alignments and calculated moon rise and set azimuth data, which are fundamental and crucial to our analysis. We also greatly appreciate the support of the National Park Service and the special attention that archaeologist Dabney Ford gave to the process of this study. Adriel Heisey conducted aerial photography of the alignments and sites of this study, in one instance flying in his ultralight plane in the freezing post-blizzard conditions that preceded the mid-winter full moon of 2007 at the major standstill moon. We also thank geodesist Phillip Tuwaletstiwa for initiating our work with the National Geodetic Survey and for encouraging this further study of the significance of the moon to the Chaco culture. The late Alfonso Ortiz, anthropologist and member of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, guided our early attention to the special importance of the moon in Puebloan cosmology and of the symbolic significance of elevated small sites. The late Rina Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo, on observing our preliminary findings, noted that the lunar inter-shrine alignments—and especially their correspondence with the canyon land formation—were “brilliant.” We thank Micah Lau for his assistance writing the Python script to calculate all possible inter-site azimuths. We were also helped and encouraged by archaeologists Ruth Van Dyke and Richard Friedman. Two anonymous reviewers helped us to make important clarification to our text and the computation of moon rise and set azimuths and encouraged us to explore further the cultural implications suggested by these findings. All three authors of this paper contributed significantly to its creation.

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A list of all inter-site azimuths (reckoned from north at 0° and expressed as ± degree bearings east/west of 0° that acknowledge the reflective [i.e., close to, but not exactly, symmetrical] relationships of the rising and setting azimuths of northern and southern major lunar standstill positions) between the 12 sites included in this study, with the cluster within ±1.5° of the major standstill azimuth (−53.5°) bolded.





























































































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Sofaer, A., Weiner, R., Stone, W. (2017). Inter-site Alignments of Prehistoric Shrines in Chaco Canyon to the Major Lunar Standstill. In: Arias, E., Combrinck, L., Gabor, P., Hohenkerk, C., Seidelmann, P. (eds) The Science of Time 2016. Astrophysics and Space Science Proceedings, vol 50. Springer, Cham.

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