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‘Ancient Skywatchers’ exhibit opens at Anasazi Heritage Center

The Anasazi Heritage Center’s new winter-season exhibit “Ancient Skywatchers of the Southwest” showcases prehistoric astronomical markers in the Four Corners region. The images are the work of explorer and photographer John Ninnemann, and will be displayed from Nov. 23, through April 27, in the museum’s Special Exhibit Gallery.

The Anasazi Heritage Center will host an opening celebration with a book signing and lecture by Ninneman at 1 p.m on Sunday, Nov. 25. Ninnemann will sign his book, “Canyon Spirits: Beauty and Power in the Ancestral Puebloan World”. During the lecture, he will explain the tradition of the “skywatcher” among the Pueblos and how it illustrates the importance of astronomy in the early Southwest.

Ninnemann has spent decades studying the rock art and architecture at remote archaeological sites. His work captures significant alignments of the sun and moon that mark important points of the Pueblo year. “Ancient Skywatchers of the Southwest” was produced by the museum of the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango.

People throughout the ancient world — especially those who survived by farming, such as the Ancestral Puebloans — paid close attention to the annual rhythms of the earth and the corresponding movement of heavenly bodies. The longest and shortest days of the year were often commemorated by annual ceremonies among early people. Marking the year’s mid-points at spring and fall equinox likewise helped determine ideal times for planting and harvest.

The Ancestral Puebloan people had a deep interest in celestial events. Their understanding of astronomical cycles is reflected in the architecture and rock art they left behind. Some buildings included oddly-located windows through which the rising sun would appear on a specific date. Sometimes a shadow or a sunbeam falling across a rock art image would signal the change of season.

More remarkable is evidence that builders of Chimney Rock Pueblo near Pagosa Springs (now a National Monument) anticipated a cycle of the moon that only repeats every 18.6 years. The “lunar standstill” — moonrise at its southernmost point — is rarely noticed, even by modern people, and its meaning to the Chimney Rock people is a continuing mystery. The pueblo’s builders chose a site where the standstill moon rises between a pair of natural stone pillars. Periodic construction and remodeling at Chimney Rock took place mainly during lunar standstill years.

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