Photographer opens the sky to curious eyes in exhibit

Courtesy of BLM/Canyons of the Ancients

John Ninnemann

Herald Staff Report

A new exhibit at the Anasazi Heritage Center gives visitors a chance to see how ancient people viewed the night sky and what it meant to them.

“Ancient Skywatchers of the Southwest” showcases prehistoric astronomical markers in the Four Corners. The images are the work of explorer and photographer John Ninnemann and will be displayed in the museum’s Special Exhibit Gallery.

At Sunday’s opening, Ninnemann will explain the tradition of the “skywatcher” among the Pueblos and how it illustrates the importance of astronomy in the early Southwest. He has spent decades studying the rock art and architecture at remote archaeological sites and his work captures alignments of the sun and moon that mark significant points in the Pueblo year. The exhibit was produced by the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College.

Ancient people, 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. Marking the year’s mid-points at spring and fall equinox helped determine ideal times for planting and harvest.

The ancestral Puebloan people also 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.

There also is evidence that the builders of Chimney Rock Pueblo National Monument near Pagosa Springs anticipated a cycle of the moon that only repeats every 18.6 years. The “lunar standstill,” which is when the moon rises 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.

Ninnemann also will sign copies of his book Canyon Spirits: Beauty and Power in the Ancestral Puebloan World.

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