May 1st, 2011

Books!

Space songs on a spider web sitar ...

Last fall, my Wife and kids went down to visit my father-in-law in Arizona. It would have been fun to go along, but with my being in this seemingly-endless job search, it hardly seemed reasonable to pull me off the resume grind and have to figure out where an additional air fare would come from, so I stayed home. It sounded like they did some interesting things (unfortunately, having left the “designated family photographer” at home, they managed to have deleted all the pictures they took while down there when thinking they were “viewing” them), including going off to look at various petroglyph sites, where they picked up Kenneth J. Zoll's Sinagua Sunwatchers: An Archaeoastronomy Survey of the Sacred Mountain Basin to bring back to me as a souvenir.

Over the years, I was fortunate to be able to travel fairly widely in the Southwest, having visited sites such as Canyon de Chelly, Chaco Canyon, Death Valley, Acoma Pueblo, Mesa Verde, The Grand Canyon, etc., and have binders of prints from various of these. When we've been down in Phoenix previously, I've dragged them off to the HoHoKam museum there, so they knew what would make Daddy happy.

However, I was a bit disappointed in Sinagua Sunwatchers, as it looked at first glance to be a rather in-depth consideration of a particular “solar panel” at the V-Bar-V Heritage site, but suffered from much of the “fuzziness” of the Archaeoastronomy field. The author congratulates himself for making a multi-month survey of the site (readings were made on the 21st of March, April, May, June, July, August, and the 22nd of September), which appears to be unusual, but it then brings up the question of how much better the information would be if the data was taken daily, and, perhaps, photographically captured at each point. Frankly, I'm somewhat ambivalent towards “Cultural Astronomy”, as it always seems to invite reading in the observers' preconceptions into what is likely to be a rather limited data set (much in the way that a large sports stadium, given an even data distribution, is likely to average somewhere around 200 people with any particular birthday). At least in this case, the author limits himself to looking at the progression of a “sun shaft”, or more realistically, two shadows being cast by projecting stones above the large (oddly, the physical dimensions don't seem to be given, even though the angular positioning, elevation, etc. are detailed), creating four “edges” which progress across the stone on the observed days, and through the year. This certainly provides “wiggle room” for interpretations, as you have edges touching glyphs (oh, and there are estimated to be over a thousand glyphs carved into this large flat standing stone), crossing glyphs, bisecting glyphs, as well as having elements of glyphs in the shaded areas, or in the lit areas. As you can guess, an eager devotee of this particular “science” could likely find any message on this stone if they worked hard enough on it.

The stone dates from anywhere from 600 to 1400 C.E., and was used by the Sinagua people who where predecessors of the Hopi, and (for various reasons) are postulated to have been the ancestors of the Hopi Water Clan. While Zoll attempts to weave in the mythos of the latter culture, it's pretty clear that the Kachina deity system (which he irritatingly insists on spelling Katsina here) didn't evolve until much later.

The author makes a case for particular glyphs and groups of glyphs having importance in relation to the agricultural cycle, with particular alignments indicating specific days, and I suppose that it's certainly possible that this is what the assorted carvings are indicating, but nothing here screams out “oh, look, this is the day when the sun stops and goes back” or other definitive astronomical notation. The fact that a pair of lines could easily have been etched in that which would have corresponded precisely to the edges of the “sun shaft” on the Equinox and Solstice and The Great Mythic Founder of the Tribe's birthday, or whatever, makes the “oh, look it's half the way down the snake next to the guy with the funny head” interpretation seem a bit weak.

To the book's credit, there is a reasonably cogent section on the science behind this, with angles of the Sun, Earth, orbital eccentricity, etc. explained, along with decent tables of data featuring the Solar altitude and azimuth on a minute-by-minute basis over the time of observation on the chosen days. It's just that there's nothing here like the “mid-winter sun shining down a shaft and illuminating a particular glyph/gem/burial on just that one day” sort of precision which would make all and sundry say “wow, how cool is that”. No matter how much they fill in the tables here, they're still having to make claims that the back half of the glyph being in the light is significant versus the other glyph touching an edge of the other shadow … which leaves one wondering how much “science” there is in these observations.

Sinagua Sunwatchers is available from Amazon new (and used from B&N), but is also available from the author's organization at http://www.sinaguasunwatchers.com … were you interested in helping to support their efforts. I found this “interesting enough” but (as you can gather from the above) not deeply convincing. If you're into things Southwestern, you'll probably enjoy this anyway, as it has enough history and cultural context to make it more than a one-trick pony.


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