Eyes on the Skies

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John Ninnemann has spent many a full moon in some remote location or other in the red-rock canyon and desert regions of the Southwest, waiting for moonrise. He has also been found at the winter solstice perched in subzero predawn temperatures (with coffee in hand) waiting for the sun to rise at Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, N.M.

John Niennemann shows his daughter Kristie where the shadow hits the center of the spiral during the summer solstice on a panel at his exhibit, “Ancient Skywatchers of the Southwest: Images and Interpretation,” on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center.  Photo by Janneli Miller

John Niennemann shows his daughter Kristie where the shadow hits the center of the spiral during the summer solstice on a panel at his exhibit, “Ancient Skywatchers of the Southwest: Images and Interpretation,” on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center. Photo by Janneli Miller

Ninnemann, a photographer, scientist and Emeritus Dean of Arts and Sciences at Fort Lewis College in Durango, has been pursuing the fine art of archaeoastronomy for more than 20 years. Trained as a biologist, Ninnemann’s intellectual and artistic curiosity led him to begin observing and photographing rock art that records cosmic events.

Ninnemann says he became interested in archaeoastronomy because he and his wife (an archaeologist) have always been “canyon prowlers – avid hikers and river runners.” During their excursions, he had the good fortune to become friends with G.B. Cornucopia, interpretive ranger at Chaco Culture National Historic Park, who developed the Chaco Night Sky program and who piqued Ninnemann’s interest in the relationship between the cosmos and indigenous people.

Archaeoastronomy is a little bit archaeology – or, more specifically, rock art – and a little bit astronomy. According to the Center of Archaeoastronomy, it is “The study of the astronomical practices, celestial lore, mythologies, religions and world-views of all ancient cultures,” or “the anthropology of astronomy.”

Ninnemann is quick to note that he is neither an anthropologist nor an astronomer, and that what is presented in the exhibit is his opinion, not hard science. However, he is an excellent photographer and his efforts to record the cosmic events over the past 15 years resulted in a series of amazing phtographs on display through April 27 at the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores.

“Photographs are only part of the story,” says Ninnemann. “Without the interpretation this is just a set of pretty pictures. What is important is the science. Any one of these sites by itself could be coincidence, but taken together they begin to build a case for the intentional observation and documentation of these events.” Ninnemann’s “interpretations” consist of his ideas about what was going on at each site, and why the Ancestral Puebloan peoples went out of their way to record the event. Ninnemann asks the question, “How much astronomy did the Ancestral Puebloans know and why did they care?”

He explains that the idea of linking archaeological sites – and rock art – to the cosmos is evident throughout the world. Think Stonehenge, or the Great Pyramids of Giza. But our understanding of the relationship the Ancestral Puebloans had with the cosmic events is still a work in progress.

A pictograph panel from Mesa Verde, as seen in this photo by John Ninnemann, is possibly a record of four 18.6-year lunar-standstill events as observed from Cliff Palace.

A pictograph panel from Mesa Verde, as seen in this photo by John Ninnemann, is possibly a record of four 18.6-year lunar-standstill events as observed from Cliff Palace.

Ninnemann says there are two sources of information. “You have the material culture and the ethnography, and they don’t always agree.” For instance, in the exhibit there are several photographs of the lunar standstill, which happens every 18.6 years. Ninnemann explains that so far there is no evidence that the lunar standstill holds any significance for current Puebloan peoples – or if there is, they aren’t speaking. Yet there are observation points, which Ninnemann has documented with his Olympus E-510.

Walking into the exhibit, one is instantly confronted with a huge photograph of an entire rock-art panel, the summer-solstice panel, covering the wall directly facing the exhibit entrance. To the right is another banner-sized photograph of the desert and Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon, giving the sense of actually being in the canyon.

Large framed photographs documenting the sunset at summer solstice over the San Juan River grace another wall, and there are lots of photographs of the moon.

Jeanne Brako, curator of collections at the Center for Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College, was instrumental in designing the exhibit. She told Ninnemann she wanted to do a big mural, so he chose the summersolstice panel. “We’re putting people in the canyon,” says Ninnemann with a smile.

Indeed, the photographs that comprise this exhibit do give the viewer a definite sense of being there, which is a good thing. Ninnemann says he is sworn to secrecy and cannot give the specific location of many of the sites, not only because he doesn’t want them crawling with people or vandalized, but also out of respect for current residents who may hold these places sacred, or continue to use the spots for ritual or ceremonial use. Besides, not everyone can take the time, get the permission, and put up with the elements (including rattlesnakes) in order to view these events firsthand.

Ninnemann’s daughter Kristie, a medical anthropologist, laughs when she says, “We call it the Eternal Optimist Club, because you don’t know whether or not the sky will be clear, so you have to just believe it will be.”

Photographs in the exhibit are arranged according to locations – most of which can be accessed by the public – such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Chimney Rock, Yellow Jacket Pueblo, Hovenweep, and the San Juan River. Each location documents one of the cosmic events, providing an explanation of what is being observed, when, and why it may have been of interest to Ancestral Puebloans.

Asked what his favorite photograph is, Ninnemann points to a photograph of the full moon rising between the two towers of Chimney Rock, used as a cover on the Spring 2010 issue of American Archaeology. By itself the photograph is stunning, yet what excites Ninnemann is the fact that he shot the photograph from a Great House at the foot of Chimney Rock.

“Why is there a Great House at the base of Chimney Rock? There is no water, no fields, no game – no reason for it to be there. But according to the dendrochronology, the construction dates to both 1076 and 1095, which were lunar standstills, and these are marked.”

Great Houses are immense multistoried housing complexes associated with Chacoan culture, dating from 1030, and usually consisting of more than 200 rooms, including kivas.

In fact, Ninnemann took the spectacular cover photograph from a place marked in the greathouse.

Was the lunar standstill important to the previous inhabitants of this region? We may never know, but Ninnemann enjoys the questions. “Below the greathouse is a midden, and the midden is full of bones of large animals. Why large animals? Usually that means a feast of some kind,” he surmises. Were they feasting for the lunar standstill? We may never know, but the question is intriguing.

Observation points are marked in several ways, like the moon coming up in the center of the towers, as at Chimney Rock. Other kinds of markings are pecked basins, spiral petroglyphs at the spot where a shadow touches the center, such as the famous sun dagger at Chaco, or horizon locations marking sunrises, sunsets and moonrises. Observers needed to stay in the same place for sequential observations of the sun and moon in order to track the movements over time and season. Noting these events helped to establish both agricultural and ritual calendars, such as when to plant or harvest, and when to hold specific ceremonies.

Why would the position of the sun or moon hold importance? Ninnemann speculates, “Perhaps back then life was full of risk and danger, and in the midst of all this uncertainty the sun and the moon were constants.”

The sun and moon are still constants for us today, and a trip to see this exhibit will certainly provide the visitor with insight into the relationships humans have with the cosmos. Ninnemann’s photographs are a tribute to the good that happens when art and science come together.

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From January 2013.