Welcome Back, Amazing Light
by Sara Roberson, Becketwood Member
Late in October 2001, I traveled to the Honanki and Palatki ruins near Sedona, Arizona, for an Elderhostel Service Project. The area was home to the Sinagua people of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples, from about 1100 to 1300 CE. Our project was to locate, identify, and document panels of their rock art, mostly pictographs. It was really exciting to see a pictograph that had not been identified before.
Since that experience, ancient cultures and the “new” field of Archaeoastronomy (the study of how peoples in the past have understood and used the phenomena in the sky) have fascinated me. Changing light, sun, and the phases of the moon had profound importance to ancient peoples, who used their art and mathematical skills to construct or arrange objects in such a way that time was measured and cultural rituals honored. Many pictographs, for instance, are visible only at certain times—like a solstice—when the sun’s rays hit that certain spot and the art is illumined. The rest of the time the pictograph is in shadow.
Worldwide, our ancestors marked the solstices, summer and winter. At the site most studied, Stonehenge in England, during summer solstice the sun rises near the “heel” stone and shines into the center of the monument. At Newgrange, Ireland, a 24-foot high circular mound containing a stone passageway and chamber is aligned with the rising sun; the sun’s light floods the chamber on the winter solstice. Similarly, chambers and passageways inside the great mound at Maeshowe, Scotland, are illuminated for a number of weeks on either side of the shortest day.
In Goseck, Germany, a series of concentric rings with two gates are aligned with sunrise and sunset of the winter solstice. A stone building in the ancient Mayan city of Tulum, Mexico, has a small hole at its top that creates a starburst effect at sunrise during both solstices. Solstice light effects at sunset frame a Peruvian pyramid, and at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, spiral petroglyphs on a cliff behind rock slabs act as a solar marker. Summer solstice brings a vertical shaft of light piercing the main spiral at its center.
We may never fully understand the spiritual significance of these ancient sites and practices, although we can be sure that they measured the passing of time, indicating to these agricultural societies that here was an ending and a beginning, a return at the darkest point in winter to the growing light and renewed life. While I was looking for new information, thinking about the “ancients” and their life challenges, I remembered how dark it was at night on the farm. We had no electricity, and used lanterns, candles, kerosene lamps. It was scary, going out to milk the cow in the dark.
Returning light is a symbol across many religious and cultural traditions, from the ancients to modern times. As we draw near to the new year, we feel it in our bones, this connection to ancestors in our wonder at sky phenomena, our shared humanity.