Orion Temple in Colorado - Part 1
Mesa Verde is a green sanctuary for the soul. Located in southwestern Colorado near the Four Corners region, this massive geological uplift was once home to many Ancestral Puebloans, the term that has recently supplanted “Anasazi” in the archaeological world. Mesa Verde is Spanish for “green table,” and the area covered with juniper and piñon trees indeed provided refuge from the harsher and drier landscape of the high desert below.
Some of the continent’s most spectacular cliff dwellings are found here, including Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House. Occupied between 600 and 1300 AD, the mesa is cut by numerous canyons running generally north and south. These canyons are pocketed with giant rock alcoves under which the ancient people built large villages of sandstone.
Cliff Palace, for instance, was inhabited between about 1190 and 1300. It contained some 220 rooms and 23 circular kivas (subterranean, ceremonial prayer-chambers)—the largest cliff dwelling in the American Southwest. This pueblo, a sort of ancient stone apartment complex, also included a round tower and a four-story square tower from which the sacred “sun watchers” made their celestial observations.
Unlike the cliff dwellings, the so-called Sun Temple was used exclusively for watching the skies. It is located on top of the mesa rather along cliff sides within the canyons. Perched at the southern edge of the mesa near the juncture of Fewkes Canyon and Cliff Canyon, this D-shaped structure lies a bit more than 300 yards southwest of Cliff Palace, which is located on the far side of the latter canyon. These two canyons, by the way, contained a total of 33 habitation sites.
Most pueblo villages grew by accretion, as rooms were gradually added on to each other. On the other hand, the form of the Sun Temple was preconceived and executed with a single, coherent symmetry in mind. The structure, built probably about 1250 AD, consists of two concentric bows. Its southern wall (the metaphoric bowstring) is 122 feet long, while the curved north wall provides the temple’s 64-feet width. The inner “bow” is bisected exactly to the inch by a recess a few feet wide in the outer southern wall. Although the reconstructed walls are now an average of six feet high, they once rose to an estimated 11 to 14 feet. They were generally about four feet thick and composed of a central core of rubble and adobe dressed with finely placed sandstone blocks. The floor of the building consisted of the mesa’s bedrock, with no additional adobe flooring added.
No external doorways or windows are found, except for one walled-up entryway near the southwestern corner of the structure. However, a number of inner windows and covered doorways connect to some of the rooms, which total 24. The lack of wooden beams shows that the structure was unroofed and open to sunlight and starlight. No household goods of any kind (i.e., bowls, baskets, grinding stones, etc.) were found in or near the building, which indicates the building’s purpose was ceremonial rather than domiciliary. In other words, this edifice truly deserves the name “temple.” Whether or not this was strictly a sun temple will be dealt with shortly.
Satellite view of “Sun Temple,” Cliff Palace to northeast.
The archaeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes, who worked initially to unearth and reconstruct it in 1915, observed the following: “…the building excavated shows the best masonry and is the most mysterious structure yet discovered in a region rich in so many pre-historic ruins.”
Almost every masonry block was assiduously pecked and shaped in order to fit perfectly into the walls. Some of the blocks were even sculpted or incised with geometric designs similar to those commonly found on the indigenous pottery of the region. Other designs in the blocks include the so-called crows-foot, flowing water, and what looks like a ladder leaning against a wall. A few blocks are cut with the T-shape that resembles many of the doors and windows of other pueblos (though not in this structure). The designs in these blocks suggest that the walls were not plastered. This style of sculpted stones is very rare in the American Southwest and indicates an influence from Mexico and Central America.
There are three circular kivas incorporated into the architecture. These are not typical kivas, however, because they lack the normal features, such as a fire pit, an air deflector, a banquette (bench along the wall), and a sipapu (a tiny hole in the floor that conceptually leads to the underworld). In addition, they are above-ground, not subterranean. The two eastern “kivas” (marked B and C on the diagram) each have a narrow subterranean trench that leads from the plaza through an inclined shaft to a spot just south of the center of each circular room. The western “kiva” (marked A) has a similar access from one of the small rooms to the south.