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.
On the eastern two-thirds of the structure, fourteen mostly rectangular rooms enclose the plaza that contains two kivas, which are equal in diameter. On the western third, we find ten rooms: six nearly square rooms, one circular room, and three quadrilateral rooms that surround the single kiva and conform to its shape. This kiva is slightly smaller than the other two kivas. One small triangular enclosed space also lies just northeast of the circular room.
As the diagram shows, the north-south axis of the structure is shifted five degrees west of due north. A line drawn from the southwestern corner eastward past the building is tangent with the inner wall of another kiva (marked D). This separate kiva lies just over twenty feet from the southeastern corner of the main structure.
One of the most usual features connected to the Sun Temple, however, is the so-called Sun Shrine. Located at the southwestern corner of the building, this curious stone slab extends as part of the bedrock a few feet from the building. A masonry enclosure was constructed on two sides perpendicular to the outer wall in order protect it. The stone seems artificially worked, with sharp grooves radiating from a central basin. It has been suggested that these grooves represent solar rays. At the center of this depression are three indentations, one of which is offset. If a person sat on this stone, the masonry addition would be something like the arms of a chair. Gazing westward, an observer could watch the equinoctial sunset. Some researchers believe that this stone functioned as a kind of sundial.
But does the Sun Temple live up to its name? Apparently so. A number of what are termed solstice alignments are incorporated into the building as line-of-sight connections between two points. In the world of the Ancestral Puebloans, the four solstice points on the horizons are more important that the cardinal directions. That is, the exact spots on the horizon where the sun rises and sets in either summer or winter are crucial to maintaining an agricultural calendar. The “sun watcher” performed the task of determining when to plant or harvest certain crops and when to perform various ritual activities.
At the latitude of Mesa Verde, the Sun rises at 60.5º azimuth on the first day of summer. (Azimuth is an angle measured in degrees from True North. North = 0º, East = 90º, South = 180º, and West = 270º.) On this same day it sets at 299º. During the winter solstice the Sun rises at 119º and sets at 241º.
The diagram shows how specific architectural features of the structure indicate the solstice times. For instance, a straight line extended from the Sun Shrine located in the southwestern corner of the building to Room i in the northeastern corner is 60.5º azimuth. Remember, the Sun Temple had no roof, so a person standing on a ladder at the Sun Shrine could see either another ladder or a pole that may have been erected in the very northeastern corner of this far room. When the sunrise point, which had gradually been moving northward along the horizon as spring progressed, finally reached this upright marker, the person would know it was the summer solstice. In other words, the Sun had reached its “summer house.” Another summer solstice sunrise alignment can be found between the center of Kiva A and the northeastern corner of Room g .
Three winter solstice sunrise alignments can be found in the building: (1) between Kiva A and the southeastern corner of Room b , (2) between the circular Room s and the center of the recess in the southern wall, and (3) between Kiva C and Kiva D . This was probably the most important time of year for the ancient people. Solstice ceremonies were performed in part to usher the Sun northward from its “winter house.” If these rituals were done poorly or not conducted at all, there was concern that the Sun might not return with its life-giving warmth.
A summer solstice sunset alignment can be found between Kiva B and the small triangular room. In addition, a winter solstice sunset alignment runs from Kiva C to the center of the walled-up door along the southern wall of the structure. The redundancy of alignments might have resulted from different ceremonial clans, each using either one of the three enclosed kivas or the single separate kiva outside the structure.
Part 2 will explore the Stellar Line-up of the Orion Temple.
Featured image: Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
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(Part 2 )