Footprints to the Sky by E.C. Drum

Reaching the roof of the highest building in the Hopi village of Walpi, the Sun Chief surveyed the landscape southwest of First Mesa. Roden Crater was out there, in the Arizona desert, but it was not what the sunwatcher had on his mind. His target was a notch on the horizon. From Walpi, the horizon—that edge where the sky meets the earth—includes the San Francisco Peaks, and the Sun Chief kept track of the steady shift of the setting sun as it went behind them. The notch was the deepest cut in the southern slope of the mountains’ profile. When he saw the sun slip behind Eldon Mesa and into that notch, he knew the winter solstice would occur, in about eleven days. That meant that the elaborate preparations for the winter ceremonial, Soyal, would have to start. The next morning, then, the leaders of the Soyal society would announce that the Soyal season would begin in four days.

People use the sky to put order into the world around them. They organize their lives by the cyclical celestial events they see parading by. The rhythm of day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon, and the year’s changing seasons are all on display overhead. People pay attention to these things because they are linked to things that affect their lives.

Francisco Patencio, a chief of the southern California CaLuilla Indians, explained what his people pulled from the sky:

When the sun swung to the north and the moon showed quartered by day overhead, or west, they knew by the signs of the sun and the moon when the seeds of certain plants were ripe, and they got ready to go away and gather the harvest. Every plant that grew, the nesting time of all birds, the time of the young eagles, everything they learned by the signs of the sun and the moon.

—STORIES AND LEGENDS OF THE PALM SPRINGS INDIANS

For ancient and traditional peoples, however, the sun, the moon, and the stars were more than calendars and clocks. They were gods. They were powerful and supernatural, and they revealed the basic structure—the fundamental order—of the world. To observe them was to confront the sacred. Cosmic order is, in fact, what we mean by the sacred. That’s why the Hopi horizon calendar is sacred knowledge and why the Sun Chief is a priest.

We understand, to a reasonable degree, how the Hopi Sun Chief kept the calendar. But without the data collected by Alexander M. Stephen near the end of the last century, we would know little of the sunwatcher’s technique.


His observatory was simple, but it had the essentials—a place to stand and a place to look. Neither was marked. But the Sun Chief knew to track the sunset to Luhavwu Chochomo, that nick in the horizon, from the top of the ancestral house of the Bear Clan. By occupying that spot and catching the last sunlight at the hinge of the year, the Sun Chief completed an alignment that brought heaven, the realm of sacred order, down to earth. The knowledge was in his head, and if a new Sun Chief had to be trained, there was no textbook on Hopi astronomy for the initiate to study. The old Sun Chief would have to take him to the place to stand and show him the place to look.

Sunwatching in ancient times, all over the world, was the same sort of practical enterprise with the same kind of sacred dimension. Directions to key sunrises and sunsets, particularly at the summer and winter solstices in June and December, acquired special meaning and sacred significance.
When we find alignments to such celestial events embedded in the architecture of ancient and prehistoric monuments, they suggest, at least sometimes, a deliberate interaction with the sky. Unlike the Hopi Sun Chief’s observatory, however, these more elaborate structures were not necessarily sites for systematic skywatching. Instead they capitalized upon celestial events, through symbols, to put cosmic order on display.

The Bighorn Medicine Wheel, for example, high up on Medicine Mountain in northern Wyoming’s Bighorn range, is laid out with small rocks on an exposed shoulder above the timberline, and the design resembles a spoked wheel. One of the spokes extends beyond the outer rim and ends in a low pile of rocks, or cairn. Coinciding with the wheel’s axis of symmetry, that spoke also cuts through a cairn at the center of the wheel and points toward the summer solstice sunrise. Five more small cairns are spaced around the rim. Dr. John Eddy, a solar physicist, showed that most of the other cairns could have marked bright stars visible in the eastern sky before dawn during the short period in summer when the mountaintop was accessible. Summer solstice sunset is also given by a line between two of the wheel’s cairns.

There seems to be a great deal of astronomy in the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, but the remote and inconvenient location of the site diminish its usefulness as a solar observatory. Also, the ring is relatively small, about 26.5 meters across.


It is hard to acquire calendric precision when your place to stand—the cairn at the end of the extended spoke, and your place to look—the central cairn, are separated by only 11 meters. The distance from Walpi to the San Francisco Peaks, on the other hand, is about 129 kilometers. That makes a difference if you’re trying to pin down the solstice.

If we knew who built the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, we might have a better understanding of how it worked. In fact, we don’t even know the wheel’s age. Radiocarbon dating of wood chips from the central cairn suggests construction about 200 years ago. But the wheel may be much older. In any case, whoever laid out the stones seems to have known something about the sky. If that anonymous Indian already knew when the solstice would occur, he may have climbed to that high spot to be closer to the sky and to watch the sun on the world’s rim at that key
Perhaps for him the sun was the ruler of the sky and the energizer of the world. Most traditional peoples have attributed these powers to the sun. By witnessing the sunrise reach its northern limit, he may, in his mind, have been able to appropriate some of the sun’s power for his own purposes. At the very least, he would have seen his understanding of the world order confirmed in the summer solstice sun, and that in itself provides a kind of power. The astronomical alignment in stone may not enhance the wheel’s potential as an observatory, but it sanctifies the site with a visually powerful dose of celestial order.

Special chambers in Egyptian temples—on the other side of the world from Wyoming—do the same thing. They look like rooms for ritual observation of the sun. Astronomer Gerald Hawkins invoked hieroglyphic texts at the Great Temple of Amun Re at Karnak and the southeast orientation of a small sanctuary there to argue convincingly that the pharaoh, or his official representative, paid appropriate homage to the winter solstice sun as it was dramatically framed by the chapel’s sandstone window while rising in the southeast.

Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in southern England, is perhaps the best known astronomical “observatory” of antiquity. Hawkins and others have proposed a variety of alignments between the various stones and mounds there. These include not only orientations to summer and winter solstice sunrises and sunsets, but to significant horizon appearances of the moon as Novell.
The moon’s countenance changes rapidly through the course of a single month, and its rising point shifts between a northern limit and a southern limit in the same span of time. Over 18.6 years, the range of the moon’s monthly limits gradually changes as well, and some of the Stonehenge alignments correspond to the maximum and minimum monthly limits of the moon.

But while few would discount the idea that there is something astronomical about Stonehenge, it is very hard to confirm what it might be. The place was used too long by too many people to permit us to serve it up as well-understood with appropriate celestial seasoning. There are, however, prehistoric monuments that seem to be less ambiguous than Stonehenge. Newgrange, a neolithic passage grave in Ireland, opens to the southeast, and on December 21, 1969, Irish archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly discovered that a special window installed above the main entrance permits winter solstice sunlight to bathe the innermost chamber for a short interval after sunrise, just as it did more than 5000 years ago when the Stone Age farmers of Ireland contrived this effect.

Lunar alignments like those argued for Stonehenge are harder to verify, and it is difficult to know the role they would have played in the cosmovision of the people that may have marked them. But Aubrey Burl, a British archaeologist and expert on prehistoric stone rings, has explained the orientations of a special type of stone circle found in the general vicinity of Aberdeen, in northeast Scotland, in terms of the moon’s 18.6-year cycle. These rings always include one massive stone lying on its side and flanked by two uprights. For this reason, rings of this type are called recumbent stone circles. According to Burl’s analysis, the moon was intended to appear to march over the stage created by the recumbent stone as a theatrical celestial element in the prehistoric rituals for which the stone circles were intended.

Although we cannot be certain that the astronomical alignments we find in prehistoric monuments were intentional, the Kogi people of the northern Colombian highlands do build temples that are tuned to the sky. These South American Indians know the cyclical, seasonal movements of the sun well, and they let the sun “weave” the pattern of time on the floors of their temples by allowing its light to shine through a hole in the roof. The Kogi temple is circular, and there are four fireplaces that, as corners, form a square that is centered in the room. On the December solstice, once the sun rises high enough to penetrate the roof aperture, its beams strike the fire pit at the northwest corner of the square. Through the day, that spot of sunlight traces a line to the east until it reaches the northeast fireplace, and then the sun passes beyond the edge of the roof window. Sunlight cannot again enter the temple until the next morning, when, for all practical purposes, the same line of sunlight threads across the floor. But day by day, that spot of sunlight gradually moves south until, by the June solstice, first light falls in the southwest fireplace. Moving to the east, it reaches the southeast fireplace, and after that, each day, the “cord” of sunlight shifts back to the north, until it reaches the limit marked by the December solstice fire pits. The Kogi describe this behavior of the sun as “weaving.” For them, woven cloth is a metaphor for cosmic order, and they watch the pattern form every day in the sunlight braiding in their temples.

Although we encounter intricate design and careful crafting of astronomical alignments in some ancient monuments, our ancestors often took advantage of the natural environment to produce vivid experiences and evocative moments in sacred space. Sapaksi, a Chumash Indian sun shrine on southern California’s Sierra Madre Ridge, is one of those places where the natural architecture is perfectly suited to celestial symbolism and cosmic drama. The name means “the House of the Sun,” and the place was a kind of terrestrial counterpart to Sun’s celestial home. For the Chumash, Sun was a powerful supernatural being, one of those immortals who left for the sky when death came to the world. Chumash shamans monitored his movements throughout the year and engaged in ritual designed to transfer some of his power to them. Sapaksi is small rock shelter, painted and used by one of those shamans. Its most obvious pictograph is a spoked wheel, painted in red on the naturally domed ceiling and thought to represent the sun. At summer solstice, a crack in the shelter’s roof allows sunlight to strike the floor in the shape of an arrow. This white “arrow” light moves across the shelter floor through the early afternoon and passes across a five-sided hole that has been carved into it. We don’t know what in detail was intended here, but we imagine that the sunlight interacted with some ritual substance or paraphernalia placed there. Perhaps, in the shaman’s mind, that material was energized by the light of the summer solstice sun.

Summer solstice was, as the Chumash saw things, the time “when things are divided in half.” Their year began at winter solstice, and Sun’s name, Kakunupmawa, means “the radiance of the child of the winter solstice.” This name implies that the winter solstice was the time of the sun’s rebirth, and we encounter the same association in many other parts of the world. Traditional people see the rhythmic behavior of celestial objects as the cycle of life. Things are born. They grow. They die. They are reborn. That’s what happens to the sun each day and to the stars each night. That’s what happens to the moon as it swells full and is then sliced back to nothing. That’s what happens to the sun and everything in the world as the seasons pass from winter solstice to summer solstice and back; to winter solstice again. It’s the only story we know. Chumash shamans saw the same plot-line in the traumatic spiritual transformation that made them shamans. They “died” as they left their normal life and were “reborn” into their new vocation. These shamans also were responsible for initiating the youth into adult society at puberty, and this rite of passage followed the same storyline. As childhood ended, the Chumash children “died,” and they were “reborn” through spiritual ordeals as adults.

The shamanic theme of rebirth is evident in the natural architecture of the “House of the Sun.” To reach the upper shelter, you climb behind a shelf of sandstone. The trail, formed by the natural erosion of seasonally flowing water, gradually isolates you from the surrounding countryside and creates an “artificial” environment.

The trail ends at a sheer 30-foot drop in front of the shelter. To enter it, you pass through a short tunnel that directs your view to the sun symbol on the ceiling. The tunnel mimics the birth canal, and you are “reborn” into the sun’s house in the sky.

An even more elaborate journey brought Buddhist pilgrims to the top of Borobudur, an 1100-year-old monument in central Java. Designed as a symbol of cosmic order, Borobudur is oriented to the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. These directions originate in the sky. We would not single them out as we do if the earth did not spin on its axis. But it does, and that makes the sky seem to move. All of the celestial objects appear to trace out paths across the sky, from east to west. But in the northern sky one spot is stationary while all else turns around it. That spot is the north celestial pole, and at the present time a fairly bright star, the North Star, resides at the same address. That’s where we get north. And the sky’s north pole becomes the single, unmoving agent of cosmic stability in the northern sky.

There is a southern counterpart, the south celestial pole, but no conspicuous star marks it. And there won’t always be a North Star either. If we watch long enough—thousands of years—we’ll see our own North Star gradually slip away from the center of the sky’s motion. This shift is caused by a 26,OOO-year wobbling of the earth. It’s called precession, and eventually it will bring the North Star we know back to where we like to think it belongs.

But even though the North Star shifts away from the sky’s north pole and the stars slip away from their familiar seasons, the direction north remains constant. The world, after all, continues to turn. Borobudur remain cardinally oriented unless Java itself twists around. The center holds.

The pilgrim that climbs to the top level of Borobudur is carried closer to the sky, and his ascent also represents spiritual advancement. Borobudur symbolizes the cosmic mountain, and that mountain is the earth’s axis. Its summit touches the sky. In climbing this cosmic mountain, Buddhist pilgrims walked sunwise (to the left) until they reached the celestial realm of cosmic order. That order was, in turn, contained in the plan and function of the monument. By following galleries and stairways on each of the terraces, they circled the center nine times on their way to the top level. There, the view opens to the sky and the earth with a liberating effect. The environment is simpler, purer, and more geometric. You are far above the world of everyday existence. What loomed large below shrinks in significance up there. The experience was intended to liberate the pilgrim’s soul in that transcendent upper realm.

The Hopi, too, were once pilgrims. They say that they didn’t always live in this world. Long ago they lived in another world, far below the blue skies, fields of corn, and red mesas they know today. They made their way upward, first ascending into one new world under the ground and then another.

Finally, they emerged into this world, and it became their new home. The Hopi preserve these ancient traditions, and so they know where they are and where they have been. Their system of direction is wedded to their perception of the passage of time. World order is revealed in the sky all around them. They are centered in their world.

Most of the rest of us in this era are not so informed. We search for our center in an expanding universe that doesn’t have one. Most of us never watch the sky and are amazed by the stars when we find ourselves beyond the borders of city lights. But when we rediscover the sky, our perspective is changed. NX hatever it is that satisfies us in a sunrise or in the canopy of stars or in the delicate curve of the moon is what drives us to Roden Crater.

James Turrell’s Roden Crater is no less a product of late twentieth century urbanized, technological American culture than the diva is a product of ancient Pueblo culture. The kiva symbolizes the underground realm and the place of emergence. It mirrors the myths that order the Hopi world. Turrell’s Roden Crater is our re-encounter with the sky.

East and west chambers on the fumarole’s fan of lava acknowledge the desert horizon and provide the kind of vista that makes a calendar keeper out of the Hopi Sun Chief. In another space on the fumarole, Turrell captures the summer. solstice sunrise, the target of the skywatcher who built a wheel of stones on Medicine Mountain. Turrell also frames a window for the shadow of the earth, his “nightrise,” at

Ancient Germanic and Scandinavian moonwatchers monitored the same effect to determine the day of full moon.

Light and shadow effects reveal the ordered passage of time in the sun’s house at Sapaksi. Turrell engineers a similar revelation, and he designs it around the natural architecture of Roden Crater. Its nearly solstitial axis ties the sky to earth without any interference by Turrell beyond selection of the site as the place to stand. California Indian shamans looked for their revelations in places where nature had made the first move. By contrast, the Islamic astronomers of Jai Singh, the eighteenth-century Maharajah of Jaipur, witnessed celestial phenomena in a far more contrived and calculated manncr. Jai Singh’s observatories monitored what was going on in the sky with precision and accuracy made possible by the monumental architecture of their instruments. This kind of interaction with celestial light also interests Turrell, and he builds it into the subterranean room in the center of the crater’s bowl.

Visitors to Roden Crater will immerse themselves in subtle fields of light in other rooms, where, at times, the Ganzfeld will be disturbed by the entry of sunlight and moonlight at key stations in the sky’s cyclical change. These spaces resemble places like the inner sanctuary of Newgrange, the High Room of the Sun at Karnak, and the sacred ground inside a Kogi temple. The ancient builders, oriented to the sky, controlled the ambient light in these shrines and capitalized on the periodic intrusion and dramatic display of sunlight.

Pinhole projection of moonlight in the rooms of Roden Crater also will let an image of the lunar disk dance across the wall when the moon reaches the same southern limit that lets the moon itself glide over the megalithic rings laid out in prehistoric Scotland.

The accumulated experience of multi-millennial skywatching has told us that the stars shift over spans of time that make an entire life too short to detect without the elaborate devices of modern astronomy. To one can wait and watch the 26,000-year cycle of precession. But because our ancestors communicated their knowledge to succeeding generations, it became possible to know this motion exists. Turrell steps into that tradition of preserved knowledge and aligns a tunnel to the sky’s north pole. Through that aperture will pass a slow, dispersed parade of Pole Stars, whether there is anyone present to watch them take their turns or not.

The trip through Roden Crater culminates in its bowl. We tunnel through the earth and echo the night journey of the sun through the Egyptian netherworld until we are liberated under the canopy of the entire sky. Continuing higher, up the inside of the bowl, we see the sky rip free of the horizon imposed by the crater rim. There, at the summit of the pilgrimage, the sky tents a world that looks new to reoriented eyes. We have climbed our own Borobudur. Our perception of the world is altered. When the sun swings to the north and the moon shoves quartered by day overhead at Roden Crater, we now notice it.

Turrell puts us in contact with nature. We see what we cannot learn in a book. The encounter means something because it allows us to experience concrete, natural detail.

Our ancestors interacted with the sky through contrived space to observe details. They paid attention to details to comprehend the world. That experience provided knowledge which enhanced opportunities for survival.

At Roden Crater, our attention is directed to details that most of us have forgotten. There is nothing esoteric about them. They are useful experiences. They awaken in the heart a sense of enthusiasm for our ability to cloak the world in order and meaning and a feeling for the mystery that anything exists at all. Those things are present in every sunrise, but in this era, it takes a volcano to make us receptive.

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