| 2 November 2009
Expert uncovers celestial connection in desert US Southwest
Jim Krehbiel and an Ohio Wesleyan student spent years uncovering why ancient kivas (rooms used for religious rituals) were built in such remote sites in Utah (USA). Why, he wondered in the fall of 2007, would anyone build something so important in such a remote spot among the canyons and mesas? Perhaps, he thought, the site was an observatory; a place to help religious leaders keep track of the solstices, time rituals and plantings. "Their world around them is absolute, total chaos," Krehbiel said. "They were really at the mercy of the elements. So where do they go for something that's predictable, that remains the same, that you can count on: The sky and the relationship of those things on the horizon."
A discussion with Barbara Andereck, a professor of astronomy and physics at Ohio Wesleyan, put Krehbiel on a path that would help him test his ideas about the remote kivas he visited each summer. One of Andereck's students, Natalie Cunningham, was looking for a senior project in 2008 and agreed to help Krehbiel. "I had to do a lot of math to go back into the past and see where the sun and moon were," said Cunningham, who was studying English and astrophysics. In the summer of 2008, Krehbiel took Cunningham to Utah to take readings.
Back at the kiva he'd pondered on, Krehbiel set up his transit and sighted in on a gap in the opposite canyon rim where he thought the winter solstice sun might rise. Instead, he found that the moon rises there during an event called the major lunar standstill, which occurs every 18.6 years. The major standstill occurs when the moon rises and sets in its longest arc across the horizon - the lunar version of the annual summer solstice when the sun makes its longest arc across the sky. But they also found that the calculations Cunningham made in relatively flat Ohio only went so far in the canyons of Utah.
The cliff-top kiva is on a relatively flat plane with the features on the opposite canyon rim and with the horizon, so the calculations were close enough to work there. But they didn't work for kivas deep inside a canyon. Because the canyon rim is high above, the sun and moon don't appear to observers at those sites until they're far above the true horizon. Since they cross the sky in an arc, the sun and moon appeared in a different spot than Cunningham had calculated, so that summer she found a better model in a book published in 1942 by the U.S. Navy and she derived an equation that took the arc of the sky into consideration. "We went back out in October of 2008 and re-examined the sites," Krehbiel said. "We had the spherical trig charts in hand, and everything just fell into place." They have found alignments for solstices, equinoxes and major and minor lunar standstills at 29 sites so far.
Krehbiel takes sightings only from spots where the cliff-dwellers left a sign, such as a spiral carving or a basin chipped out of the rock. He doesn't always find alignments with distinct features on the horizon. About 30 percent of the sites he's checked showed none, he said. Jeff Dean, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has spent decades using tree-ring data to fix when archaeological sites throughout the Southwest were built. He took a look at Krehbiel's work recently and said it makes sense to him. "I don't know of anybody that actually measured these things to the extent that he and his colleagues are doing," Dean said.
Source: The Columbus Dispatch (1 November 2009)
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