Welcome to the Explore! New Mexico blog

Explore! New Mexico searches the state for interesting stories to tell our listeners and readers - and now our blog followers! We are currently producing a series of multi-media podcasts for the Las Cruces Convention and Visitors Bureau about interesting events and places to visit. You can view them at our YouTube channel. Be sure to visit our website where you can get even more ideas about where to travel in the Land of Enchantment.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Navajo Code Talkers honored in Las Cruces

On Memorial Day 2011, three Navajo Code Talkers were present at a ceremony in their honor at Veterans Memorial Park in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The occasion was brought about by a donation by Danny Montoya, who purchased bricks for the Walk of Honor for each of the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers. While the only surviving member of the original 29, Chester Nez, was unable to attend due to health problems, the three Code Talkers who did attend - Keith Little, Frank Chee Willetto, and Bill Toledo - are all actively involved in the Navajo Code Talkers Association and Foundation.

If you don't know the story, the Code Talkers were recruited to be communications specialists during World War II. It was essential to be able to develop a code unbreakable by the Japanese and the Marines thought that the Navajo language could serve as the basis of that code. They went to the Navajo reservation and recruited 30 men to go through training. Only 29 were able to make it to training, and thus became the honored original 29 who worked out the code that turned names of common military equipment into Navajo words. Even if the Japanese had been able to translate the words, they would not know what they referred to as they were not literal translations. The code developed by the Navajo Code Talkers helped the United States prevail in World War II.

Only about 50 of the 200+ Code Talkers survive today. Many of them are actively involved in planning a museum that will be located in northern New Mexico to preserve the story of the Code Talkers and the Navajo language.

I'll post more information after I read the book that I purchased yesterday as a donation towards the museum. A slide show of photos from the ceremony will also be posted soon.

- Cheryl Fallstead

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Peñasco Blanco: Observatory

During our visit to Chaco Canyon, we hiked 3-1/2 miles from Pueblo Bonito to Peñasco Blanco, sitting atop the bluff some 300-400 feet above the canyon basin. I had wondered why these villages were sited in such disparate places. Why was Peñasco on top the bluff and Bonito at the base of the cliffs? It wasn’t until I returned to Las Cruces and had time to stick my nose in my reference books that I got an answer. Peñasco was an observatory – of sorts.

Astronomy was important to the Chacoans and many of the pueblos are precisely aligned to some aspect to the solar cycle or the lunar cycle. Astronomy apparently had a major influence on customs, rituals, and ceremonies.

Peñasco Blanco, Spanish for white bluff, is called by the Navajo “tableland tapering to a point house,” an apt description of the great house sited above the confluence of Chaco Wash and Escavada Wash.

That, however, does not tell the story. Peñasco is in perfect alignment with Pueblo Bonito and Una Vida, along a straight line eight miles long. All three were built in the mid to late 800s.

What truly makes Peñasco unique is its alignment to what astronomer’s call the lunar major standstill. I’ve tried to find out what that means, and it gets complicated quickly. The moon does not orbit the earth in the same plane as the earth orbits the sun, a plane called the ecliptic. If it did, we’d have an eclipse every two weeks. Instead, the moon’s orbit is tilted about five degrees above the ecliptic.

The lunar cycle from one major standstill to another is 18.6 years and the cycle was first measured and explained by Hipparchus, the Greek astronomer who lived from 190 to 120 BC, so there’s nothing new about it. It all has to do with very complex celestial mechanics that govern the orbit of one body around another [moon and earth] while under the influence of a third body [the sun].

Here’s the technical definition ... “As the earth travels its annual orbit around the sun, with its rotational axis tilted at about 23.5° from the vertical, the sun’s declination changes from + 23.5° at the summer solstice to -23.5° at the winter solstice. Thus, in the northern hemisphere, the sun is higher in the sky and visible for a longer period of time in June than it is in December. It’s why we have seasons.

“Unlike the sun, the maximum and minimum declination reached by the moon varies. This is because the plane of the moon’s orbit around the earth is inclined those five degrees to the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun, and the direction of this inclination gradually changes over the 18.6-year cycle, alternately working with and against the 23.5° tilt of the earth’s axis.” [Source:Wikipedia]

At the standstill, the moon appears to stand still in the sky for a brief period before changing directions and moving oppositely, either north or south.

Keep in mind this has nothing to do with the phases of the moon. It just means, if you stand facing the north star, how far to the south of it is the moon at its zenith. Sometimes, at an equinox, it appears farther north than you might expect it to be. Other times it’s farther south, just like where the sun peeks over the Organ Mountains in June and December.

I’ve taken time to mention this because we have loads of instruments to measure precise angles and times and computers to do calculations to however many decimal places we desire. The Chacoans had none of this, and yet their calculations were just as precise. It’s built into the architecture of Peñasco Blanco and Pueblo Bonito. Anna Sofaer, director of the Solstice Project Survey [in Kendrick Frazier’s book, People of Chaco] said, “It suggests the Chacoans may have favored these particular angles (lunar standstill) in order to incorporate a geometry of the sun and moon in the internal organization of the buildings.” An illustration in Frazier’s book refers to “inter-building bearings” that correlate to the orientation of individual buildings to the cardinal directions and to the lunar major and minor standstills. There are walls in perfect alignment not only with the cardinal directions and standstill angles but also with other walls in other pueblos. How Chacoans achieved such precision is unknown but marvelous to contemplate.

Observant Chacoan holy men, whom Park Rangers referred to as Sunwatchers, would have noticed the relationship between eclipses of the moon and its standstill cycle. They perhaps used their observations to establish precise dates for major festivals and ceremonials, so vital to the sacred rituals of the society.

What binds a society, then and now, are adherence by individuals to a community-accepted body of behavior and beliefs. We often hear people talk about the decay of our society. What actually does that mean, except individuals no longer choose to conform? It puts the society in flux until a new belief system emerges to unify the community.

Archeologists assume Chacoans used solar and lunar cycles to reinforce societal behavior. For instance, we were told during the full-moon lecture at Pueblo Bonito, at the solstice, the date was set for a ceremonial during which people recommitted to the community, “to do good.” If they failed to hold the ceremony and the people had been “bad,” the sun would continue south and the earth would die. The recommitment assured the sun of the people’s devotion to each other and the world, and it began its return.

What was practiced at Peñasco Blanco was ancient when the great house was new. We were assured by the Ranger, it is still part of today’s puebloan ceremonials, so sacred it cannot be talked about publicly less it offend the sun and it continues south on its journey through time.

Posted by Bur Russo

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cretaceous Fossils: Older than Chaco

There are things in Chaco Canyon older than the stone ruins. The stone from which the pueblos were built was cut from the 400-foot-tall sandstone bluffs remaining where the wash has eroded them.

The sandstone formed from a seabed of 60 to 80 million years ago. Any examination of the sandstone quickly reveals things that look like twisted, corroded rebar. It’s not.

During the Cretaceous a shrimp-like crustacean burred into the sandy seabed, creating a network of tunnels. To keep the tunnels from collapsing from sea wave motions, these crustaceans cemented sand particles to the walls.

As the ocean receded, heavy particles of iron, mercury, and other minerals suspended in the water settled into the and filled the crustaceans’ abandoned tunnels. The particles hardened as the seabed dried. The time and the weight of sediments laying on top compressed the sand into sandstone.

So while the crustacean is long gone, its home remains ... just like the Chacoans.

Posted by Bud Russo

Saturday, May 21, 2011

If Only The Walls Could Talk!

Type I Wall Type II Wall

Type III Wall Type IV Wall

If these walls could talk what would they say? We’ve all heard that before, but a Chaco Culture NHP, I really wanted the walls to have the power of communication.

We toured Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great houses, with Ranger Adrian Jones, who talked of the history of the pueblo. He pointed out the four types of walls found in the canyon.

The walls at Chaco were first just slabs of sandstone laid in such a way as to reinforce each other. The wall was relatively weak and would support only a single story. It was also as rough on the outside as it was in the center of the core. But construction evolved at Chaco over the 3-1/2 centuries it was occupied. Builders began to face the rough Type I wall with a veneer. With each successive style ... there are four types of walls ... the veneers became smoother, stones fit tighter, and there was increasing artistry in the construction. “Ah,” I thought. “I see.” Only I didn’t.

Ranger Jones told us, after building the walls, the Chacoans plastered them inside and out. That sort of made sense, too. Lighter colored plaster increased reflection from light sources. Plaster made a smoother wall. It gave the building a uniform consistency.

Why, then, would the people have gone to so much trouble to build walls with beautiful veneers if they were only going to plaster over them? Were they just building styles that reflected changing generational ideas of how things were done and have no particular significance, including artistry? What was the purpose of investing so much time and energy in something no one would see? Was it sort of like a woman wearing fancy underwear no one but her ever sees just because it makes her feel good? Was there a self-serving satisfaction the builders derived knowing beneath the plaster lay their remarkable work?

Or ... is there something more going on? Is there meaning in the distinctive patterns, meanings we can not know? Something of which we are unaware and can never fathom just from looking at the walls?

I sat and studied the patterns. I might as well have been watching paint dry for all the good it did me in expanding my understanding. I photographed each style in various pueblos and I look at them now ... each style is represented in the blog from Type I to Type IV, left to right ... and all I see is artistic architecture that I might find anywhere someone is working with sandstone. You be the judge and help me understand the why.

Posted by Bud Russo

Friday, May 20, 2011

First Impressions: Chaco Culture NHP

Chaco: the name evokes ancient mystery. Chaco: home to Americans from approximately 850 A.D. until 1150 A.D. Then ... so the early theories go ... they disappeared. Vanished. Of course, they didn’t. In the face of insurmountable drought, they migrated to land where they could live. They became today’s Acoma and Zuni. Those who traveled south to Paquimé live at today’s Casas Grande in Mexico. The Chacoans didn’t disappear. They are with us today.

But the mysteries surrounding Chaco persist. We came to Chaco May 15 to learn what we could about this fascinating remnant of human history. The Ranger, in his recounting, tells us they who how Chaco came to be and when, but they don’t know why.

Chaco canyon runs southeast to northwest. Water drains from higher elevations to the south into the wash that formed the mile wide canyon, cut through hundreds of feet of sandstone. The Chaco River, as the dry bed is known, when wet, drains into the San Juan and finally the Colorado. The sandstone bluffs are the result of sand bedding ancient shallow seas that covered the central part of what today is North America.

Within the canyon proper are a dozen great houses, immense stone pueblos. They range from Wijiji in the southeast about a dozen miles to Pueblo Peñasco in the northwest but high atop the bluff. This was the center of the universe for these people and it was the focus of power that controlled more than 40,000 square miles and more than 100 other pueblos across the Colorado Plateau and San Juan Basin.

With so many villages and so much land, you’d think Chaco was inhabited by tens of thousands of people. That wasn’t so. Total population ranged closer to 2,000 upwards to maybe 8,000 [and that number is contested]. Pueblo Bonito, the largest great house with over 700 rooms, may have been home to less than 200 people.

As I digest all that I saw and experienced, I will write more. But for now I have more questions than answers. I wonder about these people; who they were, why they chose this place to live and for what purpose. I am convinced something special took place here. Life wasn’t static. Society evolved over 3-1/2 centuries, more than 10 generations. The actual meaning of what when on here is lost in time.

No matter how carefully scientists search, no matter how they analyze and compare data, we will never really know the full story of chaco.

Posted by Bud Russo