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The Mystery Of Chaco Canyon

Airs Wednesday, July 3, 2019 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Del Arroyo lightning, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, N.M.

Credit: Copyright William Stone Photography

Above: Del Arroyo lightning, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, N.M.

Shining light on the astronomical brilliance of the austere civilization of Chaco Canyon Narrated by Robert Redford

Ever since she discovered the “Sun Dagger,” Anna Sofaer and her Solstice Project team of researchers have been exploring the enigmas posed by the massive prehistoric ruins in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

A new explanation of the mystery is emerging. For years archaeologists have assumed that Chaco Canyon was primarily an ancient trading center.

“The Mystery Of Chaco Canyon” reveals that, instead, Chaco was a complex ceremonial center with extraordinary astronomical alignments of buildings and roads.

Landscape, directions, sun and moon, and movement of shadow and light were used by the Chacoan builders to unite with a cosmic order.

The Mystery of Chaco Canyon - Preview

This program presents evidence that the Chacoan people expressed a complex solar and lunar cosmology in their magnificent architecture.

While the Chacoans left no written text, their thoughts are preserved in their works.

Drawing on 20 years of the Solstice Project’s research, assisted by NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey, the film details evidence for Chaco Canyon as a center of intense ceremonial life and an elegant cosmology.

Aerial and time-lapse footage, computer modeling, and interviews with scholars unveil how the Chaco culture designed, located, and oriented their major buildings and ‘roads’ in relationship to the sun and moon.

The great number of circular ritual structures, called kivas, tell of large-scale ceremonies, possibly drawing thousands of pilgrims from across the region of the Four Corners.

Photo credit: Copyright William Stone Photography

Casa Rinconada, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, N.M.

Engineered roads stretch across dozens of miles in straight lines to significant landforms, but with little evidence of travel or trade.

One such road, the Great North Road, connects the central canyon’s ceremonial buildings across 35 miles of desert to a steep badlands canyon in the North – a direction of profound significance to descendant Pueblo people.

These achievements emerged a thousand years ago in the exceptionally demanding environment of New Mexico’s San Juan Basin.

Photo credit: Copyright William Stone Photography

Pueblo Bonito in winter, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, N.M.

To construct their multi-storied buildings, the Chaco people transported by foot more than 200,000 timbers to the canyon – and most of their food and ceramics – from more productive lands 55 to 70 miles away.

Surprisingly, these buildings that required such large investment of labor and planning reveal little evidence of residential use. It appears that they served instead as centers of great spiritual power.

Photo credit: Copyright William Stone Photography

Peñasco Blanco with full moon, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, N.M.

Contemporary Pueblo Indians, descendants of the Chacoans, speak in the film of the spiritual significance of Chaco in their world today.

They recall the brilliant knowledge of the ancestors that gave them control over natural forces, but suggest also the corrupting effect of such power.

They describe the deliberate action of their ancestors to seal off the buildings and these aspects of their past.

Today, the legacy of the extraordinary Chaco culture is threatened by both natural and human developments.

Photo credit: Copyright William Stone Photography

Pueblo Pintado Pano, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, N.M.

“The Solstice Project and Anna Sofaer give us a new view of Chaco Canyon and ancient North America correcting long-standing prejudices: the colonial insistence of savages on a continent that was, in fact, teeming with cities and civilizations… Sometimes it takes a jolt or shock to open our eyes to reality, and the Solstice Project has been high amperage.”Stephen Lekson, Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado Boulder, editor of "The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico"

"I am grateful to Anna Sofaer for involving me in her decades-long passion to explain this extraordinary and magical place."Robert Redford

“The video... becomes part of the ongoing dialogue between archeologists, anthropologists, and native peoples... [It's] a multi-level phenomenon, like Chaco, which embraces complexity, beauty, and mystery.”Rina Swentzell, Architect, Santa Clara Pueblo

"A stunning piece of work – the graphics are astounding and the entire production is powerful." — Dr. R. Gwinn Vivian, Ex-Curator of Archaeology at the Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona


Directed by Anna Sofaer. Produced by The Solstice Project. Narrated by Robert Redford. Written by Anna Sofaer and Matt Dibble. Music by Michael Stearns.


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