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Astronomical Images of the Southwest: From Petroglyphs to Telescopes


Astronomy has been an important aspect of cultures for thousands of years as evidenced by surviving texts, such as those from the Greeks, the Chinese, and the Babylonians. In the American southwest, however, there are no written texts to examine. Instead, there is rock art. These relics offer evidence that the lost cultures of the southwest were deeply tied to the skies, and though they mysteriously disappeared about one thousand years ago, astronomy remains important to the southwest.

My interest in ancient astronomies began with my first class when I became a part-time student in 1996...

(Below is the outline for my presentation on 11/29/05. DLD)

The Past - Rock Art

Overview of Archaeoastronomy - Ancient Astronomies, Anthropology 101. 11.12.96.

What are petroglyphs? What is a pictograph?

Chaco Canyon

bullet National Park Service - Chaco Culture
Exploratorium - Ancient Observatories
bullet PlanetQuest - The Sun Dagger at Chaco Canyon
The Solstice Project
bullet Supernova 1054, Creation of the Crab Nebula
bullet Symbols of Indigenous People

Tucson Mountains

bullet ParkVision - Saguaro National Park, Signal Hill

The Present - Telescopes

Astronomy in the Southwest

bullet University of Arizona - Tucson
Department of Astronomy & Steward Observatory
Department of Planetary Sciences, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
bullet International Dark Sky Association - Tucson


bullet Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff
bullet University of Arizona Telescopes - Tucson
bullet Vatican Observatory - Tucson
bullet United States Naval Observatory - Flagstaff

Future of Astronomy in the Southwest

bullet Space Port in New Mexico
bullet Missions at the U of A, ASU, Lowell Observatory

To the Moon, Mars, and Beyond




The Spirit of the Spiral

A couple of weeks ago I visited Saguaro National Park West to see the local offering of rock art. It was a warm autumn day, about mid-afternoon.  The sun flooded the arid desert and a dry breeze slithered about. As I drove on this quiet Sunday afternoon, I basked in the serenity of the scene.

I had taken the southern route to the park, though coming from the north on Picture Rocks Road would have been closer. The bag on the floor next to me held everything I would need for my outing: binoculars, digital camera, rock art reference book, astronomy-motif baseball cap, and of course, plenty of water. My first destination was the visitor's center to get a map to Signal Hill.

After a quick stop at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for directions, I arrived at the visitor's center. I was surprised to find only a few cars in the parking lot. I thought it would be crowded on such a lovely day.

As I walked up to the building, I beheld a breath-taking view of the saguaro forest perfectly framed by the arch of the architecture. The sun cast an autumn shade of yellow, deepening the olivine color of the mighty cacti. Tourists took pictures, while others sat drinking in the magnificent sight.

I pushed through the door on my left and walked to the circular counter where I was greeted by Shannon. She wore a tan-colored uniform and her features told of her heritage. I wondered what tribe she was from, but thought it would be impolite to ask. Instead I asked where to find the petroglyphs.

Shannon reached around the cash register and picked up a copy of the park's newspaper, The Saguaro Sentinel. She opened the paper to a map of the park and showed me the route from the visitor's center. It was just up the road.

I then asked Shannon if she had any information on petroglyphs to add to my references. I told her I had a book that defined what rock art symbols meant. She seemed to scoff. The meanings of sacred symbols are not to be shared, she said. They represent her heritage and if it is shared with others, her people will lose their identity. She confessed she did not know the meanings of the ancient symbols. According to her grandmother, she was still too young. I would guess she was in her mid-30s.

I told Shannon I understood, though I did think it a great loss for us with a genuine interest and a true appreciation of other cultures. She agreed. I paid the park fee, took a quick look around the center, its  displays and books for sale, and headed on my merry way.  

As I drove away from the visitor's center, I replayed our conversation in my head. It was first-hand proof of what Professor Alvarez had said earlier in the semester: that Native Americans do not like to share their culture with outsiders. I also found in one reference that those who do disclose tribal secrets are referred to as "informants."

Signal Hill picnic area sits on the north side of the wash-board loop named Hohokam Road. The few tables were occupied by families enjoying the afternoon sun. I gathered my equipment and stepped on to the trail.

It was a short hike, crossing over a sandy wash, and spiraling up theSignal Hill 2.jpg (341825 bytes) hill on stone steps. Along the way a sign warned of rattlesnakes and a widening of the path offered a couple of benches for a short rest with a view of the hill top. As I looked up, there they were, images etched onto rocks, telling a story I probably would never understand.

I continued my trek up the hill, emerging from its shadow as I reached the summit. The late-afternoon sun...

...to be continued.

Saturn's Spiral


Updated 20.10.2022
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