Winter solstice tour reveals mystery of the ancients' sun calendars

A pointed shadow moves across ancient petroglyphs depicting gods of the sun, death and water. This is one of several sun calendars at the Ute Mountain Tribal Park that marks the winter solstice. The park was open for a special tour Saturday guided by Virginia Wolf, an expert in archaeoastronomy who has done extensive work documenting sun calendars in the park. Enlargephoto

Mary Shinn/The Mancos Times

A pointed shadow moves across ancient petroglyphs depicting gods of the sun, death and water. This is one of several sun calendars at the Ute Mountain Tribal Park that marks the winter solstice. The park was open for a special tour Saturday guided by Virginia Wolf, an expert in archaeoastronomy who has done extensive work documenting sun calendars in the park.

Shadows stretched over ancient spirals etched into the rock at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park on Saturday, marking the winter solstice as they have for more than 1,000 years.

“Let the stones talk to you. If you don't, you might as well be looking at a photograph,” said Jim Colleran, an archaeologist and the program director for the McElmo Canyon Research Institute.

The tribal park, located southwest of Mesa Verde, is home to several sun calendars that mark the winter solstice and thousands of ruins left by the same ancient people who lived at Mesa Verde. The park opened Saturday for a tour led by Virginia Wolf, an expert in archaeoastronomy who has worked extensively in the park and was the first to document many of the sites.

In the golden light of the afternoon, a pointed shadow sliced through the ancient gods of the sun, death, water, earth, and others until reaching a man-made groove. Almost all the same gods are present in Hopi traditions, leading archaeologists to believe they are the descendants of the people who lived in this area.

Each site is very unique. At one, the shadow of an overhanging rock perfectly pierces the heart of a turtle pecked into the rock and five nearby depressions. At another, a shadow moves across a spiral perfectly aligning with the five tick marks beneath it at five-minute intervals.

These sun calendars were very valuable to the ancient people as they became more focused on farming and rain. According to Wolf, they believed that if religious rituals were completed on winter solstice, it would make the gods take notice of their needs.

The phenomenal shadows marking the solstice are visible for about seven days before and after the day of the solstice, which falls on Dec. 21. One of them also marks the summer solstice.

Unlike Mesa Verde, which has been highly excavated, the Ute Mountain Tribal Park is run by the Ute Mountain Ute and has been left almost untouched.

Pieces of ancient pottery from many different time periods are scattered on the ground, and in some cases, only the very tops of the ruins are visible.

That was the appeal for some on the tour.

“It's closer to what any of the early archaeologists would have seen,” said Laura Hall, the treasurer-elect of the Hisatsinom Chapter of the Colorado Archaeology Society.

Wolf and Colleran led the group down primitive trails and up rugged slopes to see the sun calendars at the height of their activity.

“That's the beauty of the Tribal Park – you see things as they were. You can really reach into the past,” Colleran said.

Wolf has led winter solstice tours every other winter in recent years. But the park is open summerlong for half-day, full-day and private tours.

Virginia Wolf, tour guide/archaeologist, points out the meaning of the wall art on the winter solstice tour. Enlargephoto

Heather D’Agnese/Mancos Times

Virginia Wolf, tour guide/archaeologist, points out the meaning of the wall art on the winter solstice tour.

Pottery shards have been found from several different time periods. Enlargephoto

Heather D’Agnese/The Mancos Times

Pottery shards have been found from several different time periods.

The tour group heads up to the first site that was featured on the tour. Enlargephoto

Heather D’Agnese/The Mancos Times

The tour group heads up to the first site that was featured on the tour.

Laura Hall, Sissy Seeley and Dan Gerhardt look at the side of the Mesa, using binoculars to view the spirals that are engraved on the cliff face. Enlargephoto

Heather D’Agnese/The Mancos Times

Laura Hall, Sissy Seeley and Dan Gerhardt look at the side of the Mesa, using binoculars to view the spirals that are engraved on the cliff face.

Heather D’Agnese/The Mancos Times Enlargephoto

The tour group looks at the Mesa foothills at the end of the tour.

Heather D’Agnese/The Mancos Times

Peggy Youngs and Price Coleman look on as the sun creates a unique shadow on the turtle rock formation. The shadows shown on the rocks during this tour only happen during Winter Solstice. Enlargephoto

Heather D’Agnese/The Mancos Times

Peggy Youngs and Price Coleman look on as the sun creates a unique shadow on the turtle rock formation. The shadows shown on the rocks during this tour only happen during Winter Solstice.

Virginia Wolf, the tour guide and archaeologist, points out the meaning of the wall art on the Winter Solstice Tour. Enlargephoto

Heather D’Agnese/The Mancos Times

Virginia Wolf, the tour guide and archaeologist, points out the meaning of the wall art on the Winter Solstice Tour.

Sissy Seeley and Joan Snater look at the different shards of pottery left behind from long ago. Enlargephoto

Heather D’Agnese/The Mancos Times

Sissy Seeley and Joan Snater look at the different shards of pottery left behind from long ago.