Baker Aerial Archaeology's Chaco Project
For over a decade Baker Aerial Archaeology has been locating
and photographing the vestiges of the ancient Chaco world, which
can still be seen from the air throughout Four Corners area of
the American Southwest. We hope our observations and photographs
will help shed some light on the enigmas of Chaco culture, such
as the purpose of Chaco roads and such mysterious features as
the large circular imprints (so-called "aureolas") that
can be seen near some Chaco outlier towns in aerial views (see
In future updates of this newsletter, different aspects of aerial
investigations of Chaco culture will be presented, with photographs
such as the one below.
Circle," a Chaco "Outlier" with Aureola (ca. 1100
Explanation of Aureola Photo:
(One of the great things about the World Wide Web is that
we are now able to get photos like this out before the interested
public. This image is part of a collection that Tom Baker is making
for eventual publication in a book about the aerial archaeology
of the American Southwest. Others will be featured here in updates
of the website).
In May of 1992 we were flying our photo aircraft over the Navajo
Indian reservation between Gallup, New Mexico and the Hopi Mesas
of Arizona when Lee Baker, piloting the aircraft, spotted this
circular imprint on the desert floor. A closer look confirmed
that it was a Chaco "greathouse" ruin with an associated
"aureola," as these mysterious circles have come to
be called by Chaco researchers. The greathouse is the faint square
imprint at the upper left part of the circle.
To give a sense of the scale: the straight, light-colored lines
across the circle are automobile tracks. The larger road running
from left to right is a two lane unpaved road, and a modern homestead
(house and outbuildings) may be seen in the upper right, with
its driveway leading out to the road.
Aureolas: Celestial Observatories?
What might an aureola be? No one can say, of course, and there
hasn't even been much speculation, at least in print. The question
appears to baffle everyone. Adhering to the archaeologist's penchant
for calling everything that he can't explain "ceremonial,"
we could speculate that an aureola was an avenue for ceremonial
processions, or footraces (today some Pueblo tribes do stage ceremonial
races, but not on circular courses. Perhaps their ancestors did
A better guess, or at least a more likely possibility, in our
opinion, is that an aureola is what remains of a prehistoric astronomical
observatory, a "woodhenge" of sorts, for regulating
a calendar, similar to the so-called "medicine wheels"
of the Great Plains (which are circles and lines of stones that
show consistent astronomical alignments). Chaco society was, after
all, based on agriculture, and the timing of agricultural activities
would have been all-important to it. Several such observatories
scattered about the region (as aureolas in fact are) could have
regulated the crop growing cycles of the ancient Chaco world.
If this was the case, we can envision the resident astronomer-priest
in his observatory (the "greathouse") adjacent to the
aureola, daily watching the sun, moon and stars rise and set over
posts set upright in the great ring, with his runners ready to
take to the Chaco roads to broadcast his pronouncements of the
arrivals of important dates. Careful excavation of an aureola
(and no one has ever done it, to our knowledge) might uncover
evidence of sighting posts like those once set into a similar
ring at the great mound city of Cahokia in the American Midwest
(Illinois), a culture roughly contemporary with Chaco. The Cahokia
ring, which has been reconstructed (with a center pole and posts
set upright around the ring) has also been called a calendar.
The Maya to the south of Chaco country had very sophisticated
astronomical observatories that were important to daily Maya life,
as demonstrated in their books and stone carvings.
In future Newsletter updates, Tom Baker will develop this aureola/observatory
idea further, illustrating it with more aerial photos of Chaco
Write us at <email@example.com>
if you have your own ideas on the subject. With enough response
we could start a discussion on this page.
Also on this page in upcoming Newsletter issues: Chaco Roads (with
photos), and: "Where Does Chaco's Great North Road Go?"