Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Winter Solstice at Tempe Butte

On Sunday, December 22, Ellen Martin, Arizona ArchaeologicalSociety Phoenix Chapter member and Treasurer led an outing to observe the effects of the winter solstice on ancient petroglyphs at Tempe Butte (also known as Hayden Butte or A Mountain).  A long-time Tempe resident, Ellen has studied the rock art of Tempe Butte for many years; patiently, she has waited, observed, and photographed petroglyphs during the solstices and the equinoxes, noting different phenomenon that happen to certain rock art elements during each of these celestial events.
The group assembled at 10:30 a.m. near the light rail station on College and Veteran’s Way.  Ellen provided a brief history on the archaeology of the area.  She discussed the possible relationship of the Butte to La Plaza, a Hohokam village site located beneath the light rail station, ASU Stadium, and large portions of the ASU campus and Tempe.  She talked of the importance of the Butte to descendant tribal communities. Hohokam rock art was once abundant on the south side of Tempe Butte, where there remain today various outcrops covered with numerous rock art elements including geomorphic (spirals, wavy lines, etc) designs, human figures, and various animal forms.  Many rock art panels were destroyed by developments such as the Sun Devil Stadium and a water tower.  Some of the smaller panels were stolen; graffiti, too, remains an ongoing threat to these resources.

From 11:20 to about 11:45 a.m., the group watched the sun gradually illuminate a particular spiral, a shadow gradually receding from one corner to another until reaching the center of the spiral and quartering it as shown in the photograph.  Ellen has observed the spring equinox on this same spiral, where the shadow divides it in half.  What did this symbolize to the ancient Sonoran Desert people who created the petroglyphs? Spiral petroglyphs have been described as representing a number of different things to the people archaeologists call the Hohokam.  Some say they may have functioned as directional or calendar markers.  Others say they represented journeys or the ascension of the sun.

To go off-trail to get a closer look at or to photograph these amazing rock art panels, one must request a permit from the Tempe History Museum 

Posted by Laurene Montero, City Archaeologist for the City of Phoenix

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