Equinox Light Show At
By Carl Lehrburger

updated information

   for newly published Ancient American magazine articles on The Pathfinder by Carl Lehrburger, see these .pdf files:

   2005, 'Ancient Colorado Rock Art Site Employs Light Animation to Mark Equinoxes: Astronomical Alignments Predate Anasazi Civilization' Part One, Issue 65, 10:12-17 download .pdf 1.2 MB, 6 pages

   2006, 'Pathfinder Petroglyphs and Possible Associations with Native American Mythology' Part Two, Issue 66, 10:15-19 download .pdf 1.8 MB, 5 pages

Traveling through Southeast Colorado, one expects to see flat grasslands and prairie terrain. But the Purgatoire River flowing east from the Rocky Mountains has created an expansive valley traversed by a profusion of canyons and sub-canyons. These canyons contain ancient records of earlier inhabitants carved into the rock. Petroglyphs at hundreds of different sites can be found in a 10,000 square mile area south of the Arkansas River and more are being discovered every year.
The diversity of rock art styles in the Purgatoire Valley of southeastern Colorado indicate that many different peoples inhabited this land at different times. Many different styles of petroglyphs, or rock carvings, are found in the area, including abstract, representational, calendrical, parallel lines, and what may be epigraphic inscriptions in Old World scripts. Petroglyphs were created by pecking or abrading images into flat rock surfaces with worked stone, bone, or antler. Rock art styles found in Southeast Colorado include 100 year old cowboy pictures and writing, 400-year-old Plains Indian petroglyphs, a 1,000-year-old pictorial style, and a 4,000-year-old abstract style. Modern-day graffiti also is present at many sites. The proximity of the area to Folsom, New Mexico means that even earlier inhabitants of North America, creators of the famous "Folsom points" more than 8,000 years ago may have also used the Purgatoire River valleys as hunting grounds.
The inscribed images left in rock by these ancients are not limited to the numerous examples of rock art and petroglyphs, but include working calenders. Calendrical functions of the rock art have been discovered in the last several decades on both sides of the Rocky Mountains: at many Anasazi sites in the four-corners region West of the Rockies and in Southeast Colorado South of the Arkansas River.
A relatively new field of academic study, archaeoastronomy, investigates how the ancients applied astronomy in their lives, as well as in their art and architecture. The most famous and significant archaeo-astronomical site includes Stonehenge in England, Chichen Itza' in southern Mexico, and Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico USA. Because of the Earth's seasonal movement, a shadow cast by the sun on a petroglyph moves measurably everyday of the year, except near the times of the solstices. The term solstice refers to the most northerly and southerly horizon positions of the sun in June and December. The secrets of these monumental sites were unraveled by understanding that the stones are aligned with the sun on these important days of the year. Who could have imaged that Southeast Colorado is dotted with ancient calendars etched in stone? Dozens of these sites provide compelling evidence that the early inhabitants of this region possessed the knowledge to recognize the equinoxes and other calendrical events.
Over the years, I have made regular pilgrimages to La Junta, Colorado to work with Bill McGlone, a pioneer in discovering and interpreting archaeological sites in Southeast Colorado. Bill's books on the subject include Petroglyphs of Southeast Colorado and the Oklahoma Panhandle, Archaeoastronomy of Southeast Colorado and the Oklahoma Panhandle, and Ancient American Inscriptions: Plow Marks or History?, Bill attracted a band of explorers, ranchers, and amateur archeologists, usually around the time of the equinox, to assist in checking astronomical alignments at newly identifed petroglyph sites. New sites are being discovered every year that have astronomical significance. Most petroglyph sites do not have this calendrical intention associated with them, but over two dozen sites have been located that indicate an intentional solar alignment on an important celestial day.
Equinox sunrise is an event recorded by these ancient peoples, but we also see equinox sunset and solstice sunrise and sunset sites. Equinox occurs twice a year in March and September when night and day are equal and the sun rises and sets due East and West. Ancient cultures around the world used different techniques to establish their calendar sites to determine the precise time of the equinox, presumably for both crop planting and ritual purposes. In Southeast Colorado, as in early Mexico, Europe and Asia, sky watching, recording, and evaluation was a pre-occupation.
The most common type of ancient calendar discovered by McGlone involves a shadow hitting a specific symbol or target engraved on a rock face. We accept these sites as calendars partly because the suns shadow fits the target area only on a specific day. Because intent is such an important issue and may be complex it is not discussed here. For a more thorogh examination of this issue, see Archaeoastronomy of Southeast Colorado and the Oklahoma Panhandle or Ancient American Inscriptions: Plow Marks or History?.
Intentional interplay between the light and shadow can be also observed on common modern sundials. The edge of the shadow cast by a gnomen onto a sundial face will establish the time of day. In the case of the ancient calendars, the edge of a shadow or a beam of light will enter or hit a target on a specific day of the year and at a specific time of day as indexed by the petroglyph featues or the position of the sun (i.e. moment of sunrise or sunset or sun).
I observed such an alignment on the spring equinox at the Pathfinder site, a spectacular and newly discovered pristine petroplyph complex with astronomic significance. The Pathfinder is located high above the Purgatoire River valley South of La Junta, Colorado. It was orginally discovered in 1996. Pathfinder is formed by two huge boulders that have fallen into a tent-like cave structure high above the Purgatoire River valley. McGlone and a colleague recognized that Pathfinder had the potential for being a calendar site because it receives direct sunlight at the moment of first light on Pathfinders's rock face, a distinct shadow is cast from an adjacent rock onto a prominent and unique target-like petroglyph indicating the potential for marking time.

Pathfinder is a 40 X 12 foot slab of sandstone rock with a flat, East facing surface covered with petroglyphs. A large boulder to the East leans onto the southern half of the Pathfinder, creating a cave. The extended northern part of the Pathfinder panel is exposed to the direct sunlight at sunrise with a distinct shadow cast by the adjoining boulder. Approaching Pathfinder, visitors encounter what has been termed the howling dog petroglyph. It can also be called the 8-Dog petroglyph because it has eight dots on its body. It has an interesting stream of symbolic figures emanating from its mouth, including pecked footsteps which climb the vertical Pathfinder rock face toward the sky. It is surrounded by animals and symbols, making a complex and stunning panel.
To the South of 8-Dog, more petroglyphs are distinguishable. Most notable is a large wing-like or sail-like image with horizontal lines. This is the equinox Target for the shadow created by the adjacent boulder to the East. The Target and the 8-Dog glyphs are the largest and most prominent petroglyphs on Pathfinder. Below the Target are a series of petroglyphs including a human figure, abstract and representational animal glyphs.
At sunrise on the day of the equinox, the 8-Dog glyph is illuminated by the first light. The shadow created by the adjacent boulder emerges at dawn and begins to engulf the Target. As the shadow fills the Pathfinder Target, the edge of the shadow closely fits the outer edge of the target petroglyph. As the sun rises, the shadow edge moves down and fits the northern outline of the Target. Although the shadow does not fit the notch at the top of the Target, the fit of the shadow on the edge of the rest of the Target demonstrates that this is an equinox calendar. The shadow casting rock may have been worn down in the area which casts the shadow onto the Target that has less than an exact fit.

Just below and to the right of the Target their appears to be a human-like figure lying down. The sun's shadow splits this glyph, leaving the head of the pecked character in sunlight. Can this be part of the ancients' solar mythology pecked into stone? Other examples have been found in the region where pecked sun symbols emerge into shadows or into the light on the equinox, most notably at the Anubis Cave (see Ancient American Inscriptions: Plow Marks or History?).
Moving to the South of Pathfinder from the 8-Dog petroglyph panel and the Target panel, one enters the cave-like crevice created by the large boulder and Pathfinder. Because of the confined space, it is difficult to make out the petroglyphs from this point on. After many trips to the site and after studying details of photographs, three more large petroglyph panels are apparent. They all include horseshoe images and animals. At least two different styles of snakes, a moutain goat and different types of birds can be clearly distinguished.
Near the bottom edge of Pathfinder deeper into the cave, where one must lie on the ground to see the glyphs, a goddess-like looking figure with a snake or river descending from her legs is distinguishable. Above this petroglyph figure the panel has unfortunately been damaged over time as a result of water running down the rock face and all the petroglyphs are no longer clearly seen.A large buffalo-like animal is central and stands above the figure at the bottom. Crawling along the bottom toward the South I finally reach the Southern most edge of Pathfinder, where a 13 inch hunter-like figure can be observed. He is very worn and appears quite old and is the first glyph one sees looking out from of the Pathfinder cave toward the Purgatoire Valley to the North.
Is there really a goddess reaching for a tree-like petroglyph pecked into the rock, or merely a "turkey foot" as one observer remarked? The representational glyphs appear newer than the more abstract motifs. Does Pathfinder tell one story or many stories of several peoples from different times? Only with more study will we be able to answer these questions for sure.
It was only after several trips and careful study of many photographs that Pathfinder's images became clearer. Because of the cave-like conditions for much of the rock face, it is not possible to observe or photograph Pathfinder in its entirety while on site. Only by drawing details of the photos taken of specific glyphs, recreating the major petroglyph panels and then piecing the recreated panels together was it possible to get a more complete picture of what is there. What emerges is a series of five connected panels of petroglyphs. Each series is unique yet there are shared characters and symbols. At least two different styles of petroglyphs can be seen: earlier abstract characters and figures and later representational petroglyphs. There are also unique sequences of parallel lines, many worn and almost unrecognizable abstract pecked lines could not be seen well enough to distinguish or to draw.
Although most of the animals and human-like figures may be recognizable, many of the symbols and the story Pathfinder's creators preserved in stone will likely remain enigmatic to modern observers. However elusive these petroglyphs may be, the recognition that the Pathfinder Target seves a calendrical function is a major step toward understanding both the Pathfinder and the ancients who created it. We modern people may never know or understand what what the creators of Pathfinder's fantastic images had in mind. But we do now know that they used their knowledge of the suns apparent movement in the sky to compute and record the equinoxes and possibly other regular calendrical events at Pathfinder. In this manner, they practices and celebrated along with other ancient people from around the world a common science and religion: observing and celebrating the seasons, marked by the equinoxes and the solstices.
Pathfinder teaches us that there are great discoveries still to be made in the most unsuspecting places. As the secrets of Pathfinder and other archaeoastronomical sites found throughout the American Southwest come to light, we learn more about the richness of our land and our history, and gain a greater respect for those who came before us.
Carl Lehrburger is a Boulder, Colorado-based entrepreneur and explorer. He is Chairman of PureVision Technology, Inc. (www.purevisiontechnology.com), a research and development company pioneering waste recovery technologies.
All photos and drawings by author.
You can contact Carl at carl@purevisiontechnology.com

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