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The Mystery of Chaco Canyon

Unveiling the ancient astronomy of southwestern Pueblo Indians.

A printer-friendly version of this page 56 minutes
Directed by Anna Sofaer
Produced by The Solstice Project
Narrated by Robert Redford
Written by Anna Sofaer and Matt Dibble
Music by Michael Stearns

"Well-paced and absorbing, simultaneously poetic and analytical, this film provides a new benchmark of understanding." Peter Whiteley, Chair, Dept. of Anthropology, Sarah Lawrence College
NOTE: This program is available on home video for personal use only. Please order under Home Video. Closed Captioning available for VHS format only.

This is the long-awaited sequel to Anna Sofaer's classic film THE SUN DAGGER, which changed forever our perception of America's earliest Indian peoples.

THE MYSTERY OF CHACO CANYON examines the deep enigmas presented by the massive prehistoric remains found in Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico. It is the summation of 20 years of research. The film reveals that between 850 and 1150 AD, the Chacoan people designed and constructed massive ceremonial buildings in a complex celestial pattern throughout a vast desert region. Aerial and time lapse footage, computer modeling, and interviews with scholars show how the Chacoan culture designed, oriented and located its major buildings in relationship to the sun and moon. Pueblo Indians, descendants of the Chacoan people, regard Chaco as a place where their ancestors lived in a sacred past. Pueblo leaders speak of the significance of Chaco to the Pueblo world today.

The film challenges the notion that Chaco Canyon was primarily a trade and redistribution center. Rather it argues that it was a center of astronomy and cosmology and that a primary purpose for the construction of the elaborate Chacoan buildings and certain roads was to express astronomical interests and to be integral parts of a celestial patterning.

While the Chacoans left no written text to help us to understand their culture, their thoughts are preserved in the language of their architecture, roads and light markings. Landscape, directions, sun and moon, and movement of shadow and light were the materials used by the Chacoan architects and builders to express their knowledge of an order in the universe.

Note: The VHS version of this film is closed-captioned, but the DVD version is not.

Grade Level: 7-12, College, Adult
US Release Date: 1999     Copyright Date: 1999
DVD ISBN: 1-56029-999-1     VHS ISBN: 1-56029-813-8

"From the pyramids and temples of Egypt, to England's Stonehenge, (ancient peoples) locked their buildings to the movements of the sky gods. Now, with a definitive study, Anna Sofaer shows that the Pueblo cultures of the southwest US deserts were a high climax to this bonding with the sky...Certainly Chaco was the great center of civilization in North America, long before Columbus landed."
Dr. Gerald S. Hawkins, Commissioner, History of Astronomy, International Astronomical Union

"A captivating look at one of the most impressive archaeological sites in North America...Anna Sofaer reveals the solar and lunar complexity of Chacoan buildings with impressive visual economy and clarity. In the process, we get a whole new picture of the intelligence at work behind Chacoan society and its architecture...The Mystery of Chaco Canyon interweaves a narrative that is both attentive to indigenous thought and values, and robustly grounded in the rigors of scientific method. Well-paced and absorbing, simultaneously poetic and analytical, this film provides a new benchmark of understanding for serious studies of ancestral-Pueblo astronomy and culture."
Peter Whiteley, Chair, Dept. of Anthropology, Sarah Lawrence College

"It does an outstanding job of weaving Pueblo traditions of migration and human agency into scientific accounts of the past at Chaco Canyon, affording both forms of knowledge the respect they deserve...helps place Pueblo people in their contemporary context, as well as explain the past...I highly recommend it."
Dr. T.J. Ferguson, Anthropologist/Archaeologist

"A stunning piece--the graphics are astounding and the entire production is powerful."
Dr. R. Gwinn Vivian, former Curator of Archaeology, Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona

"I highly recommend this video for anthropological, sociological, and American studies classes."
Dr. Brad Eden, UNLV, MC Journal

"Make(s) a compelling case for this ancient people's astronomical prowess. The film argues that the massive multistory buildings and roads the Chacoans constructed in a forbidding stretch of what is now New Mexico were designed to form a vast, stunningly precise map of the yearly cycle of the sun and the 19-year cycle of the moon."
The Wall Street Journal

"A beautiful piece. The composition and photography could not have been better...the public...will eat it up and ask for more."
F. Joan Mathien, Archaeologist, National Park Service

"I rate this video a MUST-SEE for anyone interested in southwestern prehistory."
W. David Laird, Books of the Southwest

"The video, then, is a multi-leveled phenomenon, like Chaco, which embraces complexity, beauty and mystery."
Rina Swentzell, Architect, Santa Clara Pueblo

Select your institution type

DVD Features
The DVD contains the following special features: * 12 chapters for use in teaching * Comprehensive 78-page Teacher's Guide in PDF format on the DVD-ROM portion of the disc. Students will gain an understanding of: · The astronomical and archaeological achievements of early Native Americans · The importance of ceremony at Chaco Canyon · The connection of Chaco with the cultures of Mesoamerica; the relationship between the Chacoan people and contemporary Pueblo people; and the importance of sky watching and astronomical cycles to ancient cultures · How the concept of time differs among cultures · The evolution of scientific knowledge over time. The DVD is currently NOT closed captioned.

The Solstice Project web site
Study guide

Awards and Festivals
Silver Plaque, The Chicago International Television Competition
Bronze Plaque, Columbus International Film & Video Festival
Honorable Mention, The Archaeology Channel International Film & Video Festival
Taos Talking Picture Festival
American Museum of Natural History, New York
National Museum of National History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Aboriginal Voices Festival, Toronto
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival
Heard Museum Indigenous Film Festival

American Studies
History of Science
Indigenous Peoples
Native Americans
Physical Science
Social Psychology
Social Studies
Western US

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Coming to Light
An in-depth portrait of Edward S. Curtis, the preeminent photographer of North American Indians.

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