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  • Summer Solstice Sites in Southwestern Arizona

    Introduction by Andy Laurenzi, Southwest Field Representative

    Great Bend of the Gila 1

    Doug Newton and fellow stewards at the solstice marker at Sears Point Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Click to enlarge.

    Of the several rewarding elements of my job, meeting and traveling with site stewards is certainly one of the most enjoyable. As our first line of defense in our collective efforts to safeguard ancient sites, site stewards have been monitoring sites for many years and, apart from some agency archaeologists, often know the archaeological resources in a particular area better than anyone.

    Petroglyph Panel at Gila Bend

    Doug Newton below one of the larger panels at Sears Point ACEC. Click to enlarge.

    Over the last few years, Tonopah-area regional site steward Doug Newton has introduced me to many fascinating places in the Great Bend area. In this post, Doug shares his thoughts on our recent visit to Sears Point. Doug and I were joined on this trip by his fellow Tonopah-area stewards Brett Murphy, Bob Harvey, and Richard Wilmes.

    Now, here’s Doug Newton:

    A few years back, the Tonopah site stewards began to visit sites in southwestern Arizona that might be considered places from which the summer solstice sunrise could be observed. What we were looking for are locations in which the features would align with 60 degrees east of true north. Todd Bostwick, current Director of the Verde Valley Archaeology Center, reported in 2002 that this is the point at which summer solstice sunrise will occur in the Salt River valley.

    Petroglyph panel below solstice marker

    Petroglyph panel below solstice marker. Click to enlarge.

    At some sites on the bluffs overlooking the Gila River, we found long rock alignments lined up at 60 degrees; at another site, we found that if you climbed to the top of a hill, stood in a small, man-made depression, and looked to the northeast, you would see two boulders, naturally placed, narrowly separated from each other. At sunrise on summer solstice, the sun would rise in the gap between the boulders, and on the east-facing side of these boulders were petroglyphs of concentric circles or other sun symbols. At other sites near habitation sites or petroglyph fields, we found small cleared areas on hilltops that provided a great view of the eastern horizon. There appear to be many ways to observe this event using the natural environment to provide the alignment.

    Approaching hillside rock circle

    Doug, Brett, Rich and Rob approaching the hillside rock circle or possible sun geoglyph. Click to enlarge.

    This year, we visited Sears Point to observe summer solstice sunrise at two locations. The first site appears to be a place  where you can determine when summer solstice  occurs. The site consists of a large boulder with a naturally occurring notch on its east side, on the edge of the mesa. The notch aligns with a line  made in the desert pavement that, in turn, lines up with boulders on the southwest side  of the notch boulder. When you place yourself within the boulders to the southwest and line up with the line and the notch, the sun will rise close to the center of the notch. Hoskinson, an astrophysicist who we visited this site with along with Bomar Johnson, a former BLM archaeologist based in Yuma, Arizona, found that this alignment is at 61.5 degrees east of true north, so that today the alignment is slightly off-center. He estimates that this site might be 1,500 years old, at which time the alignment would have been accurate, based on calculated changes in the sun’s declination.

    Gila Bend Sunrise

    Sunrise as seen from the alignment marker. Click to enlarge.

    The second site at Sears Point consists of a circle of eighteen basalt boulders placed on the side of a hill that faces northeast. Each of the boulders has a line of small rocks 1 to 2 meters in length that immediately strike you as rays. At the center of the circle of boulders are smaller set of rocks placed in a concentric circle with quartz rocks at the center of the concentric circle. Immediately north of the rock circle is a trail segment that runs from the base of the slope roughly 50 meters to top of a low hill and ends in no particular location. If you stand at the base of the large circle and look northeast towards 60 degrees, you will find that you are looking between two groups of basaltic cliffs, and that you will see the same place on the horizon that sunrise occurs as that found at the first site. You would not be able to use this site to determine when summer solstice occurs, but it might be a place to celebrate the event.

    Sighting along the rock alignment.

    Sighting along the rock alignment. Click to enlarge.


    Bostwick, T. 2002. Landscape of the Spirits. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona.

    Hoskinson, Tom. 1992.  Saguaro Wine, Ground Figures, and Power Mountains: Investigations at Sears Point, Arizona. In Earth and Sky, edited by Ray A. Williamson and Claire R. Farrer, pp. 131–162. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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    2 Responses to “Summer Solstice Sites in Southwestern Arizona”

    1. Bruce Holloway Says:

      Very interesting well told story. I have visited hundreds of rock art sites in Nevada, Arizona, California and Utah. I have seen several solstice sites but was skeptical until I happened upon a site in Lincoln, Co, NV called White River Narrows. I was a site at White rivers for several years. It was 6/21/2009 at about 9am. There is a line of dots across a large boulder which has a pointed rock at it’s top as the sun passed over the pointed rock a shadow appeared and travelled along the dots until it disappeared at 11:37am. There was also a V shaped pecked design among the dots the shadow never quite reached the design before it disappeared. That could be because of the change in the sun’s declination you mention above. That same trip we discovered a new rock ring, at least new to us, nearby perhaps it was associated wit the solstice site.
      I’m now sold that solstice do exist.
      Bruce Holloway

    2. Michael Rumbin Says:

      Looking for a solstice site to observe here in the Phoenix area. Only know of the pueblo in the Painted Desert. Any recommendations/ events??

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